If you were lucky enough to score an invitation to dinner at Hester Diamond’s Manhattan duplex in the last 20 years, you were given privileged access to one of the greatest, most idiosyncratic art collections in America. Your eye might dart from a Renaissance sculpture to a Post-impressionist canvas to video art, all peacefully coexisting within a modernist décor saturated with color. You would have been handed a freshly printed list with details on each work. If you were even luckier and got invited back, a new printout would await you: You were as unlikely to see the same piece twice as you were to see the same guests.
On January 29, Sotheby’s in New York will present a sale of Diamond's eclectic collection, an approximately 60-lot auction including paintings, sculpture, furniture, and exotic minerals spanning five centuries. (It is a testament to her stature in the art world that her New York Times obituary didn’t mention that she was the mother of the Beastie Boys’ Mike D until paragraph 18.) She began collecting in the 1950s with her first husband, Harold, when she was a social worker and he a schoolteacher. Art soon took over their lives, and they started working part-time at a gallery to sate their addiction. They proved to be savvy dealers themselves, championing artists such as British sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and in one case exchanging their Pontiac for several de Kooning canvases.
By the 1980s, they had acquired a small museum’s worth of 20th-century masterpieces. Not long after Harold died, Diamond abruptly turned her attention to Old Masters—trading out Picassos, Légers, and Mondrians for the likes of Bernini, Filippino Lippi, and Pieter Coecke van Aelst. “I don’t think the name of the artist meant very much to her,” says George Wachter, chairman of Sotheby’s America and a longtime friend and advisor of Diamond’s. “It was about whether she loved the work. And there is consistency in that.”