How a Working-Class Couple Amassed a Priceless Art Collection

National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives
National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives

By Jed Lipinski

Herb Vogel never earned more than $23,000 a year. Born and raised in Harlem, Vogel worked for the post office in Manhattan. He spent nearly 50 years living in a 450-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Dorothy, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived frugally. They didn’t travel. They ate TV dinners. Aside from a menagerie of pets, Herb and Dorothy had just one indulgence: art. But their passion for collecting turned them into unlikely celebrities, working-class heroes in a world of Manhattan elites.

While their coworkers had no idea, the press noticed. The New York Times labeled the Vogels the “In Couple” of New York City. They counted minimalist masters Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd among their close friends. And in just four decades, they assembled one of the most important private art collections of the 20th century, stocking their tiny apartment floor-to-ceiling with Chuck Close sketches, paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, and sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. Today, more than 1,000 of the works they purchased are housed in the National Gallery, a collection a curator there calls “literally priceless.” J. Carter Brown, the museum’s former director, referred to the collection as “a work of art in itself.”

The Vogels had no formal training in art collecting. They didn’t aspire to open a gallery or work in museums. They bought art the way any amateur collector shops: for the love of the individual pieces and the thrill of a good deal. But you don’t accumulate a priceless collection of anything by accident. Herb and Dorothy developed a methodical system for scouting, assessing, and purchasing art. When it came to mastering their hobby, the Vogels were self-trained professionals. This is how they did it.

The Art of Buying

Herbert Vogel was born in 1922, the son of a tailor and a homemaker. A rebellious teen, fond of jazz and zoot suits, he dropped out of high school because “I hated people telling me what to do,” he said. Instead, he worked in a cigar factory before doing a stint in the National Guard. When a dislocated shoulder resulted in a medical discharge, he enrolled in art history seminars at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where legendary art historians like Erwin Panofsky and Walter Friedlaender held court. In the evenings, Herb frequented the storied Cedar Tavern, listening in awe as artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline roared at each other over the meaning of abstract expressionism. He decided he wanted to be a painter. To subsidize his new passion, he landed a job at the post office, working the graveyard shift in the dead-letter department.

In November 1960, Herb, then 38, went to a dance at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. Scanning the crowd, his eyes fell on a pretty, bookish young woman 13 years his junior. This was Dorothy Faye Hoffman, the daughter of a stationery merchant from Elmira, N.Y. Dorothy had moved to Brooklyn two years earlier, after receiving her master’s in library science at the University of Denver. Herb thought she looked “intelligent.” Dorothy found him “cuddly” and liked his dance moves. It was love at first sight.

Herb and Dorothy were married in 1962 and spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C, where they made their inaugural voyage to the National Gallery. “That’s where Herb gave me my first art lesson,” Dorothy said. At the time, she knew next to nothing about art, having always preferred music and theater. But her husband’s enthusiasm inspired her. She enrolled with him in painting and drawing classes at NYU. That same year, they bought a small sculpture made from crushed car metal by the artist John Chamberlain. They had no idea that the joint purchase would be the first of thousands.

The Vogels rented a tiny studio in Union Square, painting there at night and on weekends and using the vibrant, abstract products to decorate their new apartment on 86th Street. But by the mid-1960s, the couple realized that their artistic ambitions outweighed their abilities. “I wasn’t bad,” Dorothy claimed, adding, “I didn’t like Herby’s paintings.” Herb, an unfailingly modest man, admitted as much: “I was a terrible painter.” They decided to concentrate on collecting instead.

At the time, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism were in vogue and too expensive for the Vogels. Minimal and conceptual art, on the other hand, had yet to be embraced by the art world establishment. The Vogels made a pact: Her salary would go toward living expenses, his toward art. Under these new terms, they visited the SoHo studio of an obscure artist named Sol LeWitt and walked out with the first piece LeWitt ever sold: an untitled, golden, T-shaped structure. “He had more than average potential, and I felt it,” Herb said. LeWitt would later become a titan of contemporary American art.

But Herb and Dorothy’s obsession was just starting to kick in. The couple began visiting dozens of galleries and studios each week, becoming what artist Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” In making purchases, they functioned as a team. Herb, the impulsive Dionysian, searched for art “like a truffle hound,” said the artist Lucio Pozzi, who has more than 400 works in the Vogel collection. Dorothy, the Apollonian librarian with the encyclopedic memory, was more passive, hanging back and calculating the financial realities. They had only a few criteria: The work had to be affordable; it had to fit in their apartment; and it had be transportable via taxi or subway. Not part of the equation? The artist’s reputation. “We bought what we liked,” Dorothy said. “Simple as that.” And they continued to lead their double life—racing from studio to studio to gallivant with artists and to scout their next big purchase every night, while keeping their passions private from their work colleagues. Still, assembling such an incredible collection on such a tiny budget required a few other tricks.

Work of Art

Many in the art world call the Vogels’ method cheating. That’s because the couple never dealt with galleries and art dealers. Instead, Herb and Dorothy negotiated with hungry artists directly, arriving at studios with cash in hand. Artist Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009, remembered receiving a phone call from Herb back in 1971, when the creators of “The Gates” were still broke. “It’s the Vogels!” Jeanne-Claude cried to her dispirited husband and partner in art, Christo. “We’re going to pay the rent!” But the Vogels didn’t just take their cash to big-name artists; they were equally passionate about unknown talents, often helping them to develop. David Reed, now a famous conceptual artist, said the couple encouraged him to make more drawings, which later became a central part of his practice. “The Vogels made you aware of what you were doing as an artist,” he said. “They had artist sensibilities.” When they spotted something beyond their means, they’d find a way to make the purchase: They’d buy on credit; they’d forgo a vacation; they’d even throw in cat-sitting to sweeten a deal. And the artists loved them for it. As Chuck Close told Newsday, “You knew when you were selling them something it was becoming part of an important collection.”

It wasn’t long before the artwork overtook their home. By all accounts, the 450-square-foot apartment on East 86th Street was more of a storage facility than a place to live. The Vogels’ collection gradually replaced all their furniture save the kitchen table, some chairs, a bureau, and the bed, which concealed dozens of drawings by Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis. Visitors cracked their heads on clay Steve Keister sculptures hung from the ceiling and discovered typographic texts by Lawrence Weiner on the bathroom wall. And while they stashed the pieces wherever they could, Dorothy has repeatedly tried to squelch one persistent rumor: The Vogels never stored art in their oven.

Herbanddorothy.com/Fine Line Media Inc.

It wasn’t just the masterpieces that were crammed into the space; the Vogels shared their storehouse with 20 turtles, eight cats and an aquarium filled with exotic fish. To protect the artwork from kitten claws and rogue turtles, the couple boxed and wrapped the pieces not hung on the walls, further diminishing the available living space. “Art is Herby’s only interest, except for animals,” Dorothy once said. (Fittingly, they named their cats after artists, like Matisse, Renoir, and Manet.) When National Gallery curator Jack Cowart first saw their apartment, he was stunned. “It upset all of my alarm systems as a curator,” he said. “I began to think: What if there’s a fire? What if one of the mega-gallon fish tanks that Herb keeps his fish in springs a leak?”

By the mid-1970s, the Vogels were famous—at least in New York City. The Clocktower Gallery, run by Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, staged the first exhibition of the Vogels’ collection in April 1975. The opening coincided with a profile in New York magazine called “A New Art-World Legend: Good-by, Bob & Ethel; Hullo, Dorothy and Herb!” The title referred to Bob and Ethel Scull, a vulgar taxi magnate and his Vogue model wife. After a messy divorce, their entire collection of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist was auctioned off for an eye-popping $10 million. The Vogels, by contrast, never sold a thing. “We could easily have become millionaires,” Herb told the Associated Press. “We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still had some left over. But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.”

Pozzi offered an alternate explanation. “To ask them to sell a piece of their collection would be like asking me to cut off a square yard of one of my paintings,” he said. “They were artists, and the collection was their work of art.”

Herb retired from the post office in 1979 and, naturally, used his pension to continue buying art. But the increasing size of the collection threatened to overwhelm the Vogels, like hoarders crushed to death by towering stacks of The New York Times. In the 1980s, they were forced to admit that their apartment could no longer contain their beloved art. They began meeting with curators and evaluating their options. They knew they wanted to donate their collection instead of selling it, and they liked the National Gallery, which is free to the public and maintains a policy against deaccessioning objects, meaning the collection would never be sold. In 1990, the year Dorothy retired, the Vogels followed through on their promise: Art handlers from the National Gallery transferred an astonishing 2,400 works from the Vogels’ tiny apartment, in a move that required five 40-foot trucks. In fact, unloading the works from the trucks and into the gallery tied up the museum’s freight elevators for weeks!

Realizing that the Vogels hadn’t invested for their future, Jack Cowart, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art at the time, paid the Vogels a small annuity in exchange for their generous donation. But instead of saving the money for medical expenses or splurging on a better retirement, the Vogels couldn’t help themselves: They immediately started collecting more art. The annuity helped the couple purchase another 1,500 or so items. As Dorothy put it: “If we wanted to make money, we would have invested it in the stock market.” This led the grateful if overburdened institution to create the Fifty Works for Fifty States program, in which 50 museums across America will receive 50 pieces from the Vogels’ collection.

In 2008, Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the couple directed by Megumi Sasaki, was released to rave reviews. Sasaki, a former field producer for Japanese public television, had met the Vogels years before while filming a series about Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “I couldn’t believe it was a true story, that such people exist,” she recalled.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Herb’s health began to fail, that the Vogels ceased collecting. “It was something we did together, and when Herb was too ill to enjoy it, we stopped,” Dorothy said with typical matter-of-factness. Herb died in July 2012, at the age of 89. Dorothy's job now, she says, is to make sure people don’t forget the collection she and her husband built, which is considered not just the most impressive art collection to have been housed in a tiny apartment, but one of the most important art collections of the 20th century. “I have no regrets,” Dorothy said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. And I believe Herb and I were made to be together.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

8 Times People Ruined Priceless Works of Art

Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

“Don’t touch the art” is a simple rule, enacted by almost every gallery and museum in the world. Yet for some reason, there are a select few who choose to ignore it, either because their curiosity gets the best of them, or, in a surprising number of cases, because they're on a quest for the perfect selfie. Whatever their motives, the museum-goers below left a trail of mangled artwork in their wakes.

1. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix

If any lesson should be taken from art gallery mishaps, it’s that you should never use a valuable work of art as a piece of furniture. In July 2020, an unnamed tourist from Austria decided to luxuriate on the plaster cast of Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804) at Italy’s Antonio Canova Museum to make his selfie look as casual as possible. (Bonaparte was Napoleon’s sister.) In doing so, he crumbled the toes of poor Pauline, who is depicted in the sculpture as reclining on a cushion. Surveillance footage shows the man acknowledging the loss of the extremities before walking away. Police later identified him from a museum reservation. He apologized for the accident and offered to pay for the restoration work.

2. Dom Sebastiao Statue

In 2016, a 24-year-old visiting Lisbon, Portugal, made a very bad call when he climbed onto a 126-year-old statue installed on the facade of Lisbon, Portugal's Rossio Train Station to snap a selfie. The freestanding statue, which depicted 16th century king Dom Sebastiao, toppled over and shattered on the ground. The tourist, who attempted to flee, was caught by the authorities and eventually forced to appear in front of a judge; Portugal's infrastructure department has no information about when the statue will be fixed.

3. Statua Dei Due Ercole

Hercules might have had the strength of the Gods, but unfortunately, that toughness didn't translate to sculptures of him. In 2016, two tourists visiting the Loggia dei Militi Palace in Cremona, Italy, damaged the 300-year-old Statua dei due Ercole (Statue of Two Hercules) when they climbed on it to take a selfie. The tourists were reportedly hanging off the crown of one of the marble figures—which held the town's emblem between them—when it gave way, falling to the ground. The tourists were charged with vandalism, and the government called in experts to assess the damage.

4. Ecce Homo

The most famous (read: hilarious) art "restoration" in history might be 80-year-old Cecilia Gimenez’s attempt to fix a deteriorating fresco painting at a church in Borja, Spain. Her new and improved art made international headlines and inspired endless internet memes in 2012. Saturday Night Live even worked the news into their Weekend Update segment a couple of times, with Kate McKinnon playing Gimenez.

The painting, a depiction of Jesus Christ by artist Elías García Martínez in the 1930s, was flaking due to moisture; Gimenez, a parishioner at the church, worked off a 10-year-old photo of the fresco while doing her restoration. When her work was revealed, Ecce Homo was redubbed "Potato Jesus." Gimenez told a Spanish TV station that she had approval to work on the fresco (which authorities deny), and had done so during the day. “The priest knew it,” she said. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.”

Though the church had originally planned to work with art restorers to fix the fresco, by 2014 they had changed their tune. Gimenez's artwork became a major tourist attraction, bringing 150,000 visitors from around the world and revitalizing Borja. The church charged $1.25 a head to see the artwork, which was preserved behind plexiglass, just like another very famous, memeworthy work of art: the Mona Lisa. A center dedicated to the interpretation of the new Ecce Homo opened in 2016.

5. Qing Dynasty Vases

Rule number one for entering any space with priceless art: tie your shoelaces. In February 2006, a man named Nick Flynn took the wrong staircase inside the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England—and when he tried to change course, he accidentally stepped on his own untied shoelace and fell. With no handrails to grab, the only thing to break his fall were three Qing Dynasty vases from the 1600s and 1700s, which were sitting on a windowsill. Flynn was unhurt, but the vases, worth more than $100,000, were not so lucky: They shattered into 400 pieces.

"Although [I knew] the vase would break I didn't imagine it would be loose and crash into the other two," he said. "I'm sure I only hit the first one and that must have flown across the windowsill and hit the next one, which then hit the other, like a set of dominos." Flynn, who was reportedly banned from the museum, called the incident “just one of those unbelievably unlucky things that can sometimes happen.”

This story has something of a happy ending, though: By August 2006, Penny Bendall, a ceramic restorer, had glued one of the vases—which had broken into 113 pieces—back together for an exhibition on art restoration. "Putting the vase back together may have looked impossible to most people but actually it wasn't a difficult job—fairly straightforward," she told the Daily Mail.

6. Annunciazione

Should you be given a pass for breaking something if it was technically already broken? In 2013, a Missouri man visiting Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy, wanted to see how the pinky finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni d’Ambrogio measured up next to his own. You know what happened next: The man got a little too close and damaged the statue's digit. Thankfully, the finger that he broke was made of plaster and not original to the sculpture, and art restorers grabbed it quickly before it could fall and be further damaged. The man apologized, and restorers at the museum made plans to repair the finger again. Hopefully the second fix was more permanent.

7. The Drunken Satyr

The good news is this Milan statue, which lost its left leg to an unknown selfie enthusiast in 2014, was a replica of another statue that dates back to 220 BCE. The bad news is that the replica was still very valuable and pretty old, dating back to the 1800s. Security cameras in that area of the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera weren't working when the incident occurred, but according to the Daily Mail, witnesses saw a student tourist climb onto the statue and sit on its knee to take a photo. What the student didn't realize was that the statue, made of terra cotta and plaster, had been assembled in pieces, and the leg was already partially detached; museum director Franco Marrocco told the Corriere della Sera that the museum was already planning to restore the statue before the accident.

8. The Actor

A 6-foot-tall Picasso painting is pretty hard to miss when it’s hung on a museum wall, just as the visitor who fell into one back in January 2010 discovered. A woman was attending a class at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art when she lost her footing and tumbled into The Actor, leaving a 6-inch tear as well as a dent in the lower right corner of the 1904 artwork. “We saw the big, coarse threads that looked sort of like a nasty jute rug,” Gary Tinterow, chairman of the museum’s department of 19th Century, Modern and Contemporary art, said in an interview. “The question was how to get Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

That process took three months. Lucy Belloli, a conservator at the Met, told The New York Times that the process involved photographing the canvas, securing flakes of paint with adhesive, and using strips of paper with rabbit-skin glue as bandages, as well as a six-week period of realigning the painting using small sand bags. ("[T]he torn portion of the canvas had to be gently coaxed back to its flat state, otherwise it would have a tendency to return to the distortion left by the accident," the Times explained.) Some retouching was also necessary. The painting was returned to the wall in April 2010 with a layer of Plexiglass to protect it; most visitors would not have been able to tell the painting was ever damaged.

This story has been updated for 2020.