The ordinary couple with an extraordinary art collection

How Herbert and Dorothy Vogel turned a one-bedroom flat into a treasure house

Washington

On the surface, Herbert Vogel and his wife Dorothy lived an ordinary life in New York. Mr Vogel, who died on Sunday aged 89, used to work nights sorting mail at the city's post offices, and his wife was a reference librarian in Brooklyn. But over the years, the couple built up one of the world's most unlikely – and most significant – collections of modern art, and bequeathed much of it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The Vogels' unlikely journey began in 1962, when they came to Washington on their honeymoon and spent several days visiting the National Gallery and other museums. Upon returning home, they began to buy a few pieces by artists they met.

Quite unlike many collectors, they weren't wealthy, living and collecting their entire lives on their salaries and their pensions. The couple did not, however, sell a single piece until the National Gallery acquired much of their collection in 1991. Estimates of its value range well into the millions. "We could have easily become millionaires," Mr Vogel told the Associated Press in 1992, adding: "But we weren't concerned about that aspect."

When they began collecting, the Vogels – known to many in the art world simply as "Herb and Dorothy" – concentrated largely on conceptual art and minimalism, work that stood apart from the better-known abstract expressionist and pop art movements, not the sort of work that was in strong demand. They visited studios and became close friends with many artists, including the husband-and-wife duo of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In time, over almost 50 years, they amassed more than 5,000 works, including paintings, drawings and pieces that defied classification. They bargained directly with the artists, sometimes buying on instalment. Once, they received a collage from Christo in exchange for cat-sitting.

Herb, who never completed high school, and Dorothy, who survives him, had simple criteria when buying art: it had to be inexpensive, small enough to be carried on the subway or in a taxi and it had to fit inside their one-bedroom flat. "They did not collect work by marquee artists at the time, but many of them later became well known," said Earl Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art.

What began on a whim grew into wide-ranging collection featuring many leading artists of recent times, including Chuck Close, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Nam June Paik, Julian Schnabel, Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis, John Baldessari and Jeff Koons.

Artists considered it a privilege to be included in their collection and an even greater honour to be invited to their apartment for a meal. Dorothy would sometimes offer a TV dinner that she warmed up in the oven. "They were a couple without children," said Ruth Fine, a recently retired curator at the National Gallery. "The works of art became the absolute focus of their lives."

When Mr Vogel retired from the Postal Service in 1979, he used his pension to buy more art. He and Dorothy began to think about their legacy, and many top museums came calling. Eventually, after years of negotiations, they agreed to send the heart of their collection to the National Gallery. When curators began to catalogue the collection, it took five full-size moving trucks to transport the Vogels' art to Washington from their apartment.

Despite his obvious penchant, Mr Vogel could not always articulate why he liked certain works of art more than others or what he looked for when collecting. "I just like art," he said in 1992. "I don't know why I like art. I don't know why I like nature. I don't know why I like animals. I don't know why I even like myself." Washington Post

Minimalist tastes … and a minimum of fuss

Without enjoying the wealth of most serious collectors, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel amassed more than 5,000 works of art worth millions.

They began collecting in the early 1960s. Their first purchase was Crushed Car Piece by John Chamberlain, who made sculptures from wrecked car parts.

Minimalism is a predominant theme. Paintings such as Robert Mangold's X Series (Medium Scale) (1968) and sculptures such as Donald Judd's untitled galvanised iron box (1965) are cited as key works. Carl Andre's sculpture Nine Steel Rectangles (1977) follows a similar theme.

The Vogels described Robert Barry's Closed Gallery – a 1969 piece consisting of three invitations to gallery shows that informed recipients that during the exhibition, the gallery would be closed – as "without a doubt the greatest piece of conceptual art that was ever done in the world".

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?