Catalystic collecting

This Festschrift for Peter Hecht illuminates the transformative powers of museum acquisitions

What an opportunity! Collecting for the Public comprises 34 short essays by academics, scholars, curators and museum directors on how a particular work of art or collection entered the public domain and why this was important. The book is a Festschrift in honour of Peter Hecht, an impassioned and inspirational scholar, who in a neat conceit is himself the object to be collected in the ultimate essay contributed by Neil MacGregor, himself no stranger to the processes of acquisition as director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002, and then director of the British Museum until 2015.

The reader is thus introduced to a varied menu of public museums, both famous and obscure, in a geographical spectrum ranging from the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, through relatively small Dutch museums in Deventer and Leiden, and the Fondation Custodia in Paris, to the Museo del Prado, Madrid. The underlying argument is a fervent emphasis on the permanent collection’s importance for learning, education, community cohesion and the embodiment of history. While temporary exhibitions are newsworthy, the permanent collection is of lasting importance. 

Examples abound. The American billionaire and philanthropist Paul Mellon’s passion for art is the difference that made the NGA outstanding. Mellon is quoted as saying about Cézanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat (1888-90), for which he had paid £220,000 in 1958: “You stand in front of a picture like that, and what is money?” After 35 years in Mellon’s private collection, that Cézanne anchors the outstanding group by the same artist; it is described as Mellon’s greatest acquisition and therefore his greatest single gift to the gallery. This “seachange” essay describes the effect of the NGA’s purchase at auction of Backhuysen’s Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast (1667): this rousing marine painting amplified the gallery’s Dutch holdings beyond portraiture, myth and Biblical scene and was the catalyst for further expansion. 

The story is told of America’s first Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (around 1662), bought in Paris in 1887 by a significant but now largely forgotten American collector, HG Marquand, a banker and railway magnate. He had, on retirement, set out to expand and enhance the nascent collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “I care not to buy commonplace good things—it is more desirable to go slowly and acquire the best.” 

In Basel, the tortuous negotiations to acquire work labelled “degenerate” was led during the Second World War by Georg Schmidt, a critic turned director from 1939 of the Kunstmuseum. Things were acquired at bargain basement prices. In a morally complex and at times savage and distasteful arena, Basel took advantage, but also flaunted examples of the art that the Nazis condemned in an act of subtle defiance: the art was rescued. 

The controversial 1960 sale of a collection of outstanding work by Paul Klee through the Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler to the German state of North Rhine Westphalia was the impetus for the foundation of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. The state premier, Franz Meyers, called the purchase “one of my few political decisions that will outlive me”. 

Here every work of art does tell a story beyond itself, and each is worth recounting, telling us not just about the works, but also of the collections they inhabit. 

Marina Vaizey was the art critic of the Financial Times and subsequently the Sunday Times. She currently writes for

Collecting for the Public: Works that Made a Difference

Bart Cornelis, Ger Luijten, Louis van Tilborgh and Tim Zeedijk, eds; Michael Hoyle, translator

Paul Holberton Publishing, 240pp, £30, €40, $45 (hb)