"When Marlene and I grew up in a little old town in Texas,” tycoon Spencer Hays explained recently in Paris, “even visiting France was far beyond our expectations.” Hays and his wife Marlene have come a very long way from that little town in Texas, with Spencer going into business at a young age and eventually amassing a fortune worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. Hays sold suits, sports periodicals, and health insurance, leading several companies over the years with indefatigable energy and optimism. And despite the sheer variety of Hays’ business concerns, he and Marlene have maintained one constant passion for decades: French art, especially from the avant-garde Nabis school of the late nineteenth-century.
Now, not only have they surpassed their childhood dream of visiting France (they’ve visited at least once a year since 1971), they’ve also amassed a world-class collection of art from the country worth more than $300 million. They keep much of it in their Nashville home, which is itself an exact replica of the Parisian Hotel de Noirmoutier.
Until now, that is. Marlene and Spencer were recently at the Elysee Palace signing over more than 600 of their pieces to the Musee d’Orsay. Their gift constitutes the single largest foreign donation to that famed museum in more than a half century, and features works by masters like Degas, Modigliani, and Rodin. The French culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, praised the donation for its “exceptional […] size and coherence” and French President Francois Hollande personally thanked the couple for their generosity.
Should the Hayses have endeavored to keep their collection Stateside, maybe even establishing a little haven of Nabis art in the American Deep South? Maybe, but it’s not clear that philanthrolocalism requires this sort of particularism. In fact, it may be closer to the opposite, as now this French art is finally going home.
Surely it is fitting that so many of these masterpieces find their way back to France. The Telegraph reports that one of the gems of the Hays donation is Vuillard’s Little Girls Walking, an installment from a series of similar pieces by the artist; the Musee d’Orsay already has a number of the companion pieces, and with this they now posses six out of the nine. Bringing this art back together—restoring the unanimity of works long since scattered to the chance winds of a commercial market—surely serves an important public function.