Hester Diamond, avid art collector, dies at 91

Hester Diamond, a New York art collector, art dealer and interior designer who joined her first husband in building an astonishing Modernist collection before tossing it aside in favor of Old Masters, has died on January 23 at her home in Manhattan. She was 91 years old.

Her son David Diamond said the cause was metastatic breast cancer.

Ms. Diamond’s career spanned more than six decades, beginning with a part-time job at a gallery in the 1950s and culminating in the presidency of a research institute dedicated to the Medici family in Florence.

A self-taught art expert, Ms. Diamond has always insisted that her first buying criterion – perhaps her only one – was to love the piece.

“There was no strategy,” she said in a 2017 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art and the Center for Collecting in America. “See an opportunity. Find the buyer. See how it goes.”

hester Klein was born on December 10, 1928 in the Bronx, the only child of David Klein, a civil engineer, and Edith (Wilbur) Klein, an accountant. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager.

She grew up in the Bronx and, as an English major, earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 from Hunter College in Manhattan. By then, she had become a regular at museums. (The Museum of Modern Art was his favorite.)

The following year she married Harold Diamond, a Columbia University graduate from her former Bronx neighborhood (they met on a street corner, she said) who shared her love of the art.

He was a fourth-grade teacher in Harlem, and she took a job as a social worker, and they lived in what Ms. Diamond described as an apartment on West 61st Street, spending their free time in the art galleries of Manhattan. Eventually, Martha Jackson, an art dealer they had come to know, offered them weekend jobs at her gallery.

Increasingly turned towards the world of art, they fall in love with the work of a British painter and sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. In 1955, on a whim, they wrote to him, offering him a North American tour of his work. She accepted, and they mounted eight museum exhibitions from New York to San Francisco and Canada. The arrangement was that each museum purchased a Hepworth piece.

“They didn’t know we were 25,” Ms. Diamond recalled in 2017. (In fact, they were both in their late twenties.)

When they visited Mrs Hepworth in England the following year, new British friends asked them to sell a few pieces for them. It went well. When asked to arrange the purchase of a Henry Moore sculpture for $5,000 (when the median price of an American home was around $7,000), it was time to quit their day job.

Their sales were private – no publicity, no exhibitions – and, as one art publication suggested in 1970, they were handled with “the tact of a diplomat and the cunning of a spy”.

Meanwhile, a client told Ms Diamond he liked the way her apartment was decorated and asked if she would do something similar for a place he had just bought. She agreed on the spot (“I’ve never been a person who ever said, ‘Well, I’ll see that'”) and quickly ran a thriving interior design business.

His specialty was mixing antique furniture with contemporary art, and vice versa.

The Diamonds’ weekend home in Huntington, Long Island, was filled with antiques and artwork ranging from a Léger mural to an Egyptian burial mask. A 2008 article in T magazine compared his Manhattan salon to “a postmodern cocktail party held in a 16th-century Florentine church.”

The diamond collection included Picassos, Légers, Mondrians and Brancusis. Among Brancusi’s sculptures were “The Kiss” (c. 1908) and “Bird in Space” (1926), which had been the subject of a legal battle during the Jazz Age in which US customs officials argued that he it was a utility item. The courts have declared it to be art – and tax free.

The 1980s brought monumental changes to Mrs. Diamond’s life. Her husband died at 56 after a very brief illness. She quit the interior design business, having decided that her suppliers had become too unreliable. His son Michael took the stage name Mike D, started the Beastie Boys with two friends, and made hip-hop history. Ms. Diamond married Ralph Kaminsky, an economics professor. And she turned her attention to the old masters.

Over the next 25 years, she built up a collection characterized by Italian and Flemish oil paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries and sculptures in wood, terracotta and stone from the 14th to 16th centuries.

After intriguing inventory marks were found on a recently discovered Pontormo “Madonna and Child” she had acquired, she helped investigate archival records of the Medici, the dynasty that long ruled Tuscany. She became the founding chair of the Medici Archive Project, now a research institution.

Following Mr. Kaminsky’s death in 2012, she helped found Vistas (Virtual Images of Sculpture in Time and Space), an organization focused on new research on European sculpture from the 13th to 19th centuries, using both print publications and high resolution online. imagery.

Besides her sons David and Michael, she is survived by her third husband, David S. Wilson, psychoanalyst, whom she married in 2015; one daughter-in-law, Rachel Kaminsky; three stepsons, David, Daniel and Douglas Wilson; and four grandsons. Another son, Stephen Diamond, died of neuroendocrine cancer in 1999.

While Mrs. Diamond’s interest in art can be said to have begun with these early museum visits, she owed her career to relatively lenient parental standards in the middle of the century.

“I knew from a young age that the Bronx was okay to live in, but my destiny was in Manhattan,” she said in the oral history interview. “And I knew there were all kinds of great places to go, things to see, and things to think about in Manhattan.

“And so I would leave right after school. It’s kind of interesting now how much freedom I had.

Norma D. Ross