Marion Lambert: collector with a cause

The independent-minded philanthropist whose life was touched by tragedy

Last October, the art collector and philanthropist Baroness Marion Lambert put the finishing touches to a £15m auction that sadly would become her legacy. In the catalogue for the sale of a rich variety of 306 objects, she insisted on having her beloved dachshund, Taoud, on the printed list of lots. Her collecting, “an obsessive quest for everything that was beautiful”, took her from visits to galleries in London to hunts for figurines in Tibet. In her homes she mixed 18th-century heirlooms with contemporary art and 1940s and 50s furniture. The sale reflected a collecting style that was aesthetically refined, but always laced with a sense of humour.

Ely House sale Lavishly presented at Ely House and titled A Visual Odyssey, the sale reflected her eclectic passion for “the hunt”. From a beloved 1953 Fiat 500 Topolino to a Louis XV ebony bureau, it included two artists that showed how she collected “with her heart”. There were works by the painter Christopher Wool—“bought 20 years ago when he was a nobody”, said the art dealer and TV presenter Gordon Watson, who interviewed Lambert about the sale for his BBC programme, The Extraordinary Collector—and Rudolf Stingel, again purchased astutely, when he was well below the radar. “She lived her art, her jewellery, her clothes,” Watson said. She herself described collecting as “a way of coming to terms with life”.

Lambert had embarked on what her long-time friend Countess Maya Von Schoenburg called an “attic sale” of her collection many months before the event. Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of post-war and contemporary art, worked on the auction, in which Simon de Pury, Lambert’s long-time friend and dealer, also played a key role. “In my 17 years in the business I have never worked with a collector so passionate,” Outred said. “She was in control from start to finish.”

Lambert chose the celebrated designer Jacques Grange to transform the Ely House showing of A Visual Odyssey. Her involvement extended from noisily changing the hanging to overseeing some 30 short films made about the works along with frequent visits to her warehouse in Willesden, London. She chose the guest list, the menu and wine for the dinner party—and even hoovered the reception area beforehand. In the six months leading up to the auction, she and Outred exchanged 580 emails.

She died on 28 May, aged 73, four days after being knocked down by a double-decker bus in London. She was the widow of the art collector and scion of the Belgian banking family, Baron Philippe Lambert, who died in 2011.

Beginnings at the bank Originally from Holland, Lambert was born Marion de Vries in 1943, and, with an early interest in photography, first began collecting for the Bank Brussels Lambert office in Geneva. She showed then, and later, a clever and idiosyncratic eye. Her favourites included Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Prince, but several purchases were considered too shocking to hang in the bank’s collection. They included Larry Clark’s 1971 Tulsa, a print series of gun-toting naked teenagers. She began touring the work as an exhibition, Veronica’s Revenge, named for the patron saint of photographers.

It led to her first major auction, which raised her stature in the art world. Partly in response to her daughter’s tragic death, in 2004 she decided to sell her entire photography collection in New York. The auction was seen as a market turning point, when works by Barbara Kruger, Sherman and Charles Ray brought fierce competition from bidders, and netted $9.2m in all, against an expected $6m. It brought her a new respect as one of the leading early collectors of photography.

“She was still buying while she was selling,” Outred said. “Her great drive was that she would collect for the love of the object and the art, and was very disillusioned by what the art world had become.” A favourite work was by the Italian painter Pierpaolo Campanini, which disappointingly sold for modest prices. “She really wanted to make him much more appreciated than he already was,” Outred said.

Touched by tragedy Lambert’s later life was shaped by tragedy. Her daughter, Philippine, committed suicide aged 20, in 1997, after accusing a family friend of grooming and sexually abusing her. Lambert pursued him for years. After the alleged perpetrator escaped prosecution in Switzerland, she tried to round up friends to picket his London house. Later she would raise millions of pounds for the children’s charity the NSPCC.

The art world has lost one of its most colourful collectors. One question that remains is the extent of her collection, still housed in her homes in Geneva and elsewhere. “She was a person of extraordinary taste and great passion for the arts and commitment to young artists,” De Pury told The Times newspaper. “She had a great eye and also a great interest in philanthropy and spending time on causes that were dear to her.”