I first met Hester Diamond in 1991 when I was a Guest Scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum, then in Malibu. In her typical fashion, Hester called me out of the blue one day at my office, said she was in L.A. visiting her son Michael, the Beastie Boy, and would love to meet me. In particular, she hoped I would accompany her on a visit to the Getty old master paintings galleries, giving special attention to the northern Renaissance works. That was just the beginning of a long and treasured friendship.
Passionate about art, indefatigable, and insatiable about acquiring specialized knowledge, Hester repeatedly attended my Barnard course “Introduction to Connoisseurship”, taught in the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In generous reciprocal manner, she then offered my students each year a session at her apartment for a discussion about her collecting habits. The students, of course, were totally captivated by her tales, replete with adventures of the hunt for and acquisition of this or that object, and details of her many European travels when she clinched the deal. I have unforgettable memories of her in her later years at TEFAF each March, when she used a wheeled walker to get around. There she stood on pre-opening day at the starting line, seemingly revving up her engines – the route to her favorite dealers already preplanned.
Hester was one of the most decisive people I have ever met, and this was certainly true about her collecting habits. When a work caught her eye, not long after, it had a perfect place on the walls of her apartment. One of Hester’s greatest passions was to rehang her collection, no doubt exhausting her reliable and devoted art handlers. Once or twice a year, she enjoyed playing a kind of parlor game in which she invited over a few curator friends to rank the works in the apartment. Those that sank to the bottom of the list soon disappeared out the door, opening up space for newfound interests and treasures. Only once did Hester and I consider vying for the same painting at auction, Bernard van Orley’s Beheading of Saint John the Baptist that is the pendant to The Met’s Birth and Naming of Saint John. She immediately came up with the perfect solution: she would buy the painting but leave it to The Met as a promised gift. Now, thanks to Hester, these two panels have been reunited and hang together on the Met’s gallery walls. Hester’s philanthropy extended far beyond this to several departments of The Met where she regularly engaged curators and conservators in deep discussions about her passion for art and on many occasions generously supported key acquisitions.
“Once or twice a year, she enjoyed playing a kind of parlor game in which she invited over a few curator friends to rank the works in the apartment. Those that sank to the bottom of the list soon disappeared out the door, opening up space for newfound interests and treasures.”
It is perhaps a bittersweet moment now as Hester’s paintings and sculpture come to auction, but in a certain way her collection was always in flux. Each work tells its own tale that above all involves the reward of close looking. Such rewards for Hester were no more evident than when I was able to arrange a viewing session within the converted gallery of the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts where conservators were carrying out the restoration of the Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece. It was one of my greatest pleasures to watch Hester as she sat, less than a foot from the panels, totally engrossed in every detail. She told me afterwards that it had been the highlight of her life’s viewing experiences.
About the Author
Alvaro Saieh Curator of European Paintings
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY