J. Tomilson Hill: Warrior, dealmaker, collector
In the art world as on Wall Street, J. Tomilson Hill plays to win. He is now opening a dedicated space for his stellar collection, as he explains to Michael Watts
Barbarians at the Gate — a suspenseful, journalistic book about the bidding war for US tobacco and food giant R.J.R. Nabisco — describes the excesses and rivalries that accompanied the mania for leveraged buyouts in 1980s corporate America. This was a time when titanic personalities, not algorithms and derivatives, governed Wall Street.
The ‘barbarians’ of the title were a tribe of sharp dressers with even sharper brains. Among them was an investment banker who is likened in the book to a ‘jungle fighter’ in braces, with an ‘oiled-back Gordon Gekko haircut’ and a manner characterised as ‘charming but rarely glib; sometimes it seemed as if he chose every word from a dictionary’. This is J. Tomilson Hill, an Upper East Side blue-blood, Harvard College and Business School graduate, and a ‘warrior’ among dealmakers.
The book has few heroes, and Hill is not among them, as he cheerfully admits: ‘Nobody comes out well. But the only thing worse than being in the book is not being in the book. If you’re in the deal business, that was the moment.’
Tom Hill, the name by which he is universally known, is now in his 70th year. The son of a lawyer and businessman, he has spent the past 25 years at Blackstone, the private equity giant. ‘I’ve built up our hedge fund franchise to be the biggest in its space,’ he says. But at the end of this year, he’s leaving to start his own investment fund — and also a personal art foundation. This will collect together his hundreds of artworks in a new building designed by Peter Marino, the cult architect who famously renovated Andy Warhol’s Factory and townhouse. It will occupy two floors of a condominium named the Getty, at West 24th Street in Manhattan, close to the elevated High Line. Passers-by will be able to see into his exhibitions, he says, and admission will be free.
‘Retiring from Blackstone does not mean retiring from business,’ insists Hill, who remains an impressive figure in his beautifully tailored suit. The hair is shorter but still slicked back, and the general demeanour is that of a gracious senior lawyer in a TV legal series. ‘Every day I say, “Oh boy, am I lucky!”’ He is amusing, easy company, faintly bored by his reputation as the prototype for the rapacious Gekko in Wall Street. But he can’t resist a joke about it. ‘I think, perhaps, Michael Douglas hasn’t aged so well,’ he laughs.
Working for Blackstone has made him a billionaire. He has homes in Paris, Colorado and East Hampton — and, until recently, two in New York City, one of them an apartment overlooking Central Park. Each room is an advertisement for the art collection carefully assembled by Hill and his wife Janine, who grew up in Paris and is now director of fellowships at a US think tank.
They have been collecting since they got married, in 1980: Hill obsessively so, his wife as a brake on his acquisitiveness. While Henry Kravis, his rival ‘barbarian’ and the eventual purchaser of Nabisco, was buying paintings of dogs and horses by George Stubbs, the Hills started with still lifes and flower pictures by the 19th-century Danish painter Johan Laurentz Jensen, each bought for around a modest $20,000.
Then they got serious. Their collection now encompasses Old Masters (they own five works by Rubens), scores of Renaissance and baroque bronzes (including pieces by Van Tetrode and Adriaen de Vries, and a Hubert Le Sueur Venus that belonged to Louis XIV), and paintings by current darlings such as Christopher Wool and Mark Grotjahn. An exquisite terracotta crucifix by Lucio Fontana is not the least of their treasures.
Hill doesn’t just open his wallet, however; he pursues his target pieces with the remorseless drive of a Master of the Universe. He reads every published authority. He sits on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and can turn for advice to a battery of international dealers, curators and artist friends. And he has patience.
He waited more than 10 years to acquire the ‘right’ Brice Marden painting, from the Red Rock series, now hanging in his living room. ‘I have no personal talent for art, but I know how to look,’ he explains, crediting the early influence of his mother, an amateur sculptor and painter, and indicating the shelves of his beautiful library, packed with volumes of art. How many other collectors are so scholarly that they can compare the detail on a Renaissance bronze to the ‘scream from a Pollaiuolo painting’?
‘I would literally walk on coals for Christopher Wool. He’s someone who thinks artists serve a higher calling’ — J. Tomilson Hill
In July 2010, he paid just over £9 million in London for the Rubens that hangs in his library, entitled A Commander Being Armed for Battle. He bought it at auction from Earl Spencer, who needed funds to repair the roof at Althorp, his ancestral seat. Painted probably in 1613, it shows a knight in armour attended by two pages, and it has great power. But there were doubts over its provenance, and Hill consulted old records. He suspected that an area around the face of one page had been painted over. Still, he went ahead and bought it, but for close to the reserve price.
Conservators at the Met then peeled away the over-paint and revealed the original: the page now had a long sideburn, presumably hidden by a previous owner, perhaps to suit a fashion for hairless youth. ‘But maybe the picture had been damaged and over-painted,’ he says. ‘That would have been a real negative.’
The risk had paid off. He now estimates that his Rubens is worth at least $30 million. But not every acquisition has been so successful in the short term. He was temporarily thwarted by the UK government over Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, by the 16th-century Florentine Pontormo, which he purchased for £30.7 million. He was refused a permanent export licence because the picture was deemed too important to leave the country for a 10-year period.
The National Gallery did match the purchase price in pounds sterling, but a subsequent 23 per cent fall in the value of the British currency relative to the dollar, caused by the Brexit referendum, left Hill reluctant to accept the $10-million decline in value. Now the portrait has a temporary export licence, and was displayed over the summer at the Pitti Palace; it is currently at the Morgan Library and will travel to the Getty Museum in February.
Deciding to sell a painting is difficult for Hill. His process is idiosyncratic. Mentally, he first enters it in an ‘informal competition’ with other works — pitting a Basquiat, say, against a Bacon — and asking, ‘Who will win the wrestling match over time?’ (He was a varsity wrestler in his youth.)
He also has unusual ideas about how to install his works. In his apartment, a 16th-century Giambologna bronze, the voluptuous Astronomy, is placed beneath a Cy Twombly blackboard painting, to suggest an affinity between the womanly curves of the sculpture and Twombly’s chalky curlicues. ‘For my wife and me, it’s all about making connections,’ he says.
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The constant in his collecting is his hunger for trophy works and for artists he calls ‘game changers’. In the foyer alone there are two Bacons, four Warhols and two de Koonings. The casual eye is drawn first to a large bronze called Clamdigger, made in 1972 when de Kooning sought to reinvent himself as a sculptor; it depicts a lumbering, priapic figure slathered with black primordial ooze, from which it has emerged into the light of 21st-century New York. To spare the blushes of their then young daughters, Astrid and Margot, Janine Hill apparently draped a raincoat over its erection.
She also vetoed the initial purchase of a Warhol Electric Chair, from his Death and Disaster series, because of its disturbing subject matter, although Hill eventually got his way and bought one from the Pincus Collection.
He is an unswerving admirer of Andy Warhol, whom he knew both from Studio 54 days and from his local church, where Warhol attended mass. Warhol changed the course of art by capturing an idea in a tin, he says. ‘The soup can was the idea of consumption. It was Madison Avenue, a symbol of American power around the world.’
He has 10 Warhols, and notes with pleasure that the artist’s works constitute one of the two largest art market capitalisations in the world (the other is Picasso’s). When he finds a game changer like Warhol, he sets himself to buy at least four of their works, the minimum necessary, he feels, to call himself a collector of a particular artist.
He describes Francis Bacon as another game changer, this time in figuration. He paid a record £14 million for the Bacon that sits above the library replace. Study for Portrait II (1956), one of Bacon’s Pope series, was sold by the actress Sophia Loren at Christie’s London in 2007. He is enraptured by it. ‘To me this is so soulful, so poignant,’ he says, standing before it. ‘This is a defeated pope. And look at how Francis overcame his own frailties. He couldn’t paint hands and he couldn’t paint feet; he didn’t even pretend. This was [art critic] David Sylvester’s favourite Bacon. He really turned me on to this.’ Sylvester called Bacon ‘the greatest man I’ve known, and the grandest’.
Hill is similarly passionate about Christopher Wool, the post-conceptualist whose blunt, stencilled word paintings made him famous. ‘I would literally walk on coals for him,’ he says. ‘He’s someone who thinks artists serve a higher calling; it’s almost a religion. If he requests a work for an exhibition, because it’s good for the public to see it, you had better lend it.’ He owns works from every single one of Wool’s periods, and in April presented 15 paintings and works on paper at Art Basel in Hong Kong, partly to promote the artist in Asia, but also to whip up interest for the autumn opening of the Hill Art Foundation, when there will be 21 Wools on display.
The foundation will be the summit of his career as a collector. He will be joined there by his daughter Astrid, who trained at Christie’s and is now an art adviser, connecting New York’s young, moneyed clientele with new, promising artists. But her role at the foundation will be more philanthropic: to help give an art education to high-school children who are deprived of it in their classrooms. Hill sees educating the public as part of his legacy.
His foundation is not, however, intended as a permanent institution: ‘It exists for as long as my wife and I are around and still want to do it. The minute we don’t, we’ll convert it back to condominiums and sell them.’ The proceeds will then go to the foundation. ‘And what do foundations do?’ he says, smiling. ‘They give money away.’
It’s a neat solution. Of course, he could always hand over his art in a quid pro quo to a public space like the Met, which already has a Henry R. Kravis wing, but Hill replies that he’s ‘not into wings. I’m into art. And, if you want to be around art, what better way than for you to create your own space that lets other people enjoy it, too?’