Michel David-Weill, whose gifts of money and art helped transform the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has died at 89. The Louvre said in its obituary for him that he died on June 17 in New York.
David-Weill held considerable sway as a banker with ties to the rich and powerful in multiple countries. He was chairman of the advisory firm Lazard, and he was vice chairman of Danone, the food and drink company that today owns brands such as Evian and Oikos.
With his wife Hélène, he appeared on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year between 1991 and 2014. The couple focused on buying French art of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
What was in his collection was largely unknown to the public, although a Vanity Fair profile from 1997 described a New York apartment filled with paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
“I choose everything myself,” David-Weill told Vanity Fair in that profile. “I don’t have people buy for me. Art is an essential part of my existence.”
Born in 1932 in Paris, David-Weill was born to a family of bankers. The David-Weills were not descended from French nobility, however, and they made their fortune in the U.S. primarily. Still, as was the case with the Rothschilds and other Jewish collectors living in France during World War II, the Nazis took the David-Weills’ art holdings, along with Lazard itself.
Once the war ended, much of their art was returned. David-Weill said he did not believe his experiences during the war constituted a major event in his life story, however.
When it came to his ventures in the art world, David-Weill largely kept his collecting secret. But a number of philanthropic endeavors led by him were done in an extremely public way.
The Met, where David-Weill was a trustee, was among the institutions that received some of the greatest support from him. In 1993, he gave what the Met described as a “major gift” to the museum’s Medieval Art department. In response, the museum named that department’s top curatorial position after him. Later on, he and Hélène gave $1 million to fund the restoration of the Cloisters, the museum’s medieval art annex.
Meanwhile, at the Louvre, David-Weill helped fund the restoration of the museum’s galleries for 17th- and 18th-century works of art. He also gave the museum several works of art, including Fragonard’s The White Bull in the Stable (ca. 1765) and, most recently, a 1450 painting by the Master of Osservanza that depicts St. Joseph’s dream.
David-Weill’s philanthropy had been well-known in the French art scene and had earned him a spot in the country’s Order of Arts and Letters.
“I believe the works of art of the past are a necessary foundation to appreciate and unravel our own world,” David-Weill was once quoted as saying in a Met press release.