How a Working-Class Couple Amassed a Priceless Art Collection

National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives
National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives

By Jed Lipinski

Herb Vogel never earned more than $23,000 a year. Born and raised in Harlem, Vogel worked for the post office in Manhattan. He spent nearly 50 years living in a 450-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Dorothy, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived frugally. They didn’t travel. They ate TV dinners. Aside from a menagerie of pets, Herb and Dorothy had just one indulgence: art. But their passion for collecting turned them into unlikely celebrities, working-class heroes in a world of Manhattan elites.

While their coworkers had no idea, the press noticed. The New York Times labeled the Vogels the “In Couple” of New York City. They counted minimalist masters Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd among their close friends. And in just four decades, they assembled one of the most important private art collections of the 20th century, stocking their tiny apartment floor-to-ceiling with Chuck Close sketches, paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, and sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. Today, more than 1,000 of the works they purchased are housed in the National Gallery, a collection a curator there calls “literally priceless.” J. Carter Brown, the museum’s former director, referred to the collection as “a work of art in itself.”

The Vogels had no formal training in art collecting. They didn’t aspire to open a gallery or work in museums. They bought art the way any amateur collector shops: for the love of the individual pieces and the thrill of a good deal. But you don’t accumulate a priceless collection of anything by accident. Herb and Dorothy developed a methodical system for scouting, assessing, and purchasing art. When it came to mastering their hobby, the Vogels were self-trained professionals. This is how they did it.

The Art of Buying

Herbert Vogel was born in 1922, the son of a tailor and a homemaker. A rebellious teen, fond of jazz and zoot suits, he dropped out of high school because “I hated people telling me what to do,” he said. Instead, he worked in a cigar factory before doing a stint in the National Guard. When a dislocated shoulder resulted in a medical discharge, he enrolled in art history seminars at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where legendary art historians like Erwin Panofsky and Walter Friedlaender held court. In the evenings, Herb frequented the storied Cedar Tavern, listening in awe as artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline roared at each other over the meaning of abstract expressionism. He decided he wanted to be a painter. To subsidize his new passion, he landed a job at the post office, working the graveyard shift in the dead-letter department.

In November 1960, Herb, then 38, went to a dance at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. Scanning the crowd, his eyes fell on a pretty, bookish young woman 13 years his junior. This was Dorothy Faye Hoffman, the daughter of a stationery merchant from Elmira, N.Y. Dorothy had moved to Brooklyn two years earlier, after receiving her master’s in library science at the University of Denver. Herb thought she looked “intelligent.” Dorothy found him “cuddly” and liked his dance moves. It was love at first sight.

Herb and Dorothy were married in 1962 and spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C, where they made their inaugural voyage to the National Gallery. “That’s where Herb gave me my first art lesson,” Dorothy said. At the time, she knew next to nothing about art, having always preferred music and theater. But her husband’s enthusiasm inspired her. She enrolled with him in painting and drawing classes at NYU. That same year, they bought a small sculpture made from crushed car metal by the artist John Chamberlain. They had no idea that the joint purchase would be the first of thousands.

The Vogels rented a tiny studio in Union Square, painting there at night and on weekends and using the vibrant, abstract products to decorate their new apartment on 86th Street. But by the mid-1960s, the couple realized that their artistic ambitions outweighed their abilities. “I wasn’t bad,” Dorothy claimed, adding, “I didn’t like Herby’s paintings.” Herb, an unfailingly modest man, admitted as much: “I was a terrible painter.” They decided to concentrate on collecting instead.

At the time, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism were in vogue and too expensive for the Vogels. Minimal and conceptual art, on the other hand, had yet to be embraced by the art world establishment. The Vogels made a pact: Her salary would go toward living expenses, his toward art. Under these new terms, they visited the SoHo studio of an obscure artist named Sol LeWitt and walked out with the first piece LeWitt ever sold: an untitled, golden, T-shaped structure. “He had more than average potential, and I felt it,” Herb said. LeWitt would later become a titan of contemporary American art.

But Herb and Dorothy’s obsession was just starting to kick in. The couple began visiting dozens of galleries and studios each week, becoming what artist Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” In making purchases, they functioned as a team. Herb, the impulsive Dionysian, searched for art “like a truffle hound,” said the artist Lucio Pozzi, who has more than 400 works in the Vogel collection. Dorothy, the Apollonian librarian with the encyclopedic memory, was more passive, hanging back and calculating the financial realities. They had only a few criteria: The work had to be affordable; it had to fit in their apartment; and it had be transportable via taxi or subway. Not part of the equation? The artist’s reputation. “We bought what we liked,” Dorothy said. “Simple as that.” And they continued to lead their double life—racing from studio to studio to gallivant with artists and to scout their next big purchase every night, while keeping their passions private from their work colleagues. Still, assembling such an incredible collection on such a tiny budget required a few other tricks.

Work of Art

Many in the art world call the Vogels’ method cheating. That’s because the couple never dealt with galleries and art dealers. Instead, Herb and Dorothy negotiated with hungry artists directly, arriving at studios with cash in hand. Artist Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009, remembered receiving a phone call from Herb back in 1971, when the creators of “The Gates” were still broke. “It’s the Vogels!” Jeanne-Claude cried to her dispirited husband and partner in art, Christo. “We’re going to pay the rent!” But the Vogels didn’t just take their cash to big-name artists; they were equally passionate about unknown talents, often helping them to develop. David Reed, now a famous conceptual artist, said the couple encouraged him to make more drawings, which later became a central part of his practice. “The Vogels made you aware of what you were doing as an artist,” he said. “They had artist sensibilities.” When they spotted something beyond their means, they’d find a way to make the purchase: They’d buy on credit; they’d forgo a vacation; they’d even throw in cat-sitting to sweeten a deal. And the artists loved them for it. As Chuck Close told Newsday, “You knew when you were selling them something it was becoming part of an important collection.”

It wasn’t long before the artwork overtook their home. By all accounts, the 450-square-foot apartment on East 86th Street was more of a storage facility than a place to live. The Vogels’ collection gradually replaced all their furniture save the kitchen table, some chairs, a bureau, and the bed, which concealed dozens of drawings by Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis. Visitors cracked their heads on clay Steve Keister sculptures hung from the ceiling and discovered typographic texts by Lawrence Weiner on the bathroom wall. And while they stashed the pieces wherever they could, Dorothy has repeatedly tried to squelch one persistent rumor: The Vogels never stored art in their oven.

Herbanddorothy.com/Fine Line Media Inc.

It wasn’t just the masterpieces that were crammed into the space; the Vogels shared their storehouse with 20 turtles, eight cats and an aquarium filled with exotic fish. To protect the artwork from kitten claws and rogue turtles, the couple boxed and wrapped the pieces not hung on the walls, further diminishing the available living space. “Art is Herby’s only interest, except for animals,” Dorothy once said. (Fittingly, they named their cats after artists, like Matisse, Renoir, and Manet.) When National Gallery curator Jack Cowart first saw their apartment, he was stunned. “It upset all of my alarm systems as a curator,” he said. “I began to think: What if there’s a fire? What if one of the mega-gallon fish tanks that Herb keeps his fish in springs a leak?”

By the mid-1970s, the Vogels were famous—at least in New York City. The Clocktower Gallery, run by Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, staged the first exhibition of the Vogels’ collection in April 1975. The opening coincided with a profile in New York magazine called “A New Art-World Legend: Good-by, Bob & Ethel; Hullo, Dorothy and Herb!” The title referred to Bob and Ethel Scull, a vulgar taxi magnate and his Vogue model wife. After a messy divorce, their entire collection of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist was auctioned off for an eye-popping $10 million. The Vogels, by contrast, never sold a thing. “We could easily have become millionaires,” Herb told the Associated Press. “We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still had some left over. But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.”

Pozzi offered an alternate explanation. “To ask them to sell a piece of their collection would be like asking me to cut off a square yard of one of my paintings,” he said. “They were artists, and the collection was their work of art.”

Herb retired from the post office in 1979 and, naturally, used his pension to continue buying art. But the increasing size of the collection threatened to overwhelm the Vogels, like hoarders crushed to death by towering stacks of The New York Times. In the 1980s, they were forced to admit that their apartment could no longer contain their beloved art. They began meeting with curators and evaluating their options. They knew they wanted to donate their collection instead of selling it, and they liked the National Gallery, which is free to the public and maintains a policy against deaccessioning objects, meaning the collection would never be sold. In 1990, the year Dorothy retired, the Vogels followed through on their promise: Art handlers from the National Gallery transferred an astonishing 2,400 works from the Vogels’ tiny apartment, in a move that required five 40-foot trucks. In fact, unloading the works from the trucks and into the gallery tied up the museum’s freight elevators for weeks!

Realizing that the Vogels hadn’t invested for their future, Jack Cowart, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art at the time, paid the Vogels a small annuity in exchange for their generous donation. But instead of saving the money for medical expenses or splurging on a better retirement, the Vogels couldn’t help themselves: They immediately started collecting more art. The annuity helped the couple purchase another 1,500 or so items. As Dorothy put it: “If we wanted to make money, we would have invested it in the stock market.” This led the grateful if overburdened institution to create the Fifty Works for Fifty States program, in which 50 museums across America will receive 50 pieces from the Vogels’ collection.

In 2008, Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the couple directed by Megumi Sasaki, was released to rave reviews. Sasaki, a former field producer for Japanese public television, had met the Vogels years before while filming a series about Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “I couldn’t believe it was a true story, that such people exist,” she recalled.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Herb’s health began to fail, that the Vogels ceased collecting. “It was something we did together, and when Herb was too ill to enjoy it, we stopped,” Dorothy said with typical matter-of-factness. Herb died in July 2012, at the age of 89. Dorothy's job now, she says, is to make sure people don’t forget the collection she and her husband built, which is considered not just the most impressive art collection to have been housed in a tiny apartment, but one of the most important art collections of the 20th century. “I have no regrets,” Dorothy said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. And I believe Herb and I were made to be together.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

8 Things You Might Not Know About the Louvre

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

It might be the most iconic art museum in the world. Located in Paris, the Louvre (officially the Musée du Louvre) has admitted thousands of cultural artifacts and millions of admirers since opening its doors on this day in 1793. A guided tour is always best, but if you can’t make it to the Right Bank of the Seine, check out these eight facts about the 225-year-old landmark’s past, present, and future.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A CASTLE FORTRESS.

Before French King Philip II left for the Crusades in 1190, he ordered the fortification of the Seine area along the western border of Paris against any antagonists. Crowning the structure was a castle that featured a moat and defensive towers; it also housed a prison for undesirables. Over time, other construction urbanized the area, reducing the need for a combat-ready tower. In the 1500s, King Francis I built his residence on the same site. An art lover, Francis’s home and its collection of pieces hinted at what the Louvre would eventually become. In 1793, part of the Louvre became a public museum.

2. IT BECAME AN ARTIST RETREAT.

Before art was on open display for public consumption, the Louvre invited artists to stay and work on site and treat the building like a creative retreat. In 1608, Henri IV began offering artists both studio and living space in the Louvre. They could sculpt, paint, and generally do as they wished—but by the 18th century, the surplus of distinguished squatters had left the property a bit of a mess, and their residency was eventually phased out.

3. NAPOLEON RENAMED IT AFTER HIMSELF.

Crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t above a little self-glorification. Having spearheaded the transformation of the Louvre from a cultural hub to his own tributary, he had the name changed to the Musée Napoléon and hung the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. The banner lasted until his defeat in 1815.

4. AN ARTIST MADE ITS FAMED PYRAMID VANISH.

In a move right out of David Copperfield’s playbook, in 2016 French artist JR was able to execute an impressive optical illusion using the three-story glass pyramid that sits outside the front of the Louvre. The surface was pasted with black-and-white photographs of surrounding buildings, making it seem like the construct had disappeared entirely. The performance piece was left up for about a month.

5. THE MONA LISA WAS SWIPED FROM IT.

Art heists in movies are typically pretty glamorous affairs, with gentlemen thieves and Swiss-watch planning. But when crooks lifted the Mona Lisa from its perch in the Louvre in 1911, it was a fairly indelicate operation. Three Italian handymen hid in the museum overnight, then removed the painting from the wall and bid a retreat out the door in full view of the public. One of them tried selling it over two years later, but a suspicious dealer phoned police. The ensuing media coverage is thought to be one of the reasons the painting has become one of the most famous in the world.

6. IT ONCE CLOSED BECAUSE OF PICKPOCKETS.

In 2013, nearly half of the museum’s 450 employees refused to come to work because of a nagging pest on the premises: pickpockets. Employees said that the adolescent criminals—admission is free for those under 18—distracted and robbed American tourists and showed only disdain for Louvre workers who tried to intervene. Authorities agreed to increase security measures, and the workers returned to their posts.

7. IT HAS RESIDENT “COPYISTS.”

Few museums sanction forgeries of any type, but the Louvre recognizes the curious subculture of artists who enjoy trying to replicate famous works. Every day from 9:30 to 1:30, “copyists” are allowed to set up easels and study paintings while working on their own replicas. The appeal for the artists is to try to gain insight into the process behind masterpieces; the museum insists that the canvas size not be exactly the same, and that they’re not signed.

8. AN APP CAN HELP YOU FIND AN EXIT.

With more than 8 million visitors annually, the Louvre can often feel congested to tourists unfamiliar with its layout. In 2016, the museum began offering an app that guides users around, offering them a pre-planned tour or an exit strategy. Lost? Hang a left at the Picasso, then a right at the Michelangelo.

7 Missing Historical Treasures That May Never Be Seen Again

The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace
The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace
Branson DeCou, Wikimedia // Public Domain

For all the television shows that set out to solve the world’s great mysteries, and the intrepid adventurers hunting for lost artifacts, some of the most famous treasures of history are still missing. These include one of the most dazzling rooms ever made, a giant yellow diamond, and the work of a renowned Greek poetess. Here are just a few of these enigmas.

1. THE AMBER ROOM

Designed in the 18th century by German sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber artist Gottfried Wolfram, and gifted to Russia in 1716, the Amber Room of Catherine Palace was the pride of the Saint Petersburg area. Lavishly decorated in jewels, gilding, and, of course, panels of amber, it was sometimes called the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

When the German army neared Saint Petersburg during World War II, the curators at Catherine Palace knew they had to hide this treasure. They tried to take it apart, but the dry amber crumbled in their hands; instead they hid it behind wallpaper. German soldiers found the Amber Room anyway, and broke it down into pieces that were packed in crates and shipped to Königsberg, then part of Germany (now part of Russia). For a time, the Amber Room was installed in the Königsberg castle museum. After that, its fate gets fuzzy. Some researchers believe it was destroyed in the bombardments of the war, while others think that it’s still hidden somewhere. Despite periodic claims of it being found—and verified remnants turning up in 1997—most of it remains missing. In 2003, a reconstruction of the Amber Room was unveiled near Saint Petersburg, so visitors can at least get a glimpse of its lost glory.

2. SAPPHO'S POEMS

Painting by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema entitled "Sappho And Alcaeus" (1881)
Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus (1881)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ancient sources state that the Greek poet Sappho penned nine volumes of writing, but only a couple of full poems—and a few hundred lines on shreds of papyrus and potsherds—survive. Some contain just a handful of words, yet they hint at the passion in her work: "I desire/And I crave," one remnant reads. Many of these bits survive thanks to her popularity in antiquity, since her writing was frequently quoted in other sources.

There may be more of Sappho's work to discover. A late 19th- to early 20th-century excavation at a trash dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, turned up valuable fragments of her poems. As recently as 2014, two works on papyrus fragments were identified by an Oxford papyrologist. With any luck, there may still be scattered remains of her poems to unearth in the detritus of the classical world.

3. THE FLORENTINE DIAMOND

According to legend, Charles the Bold—the Duke of Burgundy—carried this 132.27-carat yellow diamond into the 1477 Battle of Nancy as a talisman. The treasure did little to protect him, however, and he fell along with his gem. His mutilated corpse is said to have later been recovered from the battlefield, but the diamond was gone, supposedly picked up by a scavenger who sold it for two francs because he thought it was just glass.

However, in the 1920s the art historian Nello Tarchiani did archival research that revealed the diamond likely had no connection to the duke. The gemstone had originated in southern India, where it stayed until the Portuguese seized the area in the 1500s. Soon afterward, it made its way to Europe and into the hands of a series of illustrious owners, including Ferdinand de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, in 1601. It was in the treasury of the Medicis in Florence that it got its name—the Florentine Diamond—and most likely its glistening, 126-facet double rose cut.

When Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, the last of the Medici ruling family, died in 1743, the diamond didn't stay with the treasure trove she bequeathed to the Tuscan state. Instead, Francis Stephan of Lorraine (who later became the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor) bought it for his wife, Empress Maria Teresa, herself at the end of the House of Habsburg line. For a time, the Florentine diamond became part of the crown jewels in Vienna. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I, and the diamond, it’s believed, was carried into exile in Switzerland by its last emperor, Charles I.

But where is it now? There are many theories on its disappearance, including that it was sold by the exiled emperor, and perhaps cut into smaller gems for that purpose. Others posit that it was stolen and spirited to South America. With no trace of the diamond in years, its whereabouts remain a mystery.

4. FABERGÉ EGGS

The Third Faberge Imperial Easter Egg displayed in London in 2014
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The legendary House of Fabergé was once the largest jeweler in Russia, employing 500 designers and craftsmen to transform everything from mantel clocks to cigarette cases into delicate and elaborate works of art. Their most famous achievement is the series of jewel-drenched Easter eggs they produced for Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II, which the Russian rulers gave as gifts to their wives and mothers. Each egg contained a surprise, from the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg (with a wind-up train made from gold and platinum) to the Bay Tree Egg (shaped like a tree, with a mechanical singing bird emerging from its branches). After the Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov Dynasty—and the imperial family was executed—the new Soviet rulers seized the eggs. Lenin was interested in preserving such cultural heritage, but Stalin saw them as economic resources, and the eggs were sold off. Out of the 50 Imperial Eggs (as the eggs created for the czars are known), seven are missing.

Information on the lost eggs is sparse. There are few photographs—the only image we have of one of the eggs, the Cherub with Chariot Egg, is a reflection in the glass of a display case. Sometimes the surprises inside are detailed in records, and in other cases they remain a mystery. However, in 2012 a Midwest man who had bought what he thought was a fancy doodad for scrap gold happened to do an internet search on the name on the little clock inside: “Vacheron Constantin.” He discovered that his trinket, which he’d bought for $14,000, was one of the lost Imperial Eggs, worth $33 million.

5. CROWN JEWELS OF IRELAND

Lord Dudley, Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, wearing the Irish Crown Jewels
Lord Dudley, Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, wearing what's often called the Irish Crown Jewels
National Library of Australia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On July 6, 1907, regalia belonging to the Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick—referred to as the "Crown Jewels of Ireland"—were discovered to be missing, the keys boldly left hanging in the safe’s lock. The pricey pieces, which included a diamond star and badge, had been presented to the order of knights in 1830. As added insult, five collars of Knight Members of the Order had also been spirited away.

Security was perhaps a bit lax. A safe room had been built for Dublin Castle in 1903, yet the safe that protected the jewels was too big to fit in the door, so it was kept in a library strongroom.

An investigation was immediately launched, but a century later, the case is unsolved. One rumor is that the investigation was halted under the orders of Edward VII because it ended up touching on a sexual scandal at Dublin Castle. One top suspect is Francis Shackleton, second-in-command at the castle, and brother to the famed explorer Ernest Shackleton; some say he may have been trying to raise funds for his brother's polar expedition.

6. ART FROM THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early morning of March 18, 1990, the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston buzzed in two men claiming to be police officers. Once inside, they handcuffed the guards and revealed their true intention: stealing art. They made off with 13 works valued at $500 million, the biggest unsolved art theft in the world.

Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet works are among the stolen art, although strangely, the robbers also opted to take a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag and an ancient Chinese beaker rather than other, more valuable objects nearby. Because the museum’s collection and layout are permanent—both the legacy of the late art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner—the frames of the missing artworks are kept empty, a memorial and a reminder that the burglars are still at large. The FBI believes the paintings made their way to organized crime circles in Philadelphia, but haven’t had a lead since 2003. Currently, the reward is $10 million for information leading to the artworks’ recovery.

7. THE HONJŌ MASAMUNE

At the end of World War II, citizens in Japan were required to turn over privately owned weapons, including historic pieces. Among them was one of the most famous swords ever made: the Kamakura-period Honjō Masamune. Created by Masamune, who lived circa 1260-1340 and is often considered Japan’s greatest sword maker, the sword was celebrated for its strength and artistry.

Its last owner was Tokugawa Iemasa, who brought the Honjō Masamune, along with other heirloom swords, to a Tokyo police station in compliance with the Allied orders. They were handed off to someone in the Foreign Liquidations Commission of AFWESPAC (Army Forces, Western Pacific), then disappeared. Some surrendered swords from this era were brought back to the United States by American soldiers, while others were melted or tossed in the sea. Today, the fate of the Honjō Masamune is unknown.

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