After a light lunch in Central Park with old friends yesterday I tripped a few blocks south to the Frick Collection, a jaw-dropping collection of art that had hung on the walls of the home of 19th-century coal and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick at the corner of 70th Street and 5th Avenue, until he eventually turned over the collection – and the house with it – to the public.
Stepping inside the Frick is like visiting a private home, although no one I know, or know of, lives quite like this. Despite the presence of multiple works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Gainsborough, Whistler, Velasquez et al, the museum exudes intimacy and the collector’s pure delight in the act of collecting. Works of decorative art – porcelain vases, Chinese urns and centuries-old clocks – sit comfortably with sculptures and paintings, just as us mere mortals might try arranging our more modest objets d’art on available surfaces. I’m also yet to meet anyone with their own internal courtyard garden, complete with atrium (added to the house during its conversion to a museum).
Recent reports of the hedge-fund squillionaires, today’s robber-barons, snapping up available masterpieces and sending prices soaring, are troubling. It’s not just because the public museums and other art institutions cannot compete on price and are getting squeezed out of the market. Rather, I wonder what will happen to these privately held works over time. Could it be that the democratization of enormous wealth might lead, perversely, to the gradual decline in publicly available art?