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Monday, August 29, 2011

Art Fantasy

We all have fantasies about money. What would we do if we had a million dollars? I'd probably pay off all my credit cards and maybe hit McDonald's on the way back...that ought to just about do it. Okay, a billion dollars--walking around money for Bill Gates. Ah, now it gets more interesting. Of course there would be the new house...okay, houses, one for each of the four seasons, four different continents, but after that, after the new SUV's, after the new wardrobe, after the cruise around the world, then what? What thousands of nouveau-riche have discovered is that with increased wealth, the cost of living goes up too. The houses, the cars, the clothes, the vacations--you meet a better class of people--but doing so costs more. And after all that, you still have money to burn and not the time or opportunity to spend it. That's when you start collecting things--cars, jewelry, antiques, lawyers, pounds, headaches, and if your last name is Mellon--art.

Paul Mellon
(photo by Yosuf Karsh)
It runs in families. Florence had it's Medicis, England the royal family, Russia the Romanovs, and this country, three generations of Mellons. Andrew W. Mellon got rich in the 19th century in steel, oil, and banking. He collected so much art, when it came time to give it away, he had to throw in a building to house it all--The National Gallery of Art in Washington. His son, Paul, caught the bug too. When he died in 1999, he left his father's pet gallery over 100 works of art with names on the bottom like Vincent, Monet, and Homer. And just to make sure they were adequately framed, another $75 million on top of that--the biggest gift the museum ever got from a single donor. Sounds like a lot?! Well, yes, except that he left another 130 paintings to the Center for British Art at Yale University, plus the usual $75 million for various and sundry expenses. Even the little Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond got $10 million and another 50 paintings. When the lawyers got done adding it up, the total maxed out at around $450 million, not counting the paintings.

Still Life of Oranges and Lemons, with Blue Gloves,
1889, Vincent van Gogh
Of course it took him 91 years to put it all together. A veteran of WW II, Mellon was not your average, run-of-the-mill nouveau-riche playboy millionaire--not by a generation or two. He came from solid, eastern establishment, patrician stock...bonds too, no doubt. He left money and art to his children to continue the family hobby for a third generation. He left a rich widow with another $110 million and some paintings...actually, all the paintings until her death. Among them, van Gogh's Still Life of Oranges, and Lemons, with Blue Gloves (right) and Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, (below, one of van Gogh's last).  Mellon owned more Seurats than anyone on earth--13 in all. There were three Manets, ten by Pierre Bonnard, others by Cezanne, Braque, Delacroix, Renoir, Monet, and from this side of the pond, works by Winslow Homer, John Frederick Peto, and Raphaelle Peale. The Virginia Museum got a van Gogh (Daisies, Arles), a Gauguin, and a Toulouse-Lautrec among others.  Mellon was a great role model for all millionaires.  And that's what I would do if I was rich, buy lots of art then (eventually of course) give it all away.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, (June) 1889,
Vincent van Gogh

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