• U.S.

Collections: A Jewel for the Mall

4 minute read

“I’m only a little Hebe who was brought up in the gutters of Brooklyn,” Millionaire Joseph Herman Hirshhorn, 66, likes to say in moments of wry self-depreciation. But every inch that the 5-ft. 4-in. dynamo lacks in physical stature, he has more than made up for in wealth: his fortune, based on Canadian uranium, has grown to upwards of $100 million. Nor is there any gainsaying his voracious appetite for art. “I buy art almost every day,” he says. “If I can’t decide which of an artist’s work, I buy them all.”

In 35 years of serving himself gargantuan portions, Hirshhorn has gathered some 5,600 works of art. They overflow his 24-room, 24-acre estate atop Round Hill in Greenwich, Conn., are crammed into the closets of his New York apartment, and accumulate in warehouses. His sculptures alone total 1,600, including 17 Rodins, 53 Henry Moores (the largest collection anywhere).

Up in Regent’s Park. In paintings, his collection is equally rich—and heavily weighted toward Americans. Thomas Eakins, for instance, is represented in a quantity surpassed only by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He has kept up with recent op and pop trends, owns 30 early and late works by Larry Rivers. His bet for future fame: Willem de Kooning, of whose works he owns 42. “If ever I have a museum,” he once vowed, “I’m going to have a De Kooning room.”

With such a wealth of art, a favorite guessing game on three continents has been: Who will get the collection? London’s Tate Gallery offered to build a museum in Regent’s Park to house it. Israel was willing to match all offers; so was Zurich, Switzerland. At home, Los Angeles wanted the collection for its new museum; Governor Nelson Rockefeller wanted it for New York State; the Baltimore museum offered to build a separate wing. Hirshhorn himself at various times was rumored to be alternately considering turning his Greenwich home into a museum or planning to build a complete new town in Canada, to be called Hirshhorn, and donating his whole collection to his namesake city.

Belonging to the People. In the end, even the White House became interested. A year ago, Lyndon Johnson invited Hirshhorn to lunch, suggested that he consider giving it to Washington. In August, Lady Bird and Lynda Bird made a two-hour visit to Hirshhorn’s Greenwich home and outdoor sculpture garden, returned with ecstatic reports. Finally, it was the call of country that won out. Said Hirshhorn: “This collection doesn’t belong to one man; it belongs to the people.” The news was too good to be kept quiet for long. Last week word of his decision leaked to the press; this week the President will make it official.

Plans for a building to house Hirshhorn’s art must await congressional action, but there is little chance that Congress will turn down such a princely gesture. Most likely spot will be an area adjacent to the National Gallery. Lady Bird is known to be specially taken with the idea of an outdoor sculpture garden that would extend across the three-block width of the Mall, be available to millions of tourists.

Name on the Portico. Hirshhorn, for his part, wants no doubt at all left as to why he made his decision: “I am an American. I was born in Latvia. My mother brought her ten children to this country and went to work in a pocketbook factory. The things I did in my life can only be done here.” But the grand gesture of anonymity is not his style. His name will be on the new museum. Says he: “I have no advisers. I go on my own. I’ve done this with love, heart, affection and a little money. This is my collection. This was bought by Hirshhorn.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com