Thomas Kaplan, U.S. Billionaire Art Collector, Political Progressive and Enthusiast of Russian culture opens a Rembrandt Exhibition at the Hermitage Museum

On 4 September, I had the good fortune to be present at the press conference and pre-opening tour of the  first show  in the Hermitage Museum’s fall season, an exhibition entitled The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection

Unlike many of the exhibitions at the Hermitage these past few years, the given event consisted not of one or another famous painting on loan from cooperating museums abroad.  Rather it renewed the tradition of “blockbuster” shows for which the St Petersburg museum was famous earlier in the tenure of its long-serving director, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky. To be precise, The Age of Rembrandt presents 82 works from among the leading painters of the Dutch Golden Age. We have here paintings by Rembrandt from both his earliest and mature periods, as well as Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer, and paintings by Rembrandt’s students including Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.

The unusual feature of the show is that the Hermitage included 8 works from its own collection to complement the works from the Leiden Collection. The logic for doing so is impeccable:  the Hermitage has one of the most important collections of Rembrandt and the Dutch masters from among all the world’s museums.  The Leiden Collection is the largest private holding of  paintings by Rembrandt and his circle.  And both collections were assembled in a similar manner though the collectors are separated in time by 250 years. The U.S. billionaire Thomas Kaplan, who began assembling his collection in 2003, relied on his personal emissaries and dealers to pounce on works in private hands as they became available for acquisition, knowingly following in the tradition of Russian Empress Catherine the Great who had done the same in her time.   As the collecting passion gathered pace, Kaplan was acquiring one artwork per week. Today his collection numbers 250 paintings and drawings.

Anonymity has been a big feature of Kaplan’s art collecting. Until a couple of years ago, his collection was being lent out anonymously to art museums work by work on a temporary basis.  It bears mention that the Kaplans chose not to keep a single work acquired in their homes but to make everything accessible to the public. Nor did they name their collection after themselves, but instead chose to call it the Leiden Collection after the Dutch city where Rembrandt and fellow masters of the Dutch Golden Age were long based. To this day the Leiden Collection, nominally domiciled in New York, has no permanent building of its own.

After reaching a critical mass, Kaplan took his collection in a new direction, to exhibitions in major museums and personally stepped out of the shadows to present what he has accumulated. The first such show was in 2014 in the Louvre, where the directors of the Hermitage and of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Art caught up with him and agreed an eventual showing in both Moscow and St Petersburg.  After that the collection was presented in the National Museum of Beijing and in the Long Museum in Shanghai.

This year 2018 Kaplan’s showings in Russia ran from March through July at the Pushkin Museum while the show that opened on 5 September in the Hermitage closes on 13 January 2019.

From the words of Thomas Kaplan at the press conference, it is obvious that the show in St Petersburg is the high point of his venture into the art world.  He may not be awarded the decoration of Chevalier of culture that the French bestowed on him, but the matching of his works with the collection of Catherine the Great in the rooms of her palace surely provided a still greater boost of pride given Kaplan’s enthusiasm for Russian culture, about which I will speak in a moment.

Just as his amassing and initial presentation of works in the Leiden Collection was done anonymously, so Kaplan has carefully kept much of his private life hidden from the public.  His entry in Wikipedia reads like a Public Relations release, raising more questions than it answers about who he is and how he became the billionaire patron of the arts we saw in the Hermitage Theater.

We are told that he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Oxford. However, that in itself is quite extraordinary for an American born in New York and raised in Florida.  To be sure, American elites do sometimes see their offspring off to Oxford, usually for one year, as Rhodes scholars following their graduation from some Harvard or Yale. Bill Clinton is a prime example.  However, to take a four year course at Oxford and then proceed to a doctorate there is a rare choice which begs for an explanation.

He has a doctorate in history.  Which history? We are not told , though we know his doctoral dissertation was on “the Malayan counterinsurgency and the way in which commodities influence strategic planning.”

There is no obvious link between a doctorate in history and commodities trading, not to mention investment in exploration for and production of precious metals and hydrocarbons, which made Kaplan his billion.  Physics or advanced mathematics are fields of study that more commonly lead to the kind of career Kaplan pursued to fortune.

The public record tells us, however, that already during his Oxford years Kaplan was working on the side as an analyst covering Israeli companies.  His Israeli-based in-laws  may have been the bridge to his future. It was through them that he was introduced to Israeli investor Avi Tiomkin who hired him as a junior partner in 1991.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Kaplan’s financial interests have focused on basic values, gold, in particular.  In this sense, it should come as no surprise that his artistic taste was in proven long-term value as well:  Rembrandt and the Dutch masters.  During his brief introductory speech, he mentioned his surprise when he embarked on his collecting activities that so much had remained in private hands and that so much was affordable.  Affordable to a billionaire, one might respond coldly. But it would appear that his purchases were in the range or tens of thousands to $5 million for a single acquisition.  In this sense, he was able to achieve far more than had he held a passion for modern art, where figures can easily be an order of magnitude greater and where problems of authenticity are also more challenging.

Thomas Kaplan made his money in precious metals and hydrocarbons, industrial sectors in which Russia plays a leading world role.  Yet, it would appear that Kaplan’s investment and production activities have never crossed the Russian border. Instead they have been concentrated, in the United States, in the Americas and in South Africa.  The single investment bet which brought him the greatest part of his capital was in nonconventional gas in a Texas sand basin, where he and his co-investors created one of the most valuable assets in the energy sector in the past couple of decades that they eventually sold on.

So where is the tie-in with Russia that figured so prominently in his introductory remarks? Both in Kaplan’s speech to the press conference and in response to questions from journalists, it was clear that the bond is firstly family related and secondly purely intellectual in nature.

Cherchez la femme! Kaplan’s Israeli wife came from Russian-born parents, and today, he explains, Russian is spoken in his home whenever his wife, mother-in-law and others want to keep secrets from him. Put more generally, he related that his family’s heritage goes much farther back in time in Russia than in the USA. And Thomas Kaplan has found the time to dust off this tradition. In 2014, he took his children to Russia for the first time to visit the Hermitage, among other sites.

As for the intellectual attraction, Kaplan stressed his love for Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and the gold standard of Russian classical literature.  As a justification for his art collecting passion, he eagerly cited Dostoevsky’s remark that if anything will save humanity it is beauty.

Kaplan’s acknowledged love for Russian culture stands out as truly remarkable today given America’s ongoing Russophobia, which has infected Uptown Manhattan’s liberal Jewish progressive communities of which Kaplan is otherwise a member in good standing. Let us hope he has the courage to deliver the same message on Russia in his own back yard.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018