Contemporary Art

A Billionaire Businessman Raises the Bar in Collecting and Philanthropy

By Anthony Calnek

Modern and Contemporary Masterworks from the Collection of Morton and Barbara Mandel Come to Sotheby’s this May.

For many decades, Morton Mandel, a self-made billionaire and philanthropist, has started the day by eating breakfast in his art-filled Palm Beach home while gazing at a large Roy Lichtenstein painting called Woman IV. Painted in 1982, the Lichtenstein is endlessly fascinating: an abstract array of red, black, blue and yellow depictions of brushstrokes with a woman’s features visible at the top, it pays clever homage to Willem de Kooning’s seminal Woman series, a touchstone of Abstract Expressionism. Nearby, a sensational de Kooning abstraction from 1980 hangs in subtle dialogue; it is a bravura example of the New York School painter’s lyrical yet muscular brushwork – exactly the kind of art that Lichtenstein playfully challenged with his inimitable Pop style.


These are just two of the major paintings and sculptures that Mandel and his wife, Barbara, have acquired since 1975, the year the Cleveland natives bought an apartment in New York and decided to make art a central part of their lives. Since then, they have amassed a collection by artists who challenged the conventions of their day but ultimately became the giants of 20th-century art: among them, Pablo Picasso, David Smith, Joan Miró, Jean Dubuffet, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Lichtenstein and de Kooning.


Highlights of the collection include two very different paintings from 1969: a perfectly proportioned Mark Rothko in orange and white, and an impressively scaled Miró that layers the Spaniard’s signature Surrealist motifs over an abstract background reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. The Miró, in turn, pairs beautifully with a large Lichtenstein from 1976 of a girl in a Surrealist-inspired landscape. The Mandels had a particular affinity for sculpture, and among their prized acquisitions are a spectacular Donald Judd 10-part stack and a painted steel David Smith.


Now the couple is parting with 26 masterworks from their collection, the proceeds from which will go entirely to a non-profit family foundation. To be auctioned at Sotheby’s in May, the collection is estimated to bring in excess of $75 million, which will help the Mandel Foundation achieve its mission “to contribute to the flourishing of the United States and Israel as just, inclusive and compassionate societies, and to improve the quality of life in both countries.” From its headquarters in Cleveland, the foundation supports leadership training, management excellence in the non-profit sector, the humanities, urban renewal and Jewish life.

We were one level above poverty during the Great Depression, but we never used the word ‘poor.’
–Morton Mandel

Morton Mandel started the foundation in 1953 with his two elder brothers, Jack and Joseph. Looking back, the launch of the Mandel Foundation marked a definitive break from the past – the family had now made it. The Mandel brothers lived the classic American success story, rising from poverty to wealth in just a few decades.

“We were one level above poverty during the Great Depression,” Mandel recalls. “But we never used the word ‘poor.’

In 1940, the three brothers started a business selling auto parts. After World War II, it was doing well enough that they could contemplate donating some of their profits to charitable causes they believed in. Mandel began serving on the boards of charitable organizations. The scale of his philanthropy increased exponentially in the 1960s, when their company, then known as Premier Industrial Corporation, went public, and the brothers each became millionaires. “Most of our wealth has gone into our foundation to help make the world a better place,” Mandel acknowledges. “I am who my parents were,” he says. “Giving is just what I do.”


When he was 91, Morton Mandel published a book in which he laid out his philosophy about the importance of leadership, sharing his experiences, building his company, and his foundation (“It’s All About Who…”; Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2013). It is both a fascinating memoir and a how-to guide for managers, with specific practical advice about the most important job of a CEO: which Mandel considers to be hiring and developing a talented team.

We never bought art because it was a ‘good’ investment.
–Morton Mandel

As Masterworks from the Morton and Barbara Mandel Collection comes to auction, it is natural then to ask how Morton’s experience as a businessman influenced his collecting. After all, the value of the collection has increased exponentially over the decades.

“We never bought art because it was a ‘good’ investment,” Mandel quickly responds. The couple followed a simple rule in acquiring art: they had to agree on each purchase. “When we didn’t both agree on a piece, we didn’t buy it.” He adds, “We bought art to enhance the quality of our lives, and it has definitely done so.”

Nonetheless, a reader of It’s All About Who . . . can pick up a few valuable tips that are as applicable to collecting as they are to business. One gem: “If you buy something of value, such as a painting by an established artist, it’s okay to overpay a little if what you might get out of it is a lot. It can be much more painful to let it get away from you” (page 97).

The main point of the book is to emphasize the importance of hiring the right people for the job. When Mandel was looking for guidance in forming a collection, he followed his own advice. The couple started by visiting the New York galleries, and met with dealers recommended to them. “We visited several first-class dealers, just to get a feeling about them,” Mandel recounts. “Our most important question was, Could we trust them?”


Just as he counsels in his book, Mandel took his time. Two dealers stood out: Leo Castelli, whose legendary gallery at 420 West Broadway showcased the many important artists he had brought to fame, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein; and Arne Glimcher, whose Pace Gallery was on the rise to become an art world powerhouse. The couple would end up doing most of their business with Glimcher, who was extremely helpful to them, and Castelli’s counsel proved to be pivotal. “Castelli took a shine to Barbara,” says Mandel. “He presented us with a list of 15 artists and said, simply, ‘I would only buy these names.’ ” And that is what they did. “We didn’t buy everyone on the list, but we have about ten of them.”

One time Barbara noticed an Andy Warhol flower painting in Castelli’s personal office and asked to buy it. He declined, but after about six months of persistence he finally relented. The painting would always be one of Barbara’s favorites.


In 2000, the couple decided it was time to stop buying. Their Palm Beach home is where they lived with their most prized pieces. Now, as the thought of living without these 26 works sinks in, Mandel admits, “We don’t feel good about this. It’s not exactly like selling your kids, but . . . ” At 96, he is a remarkably fit and active man, while Barbara plays a leading role with several major non-profits. They will have many years to look forward to living with the rest of their collection, and have made the decision to sell some now. 

“I came to feel that we are the caretakers of the art we own,” says Mandel, and that “it was time for us to start moving some of our art into other hands.”


In the weekend before art handlers came to crate the art, the Mandels brought in photographers and a videographer to make a record of the art in place that had provided the backdrop for so many years of breakfasts and much more. “Buying and living with art has been a labour of love for us,” he says.

Now some of that art will find new homes. And even though the Mandels did not assemble their collection with the expectation that it would yield tens of millions of dollars for their foundation, that is precisely what has happened. To paraphrase Leo Castelli by way of Morton Mandel, it’s all about who you buy.

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