Books: The amazing and flamboyant career of the US collector Norton Simon

Collecting outside of the box


Anyone who visits the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena cannot help but come away with a renewed sense that Norton Simon was one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century. This conclusion is, however, shared with a sense that the model of understated resolution and serenity in the adagio sequences of galleries at Pasadena are the product of much personal drama, highly fraught movements of pieces on a chess board, beleaguered scholars, institutional sparring and some of the highest stakes the art market has ever seen. It was a game that played out for nearly 40 years, or, to be precise, from 1954 until 1989, the dates of his first and last purchases. For those interested in the back story—and who isn’t, given the calibre of the collection, as well as the fame of Simon’s flamboyant energy with which he made (and unmade) the collection—it is all documented here with an attention to detail and candour that makes for a satisfying compendium of facts and opinion, done by the right person at the right time.

Since Simon’s death in 1993 and the stabilisation of the collection at Pasadena where it moved in 1974, there has been no shortage of publications addressing the collection, all published by Yale University Press: there’s a well-informed handbook of the museum done by the staff in 2003; five full-dress catalogues that appeared over the past decade—three volumes devoted to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asian works, written by Pratapaditya Pal in 2003-04; two more, equally exemplary in their depth of research, on 19th-century art by Richard Brettell and Stephan Eisenman in 2006, and the other devoted exclusively to Degas by Richard Kendall, Daphne Barbour and Shelly Struman in 2009. All five have been supervised by Sara Campbell, who was also a contributing author to the Degas volume.

Now Campbell has her own volume, Collector Without Walls (in the same format of the other Yale books), to tell a still more complete story of Simon and his collection. It’s the product of a life’s work. Campbell began work with Simon in 1969 as the curator in charge of travelling exhibitions drawn from the collection—a project entitled the “museum without walls”—which supplies the allusion in her own title, as well as a nod to Simon’s conviction about the rightness of André Malraux’s notions. She continues as the senior curator of the collection. As is quickly evident, she has a firm grip on the immense archives in her charge as well as a personal knowledge of nearly all the key players. Simon had a vast network of people he turned to for advice and the telephone (night or day) was his principal means of communication, which led to a great spectrum of information.

The organisation of the book is in two sections: one in prose, tracing year by year the works bought and sold and the circumstances, with all the players named and characterised (and often quoted). This makes for very good reading with several hair-raising encounters. There is the well known time in London at Christie’s in 1965 when his maniacally complex bidding systems failed, forcing him to reopen bidding so that he could buy Rembrandt’s Titus, around 1655, (Stavros Niarchos was his competition). Or a less well known incident of his swashbuckling bravura in 1970 when a group of scholars—including luminaries such as Sir John Pope-Hennessy; Michael Jaffe; Sir Ellis Waterhouse; George Hamilton and John Rewald gathered by John Walker, then the recently retired director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—gathered to prepare the catalogues of works from the Simon collection to be shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, were dismissed with a single gesture.

Such tales of near hubris are tempered by no less high-pitched acts of willfulness in the positive, such as the dogged pursuit of works he wanted. He sometimes said his favourite work was the beautiful Cézanne Tulips in a Vase, 1888-90, which he first purchased in 1962, only to sell it in 1973 (in part when he learned it was paper mounted on canvas), but had second thoughts and bought it again. Many of the centrepieces that remain in the collection were long in the coming, although none, perhaps, went through a more convoluted process than the grand Guercino, Aldrovandi Dog, 1626, which took eight years to finally land after several false starts.

Campbell is very steady in her explanation of these comings and goings, not shy of stating her regret at the loss of many things that would have enhanced the collection. After attempting to find some pattern, she concludes that his motivation was simply financial, since in nearly all cases he made a profit and thereby confirmed the rightness of his judgments. All this in a context of wild barometric variants in activity, for instance, a burst of selling in the early 1970s was countered with a burst of buying activity that started in 1972.

All this is supported by charts illustrating his annual expenditures, the number of acquisitions per year, the largest amounts spent on what, works fetching more than a million dollars (and when), his most favoured dealers and auction houses, and his most favoured artists.

The second part of the book is a 220-page catalogue of the 1,959 works acquired by Simon in chronological order by purchase date, including the important group of Indian and Southeast Asian sculptures that attracted his attention starting in the early 1970s, plus the 227 paintings and objects he bought en bloc when he acquired the Duveen Collection. What may seem a passive inventory for the record is in fact a marvellous alignment of illustrated information that allows one to track the sea changes of his taste and financial urgencies better than any other history of collectors I can think of.

Joseph Rishel is Samuel H. Kress Professor, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting Before 1900, the John G. Johnson Collection, and the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art

o Sara Campbell, Collector without Walls: Norton Simon and His Hunt for the Best, Yale University Press, 480 pp, £50, $65 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Collecting outside of the box'