A personal account of a precious friendship from Maryan Ainsworth.
I first met Hester Diamond in 1991 when I was a Guest Scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum, then in Malibu. In her typical fashion, Hester called me out of the blue one day at my office, said she was in L.A. visiting her son Michael, the Beastie Boy, and would love to meet me. In particular, she hoped I would accompany her on a visit to the Getty old master paintings galleries, giving special attention to the northern Renaissance works. In the late 1980s, Hester had shifted her collecting interests from Modern, in which she had long been engaged with her first husband Harold – as both dealers and collectors – to old masters. Our meeting that day was only the beginning of a long friendship that lasted until her recent death in January of this year.
I suspect that my first encounter with Hester was like that experienced by other members of the Historians of Netherlandish Art, to which she was a generous supporter over many years. Whenever she focused on a new collecting direction or a particular artist, she read up, identified courses she could take at the Institute of Fine Arts, Barnard, or Columbia, and invited its professors for long chats over lunch or at teatime. Many of these “tutors” became friends, in which case, you also got to come to dinner. These soirées inevitably included not just art historians, curators, and favorite dealers. Also present were interesting guests from the music world, especially those passionate about Wagner or, alternatively, contemporary classical music to which Hester and her second husband, Ralph, were deeply devoted.
Hester repeatedly attended my Barnard course “Introduction to Connoisseurship,” taught in the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum. In generous reciprocal manner, she then offered my students each year a session at her apartment for a discussion about her collecting habits. The students, of course, were totally captivated by her tales, replete with adventures of the hunt for and acquisition of this or that object, and details of her many European travels when she cinched the deal. Hester could talk with great knowledge and authority about not only the old masters, but also modern paintings and sculpture. In the late 1950s, she and her first husband, Harold Diamond, had left their jobs as a social worker (Hester) and a fourth-grade teacher in Spanish Harlem (Harold) to take up dealing in modern art full-time. Among their clients were J. Seward Johnson, Joe Hirschhorn, and a few Rockefellers. Harold sold the art, and Hester had a particular talent for advising about its placement. She was so good at it that she ran an interior design business from 1970s–90s as a complement to the sale of art works.
When I first knew Hester, her apartment in the El Dorado on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was decorated with antique furniture and a rather eclectic display that included an ancient Egyptian funerary mask among paintings by Léger, Kandinsky, Picasso, Magritte, and Mondrian, and sculptures by Brancusi. Harold died in 1982, and in the years thereafter, when in 1985 she married Ralph Kaminsky, an economist and associate dean of NYU, the modern works started to go out the door and were replaced by old masters. Hester was one of the most decisive people I have ever met and this was certainly true about her collecting habits. When a work caught her eye, not long after, it had a perfect place on her walls. One of Hester’s greatest passions was to rehang her collection, no doubt exhausting her reliable and devoted art handlers. A lunch invitation would follow when one could admire the new installation and how extraordinarily well the rearranged works communicated with each other. I will never forget the day when I arrived on such an occasion, and in canvasing the rooms and enjoying the new dialogues taking place, I suddenly missed the Brancusi Bird in Space. Her answer to my inquiry about where she had placed it was the only time I EVER saw her lower her head, looking somewhat sheepish. She had sold it earlier that day, quite suddenly, for a price that she never could have imagined to a collector desperate to own the treasure. That precipitated the end of the modern collection, and soon the last of those works was gone. Sometimes, Hester enjoyed playing a kind of parlor game in which she invited over a few curator friends to rank the works in the apartment. Those that sank to the bottom of the list disappeared thereafter, opening up space for newfound interests. Only once did Hester and I vie for the same painting at auction, Bernard van Orley’s Beheading of Saint John the Baptist that is the pendant to The Met’s Birth and Naming of Saint John. She immediately came up with a very generous solution: she would buy the painting but leave it to The Met as a promised gift. Now, thanks to Hester, these two panels have been reunited.
Passionate about art, indefatigable, and insatiable about acquiring specialized knowledge, Hester acted when she thought she could be instrumental in any way. On numerous occasions, she supported the publications of HNA members, funding translations, photo permissions, or various research needs. When she discovered through Philippe Costamagna that a number on the back of her Pontormo painting could be traced to a Medici inventory in Florentine archives, she founded the Medici Archive Project to ensure digitization of the vast collection. This project continues today, supported by the Mellon and Kress Foundations, and provides a number of graduate students with fellowships and extraordinary access to these valuable sources. More recently, Hester started to collect Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. When she realized how poorly sculpture has been illustrated and how relatively weak its representation has been in the art historical literature, she set about redressing the need. In 2012, along with her dear friends Jon Landau and Fabrizio Moretti, she founded VISTAS (Virtual Images of Sculpture in Time and Space), taken on by the publishing company Brepols, and now under the leadership of Nicholas Penny. Hester also supported the acquisition by the RKD of the archives and workshop materials of the famous Belgian restorer and “copyist” of early Netherlandish paintings, Jef van der Veken. The reward for this contribution was a viewing session within the converted gallery of the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts where conservators were carrying out the restoration on the Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece. It was one of my greatest pleasures to watch Hester as she sat – six inches or so from the panels – totally engrossed in every detail. She told me afterwards that it had been the highlight of her life’s viewing experiences.
In the last few years, Hester met a return of her cancer with no less than her usual vigor in trying to change its course. Through this period, she had a constant, caring companion in her third husband, Dave Wilson, a psychoanalyst, jazz pianist, and enthusiastic aviator. In predictable Hester manner, when she could still communicate in exactly the way she wanted, she sent out a letter to her many friends. “I’m writing to let you know that my wonderful long life is coming to an end…[but] the real purpose of this note is to tell you how intensely I’ve experienced and valued our relationship.” What inspiring and generous words and how very much we shall miss her!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art