In today’s global art market, where the collection is heavily publicized by an infrastructure of advisers, dealers, art fairs, and auction houses, it’s hard to imagine a student chance to meet a renowned artist and become a devoted friend and collector.
But in 1949, while studying comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, Herbert Lust found himself at a lunch, sitting next to the great surrealist artist Alberto Giacometti and out of his depth in the table bantering on the 22 year old student writers loved it. Then, at the height of the occasion, Mr. Lust fabricated a story about being a Romanian Jew and walking barefoot in the mountains to escape the Russians (he is, in fact, a Jew but grew up in a farm in Indiana). Interested, Mr. Giacometti invited Mr. Lust to his studio.
âI courted him; I came often, “said Mr Lust, now 93, who confessed to his” rooster and bull story. “He did not immediately like or understand the choppy, elongated figures in the sculptures and paintings of M. Giacometti, but knew enough to stay: âI am a good learner.â The aspiring avant-garde novelist began to buy small prints with his Fulbright money and accumulated many gifts of works of art. art by M. Giacometti, who introduced it to other artists, including Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst.
After Mr. Lust switched from teaching English to the University of Chicago to become an investment banker in 1957, he began to collect seriously, largely through his friendships with other artists.
This deeply personal and eclectic collection now numbers more than 1,000 works, housed in his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he lives with two of his 10 grandchildren, and in his pied-Ã -terre in Manhattan, where he recently gave a visitor a ride. He just donated more than 70 photographs from his collections to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, fulfilling a promise made years ago.
At his apartment, Mr. Lust pointed out works by Joel-Peter Witkin, Michal Rovner, Arakawa, Marie bauermeister and Alexander Calder, with whom he befriended before collecting their work. âAlberto introduced me to Calder and I met him with [Mark] Rothko on a boat returning from Paris in 1961, âsaid Mr Lust, who said he found himself entertaining their wives on the dance floor during the six-day trip. He then bought major parts from Mr. Calder, but let Mr. Rothko down because he found him depressing. âBig mistake,â he said, given the value of the abstract expressionist’s canvases today.
As he collected he also reoriented his love of literature, writing extensively on Mr. Giacometti, Hans Bellmer, Robert Indiana and Enrico Baj, among the many artists he collected in depth (he writes currently on abstract photographer Carlotta Corpron).
In 1973, Mr. Lust met Mr. Indiana, “another Hoosier”, at a dinner party, precipitating another deep friendship. Looking at a canvas painted with the word ‘FOUR’, one of 30 Indianas he owns, Mr. Lust said, ‘Indiana was trying to think of a word that would define him as a human’ and did could find that an unprintable four-letter word. This 1965 painting has become a sort of self-portrait in disguise.
Mr. Lust’s collections of Indiana paintings and drawings were on display in 2017 at Sotheby’s New York, which published the collector’s intimate take on the artist.
âHer account of Indiana is incredible,â said Alejandra Rossetti, senior vice president at Sotheby’s, who helped organize the exhibit. âPersonally, I don’t know of any other collector who has written catalogs of artists, which illustrates Herbert’s intellect and passion for art,â she said, referring to her works by full reference on M. Baj, in addition to the one on M. Giacometti. graphics that the auction house still uses to catalog their prints. Mr. Lust’s collection is particularly distinguished by the depth and breadth of its Surrealist collections, she said, adding that “Herbert has the largest collection of Bellmer in the world”.
Joseph Hirshhorn was another close friend of Mr Lust and a former neighbor of Greenwich, whose collection is the cornerstone of the Hirshhorn Museum. Shortly before his death in 1981, he asked Mr. Lust if he would contribute to the museum. âI think Joe is by far the greatest American collector,â said Mr. Lust, who immediately agreed and then forgot until recently.
Now keeping his word four decades later, Mr. Lust gave the Hirshhorn vintage black and white photographs of Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, EugÃ¨ne Atget and Eadweard Muybridge. The grouping includes prints of unsung women such as Ms. Corpron, Barbara Morgan, Dorothy Wilding and Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, and a cache of intimate portraits of Mr. Giacometti and his studio by Herbert Matter.
“For us it was a good game because the Hirshhorn doesn’t have a lot of photographs in the collection, and it helps us with historical material that is really not available today,” said the director of the museum, Melissa Chiu. Mr Lust said he intended to donate the lion’s share of his nearly 400 photographs to the museum in a second round, likely to include one or two of his treasured Bellmer’s. “I’m having a hard time parting with it,” he said, “but I will.”
âHerbert is a rare bird today in collecting circles,â Ms. Chiu said, noting that being a contemporary art collector decades ago was like being part of a very small community. âHe and Mr. Hirshhorn were risk takers.
She said she plans to exhibit the gift, the value of which she declined to estimate, over the next two years.
âWhen I first started collecting, there were 30 galleries in New York City,â Mr. Lust said. There are hundreds of them now, and he thinks it’s impossible to track them exhaustively. But he still does the tour and the occasional acquisition, including a drawing by Willem de Kooning recently. “When Herbert likes a show, I know I expect him every Saturday for the duration of the show,” said Max Teicher, dealer at Gagosian.
What has not changed in 50 years is the phenomenon of great art to be appreciated enormously in value, which Mr. Lust had the foresight to analyze in his 1969 book “A Dozen Principles for Art Investment”. âEveryone thought I was a traitor to my investment banking community because I said art was a much better investment than stocks,â he said, adding: âJ ‘was a thousand times more right than I had ever dreamed of. “
Ms Rossetti of Sotheby’s said the book “really foreshadowed what people are doing today using art as a financial instrument.”
The book’s 12 investing principles could basically boil down to buying the absolute best quality, according to the collector. Decades ago, he stretched out to acquire one of the first significant bronzes of a woman from Mr. Giacometti, what he called “my most precious possession”, for $ 89,000, paid in several installments. (A bronze by Giacometti from 1947 sold at Christie’s in 2015 for just over $ 141 million.)
âYou can glorify art by collecting anything you want; it’s just shopping, âLust said. âYou want to get what you pay for. If you bought 10 good works or a great work, the great work will turn out to be the much better investment.