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The SuperCollectors and Their Impact on Culture and Society

viewing the medici collection in florence at the Uffizi Gallery

Art collecting has been a passion for many throughout history, with some collectors leaving indelible marks on the world of art. This essay explores the lives and contributions of several such super art collectors.

The Medici Dynasty of 15th-century farmers turned golden rulers of Florence commissioned works by Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo. Lorenzo Medici, a friend of Machiavelli, was the most extravagant spender among them. The Medici collection, consisting of approximately 4,800 objects, was bequeathed to the city of Florence in 1743 and is exhibited at the Uffizi Palace to this day.

Francois I, the first owner of the iconic Mona Lisa, hung it in the bathroom at Fontainebleau. His private quarters, filled with numerous paintings, were eventually converted into a semi-public art gallery, marking the birth of the Louvre’s great collection.

Catherine the Great began her art collection in 1764, primarily by purchasing entire collections of others. She quickly acquired hundreds of important works by artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, and Van Dyck. Despite being a cold-hearted oppressor of serfs, Catherine died leaving a hoard of 10,000 drawings, 10,000 sculptures, and almost 3,000 paintings, making her the world’s most impressive 18th-century supercollector.

Dr. Albert C Barnes, a working-class educationalist from Philadelphia, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. His numerous excursions to Europe allowed him to amass a stunning collection of French impressionists, including 180 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, and works by Rousseau, Degas, Modigliani, and Monet. However, very few people were allowed to see this collection. One special note, former Associate Curator of the Henry Art Gallery at the University  of Washington, Thom Collins leads the Barnes Foundation as Executive Director.

Peggy Guggenheim, niece of Solomon R Guggenheim, specialized in cubism, Surrealism, and American abstract expressionism. Her collection is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice.  Guggenheim also championed the Northwest school artist, Mark Tobey .

John Paul Getty, an oil baron, paid $53.9 million for Van Gogh’s Irises in 1987 and endowed the Los Angeles arts center that bears his name. His son John has established a £50 million endowment to the National Gallery in London.

Queen Elizabeth II owned the biggest and most important private art collection in the world, consisting of over one-million objects. It includes the world’s most significant archive of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and paintings by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Holbein, and Bruegel.

The Microsoft billionaires, Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen, have also made significant contributions to the art world. Gates buys 19th-century American painters, while Allen collection was bigger, littered with old masters and impressionists.

Supercollectors, like the Medici Dynasty, Albert C. Barnes, and Peggy Guggenheimer, have left a lasting legacy that continues to inspire and educate. Their passion for art has not only enriched their lives but also significantly contributed to the world of art. Today, we still feel their influence when we visit places like Florence, Philadelphia, and Venice. The question arises - who are the Supercollectors of today? Who has the passion, vision, and chutzpah to champion the brilliant artists of our time, fostering a unique collection? In a world where travel is easy, and people yearn for experiences, these contemporary Supercollectors have the potential to find a niche where they can become the biggest evangelists for under-recognized artists, broadening horizons and potentially becoming the Medici’s of the 21st Century.


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