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The forgotten collectors: Five significant 19th-century collectors

The contributions of tobacco heiresses and banking magnates explored

For every Henry Clay Frick or Albert Barnes, there are dozens of art collectors who have been forgotten by history. “It is astonishing how many tremendously important collectors are forgotten, even if they were donors to museums,” says Inge Reist, the director of the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Collection in New York. Art historians, to say nothing of the general public, rarely remember collectors whose holdings were sold or dispersed. Here are five lesser-known tastemakers and the fate of their collections.

Catherine Lorillard Wolfe (1828-87)

The tobacco heiress was one of the most prolific American collectors of contemporary painting during the mid-19th century. Crowds flocked to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see the works she donated by Rosa Bonheur, Ludwig Knaus and Jules Breton. Wolfe’s most enduring contribution to the museum was a gift of $200,000 to establish its first acquisition fund. She financed some of the museum’s most famous purchases, including Death of Socrates, 1787, by Jacques-Louis David.

Arthur Jerome Eddy (1859-1920)

The Chicago-based lawyer was an early collector of Modernist art. His interest in German and Russian Expressionism distinguished him from other US collectors who focused almost exclusively on French Modernism. In 1914, he published Cubists and Post-Impressionism, the first American book to examine the work of Wassily Kandinsky. After Eddy’s death, his son donated 23 works from the collection, including portraits by Auguste Rodin and James Whistler, to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sir Francis Cook (1817-1901)

The British merchant and first Viscount of Monserrate accrued a collection of 510 sculptures and Old Master paintings from all over Europe, including Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618, by Diego Velázquez, and The Way to Calvary, 1527, by Albrecht Dürer. Cook’s grandson sold much of the collection after the Second World War and many of the works are now owned by US museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Robert Stayner Holford (1808-92)

The landowner and MP for East Gloucestershire was described by the English writer A.N.L. Munby as “a collector with an eye for quality and the means to indulge it without stint”. A connoisseur of etchings by Rembrandt, illuminated manuscripts and tapestries, Holford displayed his collection at Dorchester House. By 1854, he owned more than 100 Old Master paintings, including major works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Most have been dispersed among museums and private collections in the US, Canada and Europe.

Robert Benson (1850-1929)

The banking magnate spent 30 years assembling a collection of more than 100 Italian pictures, including works by Giovanni Bellini and Carlo Crivelli. The legendary dealer Joseph Duveen bought the entire cache in 1927 for $4m. The most famous of Benson’s holdings—four panels painted by Duccio for Siena Cathedral, around 1310—are now in four museum collections: the Frick Collection in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation Collection in Madrid and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.