Dede Wilsey has been a supporter of the de Young Museum in San Francisco since 1998, but she only started collecting art for herself a few years later, when she was looking for a place to put her energy after the death of her husband, dairy and real estate magnate Al Wilsey.
Since then, Dede has built up a formidable collection of Impressionist art, and has continued to help the de Young and its sister museum, the Legion of Honor, grow their own. In October she financed the museum’s acquisition of Canalettos Venice, the Grand Canal looking east with Santa Maria della Salute. The Venetian scene was to be auctioned as part of another prominent San Francisco collection, that of Ann and Gordon Getty, with an estimate of $6 million to $9 million — but the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts spotted it hours before the sale. to begin.
Since 2019, Wilsey has also endorsed the museums’ Free Saturday program, which provides free general admission to the de Young and Legion of Honor for Bay Area residents every weekend.
Wilsey recently spoke with Artnet News from her home in San Francisco, where commissioned portraits of her dogs share wall space with Monet and Kandinsky.
What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?
The first serious photo I bought was right after my husband died. I was in Maastricht to lead a group from our museum [the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]—a building committee, because we were building the de Young Museum at the time. I was absolutely miserable. I kept looking around and finally I thought, maybe I’ll feel better if I buy a happy painting. So, I bought a late Monet of Giverny with lots of pink flowers and trees. I didn’t feel better. I thought if I bought another one, then I would feel better. I bought a [Mary] Cassatt – a woman with a baby. I installed that one and I still felt sad. I can’t even remember what I bought after that. After about 10 years I was no longer sad and had many paintings. That’s how I started collecting.
What was your most recent purchase?
My most recent purchase was a Kandinsky. I hung it on my powder room door—vertically, instead of horizontally. You can’t tell the difference. Once it’s yours, you can do whatever you want with it.
For the Fine Arts Museums, I recently purchased a Canaletto at the Getty auction. It is a museum picture and it really belongs in a museum. Everything in the Getty’s home was just as special. We really didn’t want it to leave San Francisco. I bought it in memory of Ann Getty.
What works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
I do not know. I recently bought a Gerome, a portrait of his daughter. This is something I never thought I would buy. But the little girl is so cute that I couldn’t resist her. And I typically react when I see something and it affects me. Kandinsky is also not something I would normally buy. But it’s great, I love it.
What is the most expensive piece of art you own?
A Monet water lily.
Where do you buy the most art?
At an auction—Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
Is there a job you regret buying?
Well, I’m sure there are several and I’m sure I’ve sold them by now. I think everyone makes mistakes in the heat of the passion to buy something. Then you suddenly say to yourself: Why in the world did I do that?! I bought a Koons egg. It is on loan to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis. It is very heavy. It’s fuchsia with a purple bow. I actually really love it, but it’s just not very practical.
What work do you have hanging above your couch? How about in your bathroom?
I have two sofas in two rooms—one has a Hockney and the other a Picasso above it. In my bathroom I have dog portraits and Chinese export porcelain. I just bought a new dog photo. It looks just like my little Maltese. The first dog photo was requested for my Jack Russell, Melissa, and my first Maltese, Serena. Since then I have been buying 19th century or early 20th century Maltese or terriers. I now have an entire bathroom, dressing room, bedroom at my house in Napa covered in these paintings—just wall to wall.
What is the most impractical piece of art you own?
Definitely the Koons egg. I buy a lot of Chinese export porcelain. Every once in a while I’ll buy something that’s so big I wonder where I’ll put it—or so small I can’t really see it.
What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
Ahhh. Caillebotte. A fantastic Caillebotte in London. I was there with John Buchanan, our director at the time. There was a very nice dealer we knew in London. She said she would like to take us to someone’s house and show us a wonderful painting. The photo was of a house, a villa. Two people in beautiful clothes, a man and a woman with a parasol, walked away from you. Just fantastic. I said, “About how much?”
$9 million dollars for Caillebotte?! I always regretted not buying it. Years later, another dealer called about the same picture and the price was $22 million. I just hope it went to a good home. I loved that painting.
If you could steal one piece of art without getting caught, what would it be?
I forgot which museum it is in, but a Degas of the ballet studio with all the dancers in tutus. You know, I’m looking at a painting in my office, which is also my dressing room. I love this photo by artist Rupert Bunny. He is an Australian. This is the most beautiful photo of a girl in a wonderful negligee lying on a couch reading a book. I keep looking at this picture. I can’t imagine doing anything but lying there and reading a book. It is very relaxing to watch her enjoy her book.
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