8th August 2019 About Art & Discussion

The World's Most Famous Art Collections and their Owners

Rockefeller Art Collection Christies

Much of the art contained within museums today we owe to history's renowned art collectors. In fact, pioneering collectors have often gone as far as shaping the history of art itself. We take a closer look at histories most renowned collectors and the collections which made them so important.

By Daniel Lee-Jacobs | 5 minute read

Peggy Guggenheim

A self-proclaimed art addict and a pioneer of art collecting, Peggy Guggenheim brought together one of the most important collections of 20th century artwork from artists across Europe and America. The collection combines Abstract Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism and includes works from the likes of Picasso, Dali and Pollock.

Born into a wealthy family, daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, Peggy inherited her fortune aged just 21. Between 1938 and 1946, the American heiress and socialite utilised her inheritance in the building and expansion of her art collection, opening her first contemporary art gallery in London in 1938.

Jackson Pollock, 'Mural', 1943, commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim. Artsy

Through her personal and sometimes intimate approach, Guggenheim actively encouraged the development of emerging artists. One artist who she heavily invested in was Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock. In 1943 she offered the then carpenter, his first solo show in her New York gallery and commissioned a 'Mural' for her personal residence.

Peggy Guggenheim surrounded by art at her Venice home in 1961. The Independent

After living most of her life in America, Guggenheim relocated, along with her collection to Europe in 1946, settling in Venice in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace.

Prior to her death in 1979, the collection was passed on to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and her home turned into a year-round museum. Today, according to Artnet the Venice museum attracts over 400,000 visitors a year who enjoy viewing the collection which includes work from the likes of Léger, Braque, Dali, Brancusi, Ernst, Magritte, Calder and Mondrian.

Charles Saatchi

Charles Saatchi is undoubtedly one of the best known art collectors in the world and the founder of The Saatchi Gallery in Kensington, London. The Iraqi-British Jewish businessman was also co-founder of what was once the largest advertising company in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi.

From an early age he had a great love for art. At just 26 he bought his first artwork by American artist Sol LeWitt, and became a patron for the Lisson Gallery in London, which specialised in American Minimalist works.

Exhibition 'Sensation' at Saatchi Gallery featuring Young British Artists (YBA). Saatchi Gallery

In the early 1980's, Saatchi began to create the vision that is Saatchi Gallery, buying a warehouse on Boundary Road in St. Johns Wood, the gallery opened in 1985 and exhibited the artwork Saatchi had personally collected to date. According to the Art Newspaper, The Saatchi Gallery is now one of the most visited art museums in the world.

By the 1990's his tastes shifted from American Abstract and Minimalism to the Young British Artists (YBA's) buying Damien Hirst's first major 'animal' installation 'A thousand years'. Throughout the years he bought more from Hirst and other YBAs such as Tracy Emin and Marc Quinn, and became highly influential in promoting and sharing their work.

Tracey Emin in front of her notorious My Bed piece for the YBA exhibition.

However, he has attracted criticism for being a cut-throat business man, interested in financial gain, over the career of the artist. Damien Hirst believed controlling the market with money was Saatchi’s main aim. “I think he recognises [art] with his wallet. He’s addicted to shopping”, Hirst said in a 2001 interview with The Guardian.

Indeed at student shows where Saatchi went searching for the next big name, he frequently offered less than half of the artists’ suggested prices, according to reports. He made millions on the YBA works, auctioning My Bed for £2.5m (after having bought it for £150,000), selling Hirst’s preserved shark for £5.3m (he paid £50,000), shifting Mark Quinn’s Self for £1.5m (up from a reported £13,000) and raking in £6m for a piece by Peter Doig. All this suggests he knew how to play the market – that his interest in art went beyond a mere collector’s fanaticism.

However, over the years Saatchi has become one of the most influential 'arbiters of taste' in the art world and many follow his movements and purchases as an indicator of future success for artists.

Peggy and David Rockefeller

It could be said that David Rockefeller was destined to be involved in the art of collecting for his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller helped found the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The family remained in close contact with the institution and when the young David and Peggy began collecting they were mentored by MoMA's first director, Alfred Barr.

Growing up, the family were incredibly wealthy thanks to Rockefeller's grandfather (Standard Oil founder), but Rockefeller went on to become a billionaire in his own right running Chase National Bank. A philanthropist, he donated $150 million to MoMa and invested a large proportion of their fortune in building their own collection which came to comprise over 1500 objects.

Henri Matisse's 'Odalisque Couchee aux magnolias' in the living room of the Rockefellers' Hudson Pines residence. Tatler

After the death of the couple in 2017, their children decided to carry out the wishes of their parents - selling the entire collection with all proceeds being directed to a dozen philanthropies Peggy and David Rockefeller supported during their lifetimes. Benefitting continuing scientific research, higher education, support for the arts, sustainable economic development, and land conservation initiatives, among others.

The collection, which went up for auction with Christie's in 2018, broke 22 world records, including highest auction value ever for a private collection, at an astonishing $832.6 million.

The top prices reached included Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, which realised $115,000,000 and Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur, which sold for a record $84,687,500.

The diverse collection included an array of works ranging from Impressionist to Postmodern - including paintings, sculpture, furniture and ceramic, combining artworks which had been collected over a lifetime as well as being handed down through generations.

Claude Monet's 'Nymphéas en fleur' sold for $84,687,500. ARTNEWS

The Cone Sisters

During the early 20th century sisters and socialites of Baltimore, Dr Claribel and Etta Cone began to piece together one of the worlds most significant modern French art collections.

Despite being of somewhat modest wealth by todays standards (their family running a successful grocery and textile business), the Cone sisters used their circles of influence and contacts to collect what became a 3000 piece collection.

500 of the works were by Matisse, including the famous Blue Nude (1907) and Large Reclining Nude (1935). After meeting Matisse in 1906 the pair developed a strong patronage and friendship with the artist, who referred to them as "my two Baltimore ladies".

Henri Matisse, 'Large Reclining Nude' (1935) Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. Artnet

Alongside Matisse, they also became friendly with and collected the works of artists such as Picasso, Gaugin, Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Both sisters remained unmarried throughout their lives, living in adjacent flats in Baltimore allowing them to focus on the building of their collection. While they tried to agree on every purchase together, Claribel favoured the more traditional artwork such as early works of Matisse and Picasso, whilst Eta took more of an interest in avant-garde work.

The front room of Claribel Cone's apartment, Baltimore, Maryland, 194. The Globe and Mail

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel

Our final collection defies all stereotypes associated with 'art collectors', but is nevertheless an important one. It tells the story of the astonishing couple, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel who have been dubbed 'America's least wealthy art collectors'.

Working as a mail clerk and a librarian in New York City, this seemingly normal couple spent their meagre earnings collecting art from many small and unknown artists. By the time of their retirement they had amassed an incredible 4,782 artworks.

Comprised mostly of minimal and conceptual artworks it is now recognised as one of the most important post 1960's art collections in the United States and is valued at many millions of dollars.

A young Herbert and Dorothy Vogal at a Manhattan Gallery in 1992. The New York Times

So how did they do it? It is fair to say the couple lived frugally, having no children and just a few pets. They lived off Dorothy's income, choosing to not eat out at restaurants or go on holiday, and instead using Herberts income, which was around $23,000 annually, to purchase artworks.

Often befriending many of the artists they bought from, they never purchased for investment, choosing only pieces they personally liked and could carry home on the subway or in a taxi. Often paying in instalments or in exchange for favours (the artist Christo offered them a collage in exchange for cat sitting) they managed to acquire work from influential artists such as Sol LeWitt and Richard Tuttle.

"Americas least wealthy Art Collectors" Herbert and Dorothy in their one bedroom Manhattan apartment where they kept 2,400 pieces of art. The Times of Isreal

Their huge collection was stored in their one bedroom, rent-controlled Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, with some pieces displayed but the rest stowed away in closets and under their bed.

Their collection eventually came to include work from artists such as pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, photographers Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson and minimalist Robert Mangold.

In 1992, they donated their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art.