I first met Hester during my senior year in college. She and my father, Ralph Kaminsky, had started to date after the death of Hester’s first husband, the well-known art dealer Harold Diamond. I was studying for a BA in art history at New York University, where my father was a professor and associate dean.
The first time I walked into Hester’s palatial Central Park West apartment, aged 22, it felt like Art History 101 come to life. Hanging on the walls of her elegant home were Cubist paintings by Picasso and Gris, a Severini with sequins, a New York Boogie Woogie Mondrian, a 1912 Kandinsky, several Legers, a Matisse, a Giacometti standing figure, and the fabled Bird in Space by Brancusi (now in the Seattle Art Museum), as well as a second work by the artist in stone, The Kiss - and this just to name a few. After Hester and my father married, and after decades of dinners, lunches, birthdays and holidays in that apartment, these works became part of my reality too, but I never took for granted the incredible gift it was to have them in my personal orbit. Hester, who was always open that she was not born into wealth, never became jaded by the privilege of ownership and truly loved each piece. One of her favorite activities was to rehang the entire collection, which she did with surprising regularity. With each reorganization, she would see the works afresh.
In 1983, I was hired by Christie’s to work in the Old Master Paintings department. Some years later I remember Hester saying with a grimace, “I can’t imagine how people live with Old Masters, they’re heavy, dark, and religious.” Of course she could appreciate the art from an intellectual and historical perspective, but she couldn’t imagine such images on her then stark white walls. Shortly before I became Department Head in 1989, Hester decided that she wanted to start collecting again. By this time the prices for modern art had gone up exponentially and she could no longer afford works of the quality on her walls but, more significantly, she wanted a new challenge and to see if she could create a new collection that equaled her current one. She had that true ‘collector gene’ and was intellectually curious until the day she died.
“... for many women, including me, her stepdaughter, she was a role model, a champion of smart women and a ‘fearless’ collector.”
After contemplating antiquities and a few other categories, Hester asked if I could make some professional introductions and we set off to London for the Old Master auctions and again to TEFAF, Maastricht, the art fair in the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter, she sold an important cubist Picasso and bought four Old Masters. This pattern continued, with the old and new art juxtaposed and in conversation throughout her apartment, until 2004 when all the modern art was gone and that chapter of her life ended. In its place rose an enviable collection of early Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance paintings, as well as Northern and Italian sculpture from the 15th to 18th centuries. In fact, they were precisely those works that once seemed so inconceivable to her. Over the years, as Hester’s taste and interests changed, individual artworks were edited out and new acquisitions filled the voids. This pattern continued until the last year of her life. She was never sentimental about the collection.
Ultimately, Hester became one of the most enthusiastic, inquisitive and well-respected collectors of Old Masters in America. She embraced not only the art but also the people and institutions within her new world. She took classes at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, engaged tutors to take her on European art tours, visited countless museums and galleries, and for many years was a well-known figure at TEFAF, zipping down the aisles with her signature blue walker, wanting (no, needing) to hit all her favorite dealers before a competitor got there. She befriended collectors, scholars, dealers and museum curators and directors around the world with the goal of learning as much as possible, and being that collector who got the first call when an exciting new piece came on the market. As her collection grew in size and prestige, she would welcome a young Ph.D. candidate or a museum patrons’ group to her apartment with equal grace.
In 2019, Hester observed, “Women in the art business started to make their mark in Modern and Contemporary. I was right on time for that. They are barely beginning to be recognized in the world of Old Masters. It’s about time!” After leaving Christie’s, I became a dealer, first at Otto Naumann, Ltd. in New York, later at Colnaghi in London, and ultimately as a private art dealer back in New York. Hester was always hugely supportive of my career; this was something she could relate to. As part of our shared experience, we would occasionally ponder why the field of Old Master paintings has so many prominent women academics, journalists, restorers and curators and yet so few female dealers and collectors. In this respect Hester was more than a collector with a good eye, she was also a trailblazer: first working with Harold to build from scratch their business and distinguished personal collection of modern art; later as a woman who singlehandedly built a renowned Old Master collection; and as the co-founder of two non-profits for the study Old Master paintings and sculpture, The Medici Archive Project and VISTAS. I don’t know how Hester perceived herself within the Old Master world, but for many women, including me, her stepdaughter, she was a role model, a champion of smart women, and a “fearless” collector.