T hirteen years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was looking for a venue to host a lunch promoting its new exhibition “How Wine Became Modern.” Their thoughts turned to Maria Manetti, an Italian fashion entrepreneur and philanthropist who was not only interested in both wine and art, but who also lived in a beautiful Tuscan-styled villa in Napa Valley that would serve as a perfect backdrop for the occasion.
Her decision to accept the invitation was immediate, and fateful. Among the guests attending the lunch was Jan Shrem, another entrepreneur and philanthropist, and owner of Clos Pegase winery, which was described by the Washington Post as “America’s first monument to wine as art.” The two figures knew each other socially, “but not so well,” recalls Manetti. The recently widowed Shrem was the last person to leave the party, and as Manetti walked him to his car, they exchanged numbers.
“Half an hour later, he called me and said he had fallen in love with me,” says Manetti. Over the course of a brief courtship, their relationship deepened. “When we realized we both loved music and art, food, and drink, we said, ‘Okay, let’s be together!’” They married in 2012. “It was the best experience of my life,” Jan Shrem says.
A Life Less Ordinary: The Collection of Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem
The couple brought their own artistic interests with them: Florence-born Manetti Shrem’s first love was music, and her success in fashion distribution in Italy and the United States (Gucci, Fendi, Mark Cross) enabled her to become a generous benefactor to institutions such as the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Only later did she become interested in the contemporary art scene, focusing on outdoor sculpture for the gardens of her villa. “I was interested first in classical art, but then I thought I must learn about contemporary art, because Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli: they were all contemporary in their own time.”
“Philanthropy literally means in Greek, ‘loving people.’ That’s why I am fully dedicated to philanthropy.”
Shrem, a book distributor and publisher, had in the meantime become a discerning collector of modern and contemporary art, bringing together works by Pablo Picasso, Óscar Domínguez, Bruce Nauman and Lucio Fontana. He combined his two greatest passions at Clos Pegase, adorning the labels of wine bottles with artworks, and once gave a lecture at University of California, Davis, entitled “Bacchus the Rascal,” on the historical relationship between art and wine.
The Manetti Shrems continued to add to what was now their joint collection, but they were also struck by another, competing impulse: to start to give it back. “I said to Jan one day, ‘We have already enjoyed this art – now let’s dispose of some of it and give the money to charity.’ And he agreed with me.”
That change in direction has resulted in highlights from the Manetti Shrems’ collection being featured in Sotheby’s New York Sales in May. Pride of place among the 17 works goes to Picasso’s Femme nue couchée jouant avec un chat, 1964, included in the Modern Evening Auction on 16 May. The painting, bought by Shrem in 1998, belongs to a series of ten monumental nudes from 1964 and is one of only three remaining in private hands.
Other items sure to attract special attention are a vivid, blue Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1968, painted in the last year of his life; a Richard Long sculpture, Georgia Granite Line, the very first art work bought by Manetti Shrem for her Villa Mille Rose; and Odilon Redon’s Pégase, 1905, the symbol of Jan Shrem’s Napa winery which gave it its name, and which also appeared on the labels of the vineyard’s bottles.
The proceeds of the collection’s sale will benefit some of the scientific and artistic causes closest to the couple’s hearts. The act of charitable donation, as Manetti Shrem frequently reminds family and friends, has to be done “with warm hands, not with cold ones after passing.” She hasn’t forgotten the roots of her cultural Florentine upbringing: one of the 45-odd groups she is supporting, for example, is the Florence-based Mascarade, dedicated to opera training at the highest level.
“I have always been a philanthropist, on a small scale,” she says. “Jan was a self-made man; I was a self-made woman. Nobody gave us anything. We both worked very hard.” Asked if she will miss any of the works she and her husband are now offering at auction, she replies: “Well, I was in Chile with my wine group, and when I came back, I had thoughts about clearing the artworks from my apartment and my heart sank a little bit. But I know it is going to a good cause, so I can live with that!”
“It took a lot of courage, and my friends are in shock that I am doing this. At this stage of my life, ‘detachment’ is my ultimate mission. It is not easy, but that’s what makes me very happy. Philanthropy literally means in Greek, ‘loving people.’ That’s why I am fully dedicated to philanthropy.”