By Claire Booth
This week, I happened upon another entry for my occasional feature People I Wish I’d Known. I love to read the obituaries, and every once in a while a person's personality or accomplishments come through so strongly that I wish I’d had the chance to meet them before they died.
This time, it wasn’t an obit but a story about Hester Diamond’s dazzling success as an art collector and an upcoming auction of some of her pieces. I somehow missed her actual obituary when it ran a year ago. It, and this week’s article in the New York Times, detailed her entry into modern art collection in the 1950s with her husband Harold, a fourth-grade teacher.
This is important. They didn’t come from money. The paintings they purchased were cheap because the artists weren’t well known. They just bought what they fell in love with. They especially liked the work of two friends—Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.
Hester and Harold gradually became art dealers. Hester then rolled that into a career in interior design with art as a focal point, at a time when it wasn’t easy for a woman to do. But when her husband died in 1982, she stopped with the modern art and began to trade in that collection for works by Old Masters. Renaissance paintings and sculpture replaced the twentieth century pieces that had dominated her life for so long.
She married twice more, kept collecting, and learned Italian so she could give presentations on behalf of the Medici Archive Project, which she co-founded in order to create a digital index of the Tuscany rulers’ paper records.
“She didn’t ever want to be stagnant,” her son said in the article, “and she didn’t want these paintings to be a stagnant thing — ‘I got that 40 years ago and it’s just there.’ She wanted to be surrounded by things she really had passion for, and really loved.”
Now, a confession: I clicked on the article in the first place because the son was a name I did recognize. If you’re a Gen Xer like me, it’s impossible not to have heard of Mike D, one of the Beastie Boys. Turns out, and I’m ashamed not to have known this, his mom was the real bad ass in the family.