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Norton Simon: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., just might be America's least known great museum. It houses a vast collection of works — from South Asian sculptures to works by Europe's Old Masters, Impressionists, and contemporary Americans — yet even Californians who live nearby say they've "always meant to go but ..." The museum tends to attract more European than American visitors.

In a comprehensive new book, the museum's senior curator, Sara Campbell, sheds light on this often-overlooked museum and the man who founded it. Collector Without Wallstells the story of Norton Simon — the businessman behind Hunt-Wesson Foods, Canada Dry and Avis — who had an eye for great art and a knack for collecting it.

The successful industrialist approached his art museum with a businesslike efficiency. When he came to visit, he would inspect his collection, but never linger, Campbell recalls: "He would make a circuit of every single work of art and walk as fast as he could."

Simon hired Campbell 41 years ago as a typist. She remembers him as a wonderful boss who solicited opinions about art from everyone.

"He asked everybody what they thought about the collection," Campbell says. "He would ask me, he would ask the most prestigious museum director, and he would ask his cook."

But after gathering the information so democratically, Simon would dowhatever he wanted, Campbell says.

Chief Curator Carol Togneri met Simon when she was working at the Getty Museum. He had come to the Getty in search of her boss, but that curator was unavailable. So Simon asked Togneri to pass along this question: "Of all the Raphaels in the world, where does mine come in among the top five?"

Simon constantly asked such questions. He wanted to be the best and have the best — and often, he succeeded. His accomplishment is measured by some 8,000 works of art, collected over three decades, starting in 1954.

No more than 800 or 900 of those pieces are on display in his Pasadena museum at any one time, so visitors can't see everything in a single visit. You won't fall victim to common museum perils — sore feet or exhaustion. And the museum is rarely crowded, so there's no need to fight for a closer look at Degas' dancers, early Flemish tapestries, 14th-century altarpieces or Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy — thought to be his son Titus.

The portrait of the young boy with golden locks and rosy cheeks is one of three Rembrandt paintings in the collection; but if Simon had had his way, there would have been four. He had planned to bid against the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the master's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, but wouldn't match their bid of $2.3 million. So the painting belongs to the Met; it's the One That Got Away.

Simon kept careful track of all the numbers. "He remembered every price he ever paid," Campbell says, down to the currency and its conversion rate.

Over the years, Simon began loosening his purse strings. Twenty years later, he bought his most expensive piece — for a whopping $4.2 million. The painting is a 15th-century resurrection scene by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts, priced because of its rarity. But the regal depiction of Jesus, wrapped in a red cloth, also has outstanding artistic merits, says Togneri.

"It is a great painting," she says. "Look at the detail. Look at the way that the armor is painted — the reflection of the morning light — that brooding sky."

Before the Bouts and the Rembrandts, Simon's earliest purchases were comparatively modest. He paid $16,000 for a late Renoir and $300 for a painting by 20th century American artist Dan Lutz. He bought the works to decorate his new house, Campbell says. His wife and a decorator had picked out some art for the new home in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Simon didn't like their selections. There happened to be an art gallery next door to his barber shop in the old Ambassador Hotel. Every Saturday morning, when he went to have his hair cut, he'd see art in the window display.

Over the next years, Simon bought 80 works of art, spending about $1.5 million. He was a quick learner and a big spender. His tutors in art education were important art dealers in New York. It was a rich education. But Simon was above all a businessman — and he collected art like one.

"Mr. Simon was an industrialist, a businessman," Campbell says. "One of the practices in his business was to acquire companies that were not doing well and to turn them around. It was almost as if he collected companies. I think that he became feverish about art in the same way."

Simon appreciated the art that he collected, but kept an emotional distance from it — especially when it came to buying and selling.

"There are times when he has been quoted saying, 'I have to maintain some distance from this or it will consume me,'" says Campbell.

Simon needed to be able to decide when to sell a piece and when to walk away from a difficult dealer.

"Sometimes it worked, [and] the dealers quickly lowered their price and sometimes they didn't," Campbell says. But Simon always had to be prepared to walk away.

Simon died in 1993, but since 1974, the artwork he collected have been on view at the handsome Pasadena museum that bears his name. In many ways, it's a museum of "don't." The museum doesn't buy, or lend, or borrow any of its works — and it doesn't put on blockbuster shows, either. But what it does is display glorious works of art with elegance and style for any visitor who makes time for the voyage.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.