Going for Broke: The Fabulous, Tragic Life of Harry Kessler

Photographer: Georgios Kefalas/Keystone/AP Photo

"Count Harry Kessler" (1906), oil on canvas, by Edvard Munch, from the National Gallery of the National museums of Berlin, at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen. Close

"Count Harry Kessler" (1906), oil on canvas, by Edvard Munch, from the National Gallery... Read More

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Photographer: Georgios Kefalas/Keystone/AP Photo

"Count Harry Kessler" (1906), oil on canvas, by Edvard Munch, from the National Gallery of the National museums of Berlin, at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen.

What if you fell so hard for the art you collected, you forgot to sell it?

That's what happened to Count Harry Kessler, whom W.H. Auden called "probably the most cosmopolitan man who ever lived." Kessler was a patron of Johann Strauss and Edvard Munch, as well as of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, librettist with Kessler of "Der Rosenkavalier," and the French Catalan artist Aristide Maillol, among others. By the time he turned 70, he had spent all of his money on art. All of it. His house in Weimar was auctioned off to pay debtors and back taxes, and his possessions, including paintings by Vuillard and Bonnard, were stolen by his servants. Born in 1868, he died penniless and emaciated in 1937.

If Kessler's collection had remained intact, it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today. A Maillol sculpture similar to the one Kessler had in his foyer has a high estimate of $1 million at Sotheby's Spring auction. His multiple portraits by Munch are valued at many times that amount -- "The Scream" sold for $120 million last year. His "Marchandes des Pommes," by Renoir, now in the Barnes Collection, is valued at several million dollars -- a Renoir of similar size should fetch $2 million to $3 million at Christie's in May.

There's something instructive in tales of riches to rags. Usually the education is in what not to do (say, don't go into publishing). But historic wrecks like Kessler can be illuminating, if not for step-by-step instruction -- buy pet cheetahs and cover them in diamonds! become the chief patron of German Expressionism! -- then for general inspiration in living large.

Kessler was an aesthete, not a collector. If it had been the other way around, he probably would have met a happier end. But maybe, by Romantic standards, a final few years of poverty isn't such a bad trade for 50 years of blowing a fortune on some of the best art in modern history.

James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

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