Miles Kington: A wise man knows that you can't buy posthumous fame

The irony is, you go to all the trouble of naming something after yourself, then what happens? The thing is remembered, but you are forgotten
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The Independent Online

I would like to raise a glass today to Mr Bruce Kovner. The odds are that you have never heard of Mr Bruce Kovner, so I ought to explain why. He is, I need hardly say, an American billionaire, who has made his fortune out of hedge funds. Well, anyone can do that. Lots of people do it. That's why we have never heard of any of them. Mr Kovner's hedge fund family had $10.8bn under management last year. His own take was $550m. So The New York Times says. Just another billionaire, quoi.

But Mr Kovner is different from other hedge dwellers, because he is also interested in music. He is an amateur pianist, for example, and is currently trying to master Chopin's Nocturnes. He has also spent millions of dollars in the last 11 years on music. Not on piano lessons, so much as on buying original musical manuscripts. Things like the original manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Schumann's Second Symphony. Brahms's Second Piano Concerto. That sort of stuff. In the composer's handwriting, usually. With composer's alterations made in rehearsal and performance, that people don't know about. Unique. Priceless. There are 139 items in the collection, from Bach to Copland, some worth several million dollars each in their own right. And Mr Kovner has now given them all away.

Well, not given them away, exactly. But he has donated them all to Juilliard Music School in New York, so they can have a good home and be studied. This must have come as a bit of a surprise to Juilliard, as nobody knew that the music-loving billionaire even had these sheets of music. He had bought them anonymously. But he now says that he doesn't want to "keep them under the mattress" and wants to share them with other people.

Juilliard Music School is the big music school in New York. Everyone has been there. Even Miles Davis went there for a while, though I don't think he ever finished the course. The chairman of Juilliard Music School these days is a certain Mr Bruce Kovner. Yes, the very same. He has given these highly precious pages of music to the college which he chairs, but - and this is why I want you to raise a glass to him - he does not want the bequest to be called the Kovner Bequest, or the Kovner Collection, or even the Kovner Gift or anything like that. He wants his name to be kept out of it and he wants it to be called the Juilliard Music Collection.

In other words, Kovner has resisted the temptation which was nor resisted by Wallace, Pitt Rivers, Guggenheim, Frick, Courtauld, Tate, Horniman and everyone else who ever wanted to remembered for ever. For instance, Henry Clay Frick (d. 1919) made his fortune from coal and steel, spent a lot of it on paintings and decided to leave his New York house (named after himself) as a permanent gallery for all his art. He was inspired to do this by the example of Richard Wallace, illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, who inherited his father's art treasures and then gave the Wallace Collection (and Hertford House to house it in) to the nation ...

The irony of this is that although we have all heard of the Wallace Collection, not one in a thousand has any idea who Wallace was, and nor did I till I looked it up just now. You go to all the trouble of naming something after yourself to be remembered by, then what happens? I'll tell you what happens, every time. The thing is remembered but you are forgotten.

I'll give you another example of this. The Juilliard School of Music. Named after - anyone? No? Give up? It was, of course, Augustus D Juilliard, who made all his money from textiles and left it to music. Alas, he might just as well have done a Kovner.

Done a Kovner? Well, I think Bruce Kovner's modesty should not go unrecognised. I propose that when someone leaves a collection of priceless objects to humanity and refuses to have them named after himself, we should commemorate his forbearance by calling it "doing a Kovner".

It would be the opposite, you might say, of "doing a Saatchi".