In today’s global art market, where collecting is highly mediated by an infrastructure of advisers, dealers, art fairs and auction houses, it’s hard to imagine a student meeting a renowned artist by happenstance and going on to become a devoted friend and collector.
But in 1949, while studying comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, Herbert Lust found himself at a luncheon, seated next to the great Surrealist artist Alberto Giacometti and out of his depth in the table banter about writers the 22-year-old student worshiped. Then, rising to the occasion, Mr. Lust fabricated a tale about being a Romanian Jew and walking barefoot over the mountains to escape the Russians (he is, in fact, Jewish but was raised on a farm in Indiana). Interested, Mr. Giacometti invited Mr. Lust to his studio.
“I courted him; I would come by often,” said Mr. Lust, now 93, who fessed up to his “cock-and-bull story.” He didn’t immediately like or understand the agitated, elongated figures in Mr. Giacometti’s sculptures and paintings but knew enough to stick around: “I’m a good learner.” The aspiring avant-garde novelist began buying little prints with his Fulbright money and accumulated numerous gifts of artworks from Mr. Giacometti, who introduced him to other artists, including Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst.
After Mr. Lust traded teaching English at the University of Chicago for becoming an investment banker in 1957, he began collecting seriously, largely driven by his friendships with other artists.
That deeply personal and eclectic collection now numbers well over 1,000 works, installed throughout his home in Greenwich, Conn., where he lives with two of his 10 grandchildren, and in his pied-à-terre in Manhattan, where he recently gave a visitor a tour. He has just donated more than 70 photographs from his holdings to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, fulfilling a promise made years ago.
At his apartment, Mr. Lust pointed out works by Joel-Peter Witkin, Michal Rovner, Arakawa, Mary Bauermeister and Alexander Calder, all of whom he befriended before collecting their work. “Alberto gave me an introduction to Calder and I met him with [Mark] Rothko on a boat coming back from Paris in 1961,” recounted Mr. Lust, who said he found himself entertaining their wives on the dance floor for the six-day voyage. He went on to buy major pieces from Mr. Calder but passed on Mr. Rothko because he found him depressing. “Big mistake,” he said, given the value of the Abstract Expressionist’s canvases today.
As he collected, he also redirected his love of literature, writing extensively on Mr. Giacometti, Hans Bellmer, Robert Indiana and Enrico Baj, among the many artists he has collected in depth (he is currently writing on the abstract photographer Carlotta Corpron).
In 1973, Mr. Lust met Mr. Indiana, “a fellow Hoosier,” at a dinner party, precipitating another deep friendship. Looking at a canvas painted with the word “FOUR,” one of 30 Indianas he owns, Mr. Lust said: “Indiana was trying to think of one word that would define him as a human” and could only come up with an unprintable four-letter word. This 1965 painting became a kind of self-portrait in disguise.
Mr. Lust’s holdings of Indiana’s paintings and drawings were exhibited in 2017 at Sotheby’s New York, which published the collector’s intimate take on the artist.
“His narrative on Indiana is incredible,” said Alejandra Rossetti, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s, who helped organize the exhibition. “I personally don’t know any other collectors who have written catalogues raisonnés on artists, which illustrates Herbert’s intellect and passion for art,” she said, referring to his comprehensive reference books on Mr. Baj, in addition to one on Mr. Giacometti’s graphics that the auction house still uses when cataloging his prints. Mr. Lust’s collection is distinguished particularly by the depth and breadth of his Surrealist holdings, she said, adding that “Herbert has the biggest collection of Bellmer in the world.”
Another of Mr. Lust’s close friends, and a former neighbor in Greenwich, was Joseph Hirshhorn, whose collection is the cornerstone of the Hirshhorn Museum. Shortly before his death in 1981, he asked Mr. Lust if he would contribute to the museum. “I think Joe is by far the greatest American collector,” said Mr. Lust, who immediately agreed, then forgot until recently.
Now keeping his word four decades later, Mr. Lust has given the Hirshhorn vintage black-and-white photographs by Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugène Atget and Eadweard Muybridge. The grouping includes prints by underrecognized women like Ms. Corpron, Barbara Morgan, Dorothy Wilding and Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, and a cache of intimate portraits of Mr. Giacometti and his studio by Herbert Matter.
“For us it was a great match because the Hirshhorn doesn’t have a lot of photography in the collection, and it helps us with historical material that really isn’t available today,” said the museum’s director, Melissa Chiu. Mr. Lust said he intended to give the lion’s share of his approximately 400 photographs to the museum in a second round, likely to include one or two of his prized Bellmers. “I have a hard time parting with them,” he said, “but I will do it.”
“Herbert is a rare bird today in collecting circles,” Ms. Chiu said, noting that to be a collector of contemporary art decades ago was to be part of a very small community. “He and Mr. Hirshhorn were risk takers.”
She said she planned to exhibit the gift, whose value she declined to estimate, in the next two years.
“When I began collecting, there were 30 galleries in New York,” Mr. Lust said. There are hundreds now, and he feels that it’s impossible to keep up comprehensively. But he still makes the rounds and the occasional acquisition, including a Willem de Kooning drawing recently. “When Herbert loves an exhibition, I know to expect him every Saturday for the duration of the show,” said Max Teicher, a dealer at Gagosian.
What hasn’t changed in 50 years is the phenomenon of great art to appreciate wildly in value, which Mr. Lust was prescient to analyze in his 1969 book “A Dozen Principles for Art Investment.” “Everyone thought I was a traitor to my investment banking community because I said art was a much better investment than stocks,” he said, adding, “I was a thousand times more right than I ever dreamed.”
Ms. Rossetti of Sotheby’s said the book “really foreshadowed what people are doing today with using art as a financial instrument.”
All 12 investment principles in the book could essentially be boiled down to buying the absolute top quality, according to the collector. Decades ago, he stretched to acquire one of Mr. Giacometti’s important early bronzes of a woman, what he called “my most prized possession,” for $89,000, paid off in installments. (A 1947 Giacometti bronze sold at Christie’s in 2015 for just over $141 million.)
“You can glorify art collecting all you want; it’s just shopping,” Mr. Lust said. “You want to get the best bang for your buck. If you bought 10 good works or one great work, the great work will turn out to be the much better investment.”