“As a collector, your first priority is to determine what turns you on,” he said. “What am I passionate about? What is good and what is great? If you’re thinking about an increase in value, you shouldn’t buy it. It’s the wrong reason.”
Initially drawn to Greek and Roman sculpture, the Hills were wary of the provenance and repatriation issues encountered by U.S. museums and private collectors. They decided to go after what they saw as the next best thing: Renaissance and Baroque bronzes.
At the same time, they chose eight post-World War II and contemporary artists -- Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, Ed Ruscha, Brice Marden, Pablo Picasso, Warhol and Bacon -- to collect in depth. Over the years, they reduced their Picasso holdings and added Lucio Fontana, Mark Grotjahn and Christopher Wool.
In 1996, the Hills bought Hubert Le Sueur’s 17th-century bronze “Venus,” which was once owned by King Louis XIV, and Warhol’s 1962 soup can, within a month of each other.
“What we wanted to have is a very high bar for quality, at least a nine out of 10,” he said. “We also wanted to see how the work fits in a dialogue with other art.”
The Frick show pairs sculptures by Italian, German, French and Dutch masters with postwar artists Twombly, Ruscha and Fontana as well as Old Masters.
“There’s real synergy between the bronze sculptures and postwar paintings,” said Denise Allen, the Frick curator who organized the exhibition. The installation is “replete with beauty, sense of animation and life,” she said.
In January, a 16th-century bronze “Samson Slaying the Philistine” attributed to Willem Danielsz van Tetrode fetched $3.3 million at Sotheby’s, setting the artist’s auction record.
“There were multiple bidders from all over the world,” said Andrew Butterfield, a New York dealer whose Butterfield Fine Arts specializes in Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. “It drew attention from people who have never collected Renaissance and Baroque bronzes.”
Top prices for these bronzes have hovered around $15 million for the past two decades, but more trade at $5 million than ever before, Butterfield said.
Several weeks later, the Samson piece joined the Hills’ Frick exhibition.
“I am ferociously competitive as a collector, just like I am in my business,” Hill said.