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THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM : ‘The Best Collector of Our Time’

Times Art Writer

The Norton Simon Museum is something of a miracle, art experts say, because Simon built his collection long after most acknowledged masterpieces had been safely entrenched in older museums. His is generally recognized as the best repository of European paintings west of Chicago.

The now-retired industrialist emerged as a major collector around 1964 when he purchased the entire inventory of legendary dealers, the Duveen Brothers of New York. Simon subsequently enhanced that cache with dozens of headline-making purchases at auction and quietly picked up other artworks in private deals.

By 1974, when he took over the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, he was an internationally revered collector. He now owns about 10,000 works of art, about 1,000 of which are on view in Pasadena.

Paintings, Asian Sculptures

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“Norton Simon is the best collector of our time,” John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said Thursday. The fact that anyone since World War II has been able to compile such a superior group of paintings and Asian sculpture is “astounding,” Walsh said, adding: “It’s important to remember that he didn’t inherit his collection.”

The Simon museum “is a great memorial, absolutely superb,” said J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery in Washington. “The art is brilliantly chosen. He did the whole thing with great flair.”

Walsh attributes Simon’s success to “a wonderful eye, good instincts, a lot of courage and vision in the art market.”

“It helped that he has focused on a few areas,” Walsh said, and “bought clusters of works” by artists he likes, such as Degas, Goya, Rembrandt and Picasso. That selectivity and his fortune allowed Simon to “go after very great pictures and not blink. But . . . he also collected, in the byways, artists not yet recognized,” Walsh said.

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Museum directors and curators agree that Simon has routinely sought the best advice but made his own decisions about acquiring artworks. “He took a connoisseur’s approach, much like a museum would,” said Earl A. Powell, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Rembrandt, Raphael, Renoir

Among the best-loved masterpieces in the Simon museum are Rembrandt’s portrait of his son, Titus; Raphael’s Renaissance painting, “Madonna and Child With Book,” and Renoir’s classic Impressionist landscape, “Le Pont des Arts, Paris.”

Along with such major names, Simon has sought out the undervalued and the unknown. Francisco de Zurbaran, a 17th-Century Spanish realist, was largely known only to specialists before Simon bought “Still Life: Lemons, Oranges and a Rose,” a dramatic work that has become a favorite at the museum.

Dieric Bouts, a 15th-Century Flemish primitive, rose to sudden fame in Southern California in 1984 when Simon brought Bouts’ “Resurrection of Christ” to Pasadena.

No accurate appraisal of the Simon collection is available. Estimates in the press about a year ago valued the collection at $750 million, but that figure seems far too low. Although auction prices are not a reliable measure of value, recent sales suggest that a mere dozen works in Simon’s collection might total more than $750 million.

For example, the museum owns seven paintings by Vincent van Gogh, whose auction record in 1987 soared to $53.9 million. Picasso’s work has sold for as much as $38.5 million at auction. Simon has five paintings by the Spanish modernist.

A bronze cast of Edgar Degas’ “Little 14-Year-Old Dancer,” like the one in Simon’s collection, sold at auction in New York last November for $10.78 million. In addition to the winsome ballerina (complete with a real gauze tutu and satin hair ribbon), Simon owns 70 smaller Degas bronzes--only two pieces short of the French Impressionist’s entire output of sculpture.

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Shrewd in Business

Art experts say that Simon is as shrewd in buying art as he has been in his business dealings. “He buys low and sells dear, something we all try to do,” Brown said.

But Simon has often been in the news for paying big prices at auction: $2.3 million for Rembrandt’s “Titus,” in 1965; $3 million for Raphael’s “Madonna,” in 1972; $4.2 million for Bouts’ “Resurrection of Christ” and $1.9 million for Picasso’s “Woman With Mandolin,” both in 1984.

Simon has also sold large numbers of works at auction over the years. For example, he dispensed with 47 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in 1979 for a total of $6.7 million, a record at the time for any painting auction.


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