Visual Arts

A collection of stories: How Henry Bloch acquired the paintings in new Nelson galleries

How Henry Bloch acquired the paintings in the new galleries at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Henry Bloch, the 94-year-old philanthropist from Kansas City and founder of H&R Block, shares stories behind acquiring some of the 29 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings that he has donated to Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
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Henry Bloch, the 94-year-old philanthropist from Kansas City and founder of H&R Block, shares stories behind acquiring some of the 29 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings that he has donated to Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

It all started with a mistake.

Sometime in the 1970s, H&R Block founder Henry Bloch and his wife, Marion, decided they needed some paintings for their house in Mission Hills.

“I didn’t know much about art,” Bloch said.

Enter Ted Coe, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at the time. Coe found Bloch a little painting by a Dutch artist. Marion was so enthralled by the work she told her husband they were going to start collecting Dutch paintings.

So they did. They even went to the Netherlands, where they found a painting they liked — Bloch said it was “not too expensive” — and had it delivered to the Nelson, where they planned to pick it up upon their return.

When they got back to Kansas City, however, Coe had bad news. At some point, the work had been completely repainted, rendering it valueless.

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Bloch told Coe that was that.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to mess with Dutch pictures anymore; I’ve been burned,’ ” he said.

Then Coe steered Bloch toward impressionist paintings, specifically a 5  1/2 -by-9-inch study by Pierre-Auguste Renoir called “Woman Leaning on Her Elbows.”

“So I bought it,” Bloch said. “That was the first one.”

Owning that Renoir stirred a passion for impressionist artists. Today, Bloch says discovering that the Dutch painting was worthless was good fortune.

“It was a lucky break,” he said. “I’ve been lucky all my life.”

On March 11, the public will get its first chance to see the new home for Bloch’s acquisitions. The refurbished and renamed Bloch Galleries on the northeast corner of the museum’s plaza level now house the 29 impressionist and post-impressionist works the Blochs have donated to the Nelson.

The works are displayed next to paintings owned by the museum. The artists’ names are iconic: Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, to name a few.

The $12 million renovation, financed by the Marion and Henry Bloch Foundation, comes with plenty of bells and whistles, including new lighting, a new sound system and interactive technology. The galleries are opening almost 10 years after the museum’s Bloch Building addition opened in June 2007.

Bloch’s donation is a little staggering. Several of the 29 paintings could easily fetch millions at auction. Bloch, however, said he never considered doing anything else with them.

“Years ago, I went to a lecture,” he said. “I was just sitting in the audience, and the man said, ‘Do you know why New York has such a great collection? It’s all because so many people in New York have left their art to the Metropolitan.’ I never forgot that.”

Stories behind the art

Today, Bloch is 94. Incredibly, his Mission Hills home appears even more tasteful and sophisticated than the new galleries at the Nelson. The home seems like it was built around the paintings.

Nearly every wall in the entryway, dining room, living room and sitting room has at least one impressionist or post-impressionist painting hanging on it. Or they used to. Brilliant reproductions of the paintings donated to the Nelson now hang where the originals once hung.

“These are just copies, but they’re wonderful copies,” Bloch said, showing his guests around his home. “I don’t have to have insurance. They have no value at all. I don’t have to worry when I go out of town. We used to have somebody sitting outside at night when we went out of town.”

In recounting the two decades of collecting the works, Bloch is self-effacing, humble and funny. During his forays into art collecting, there were times he simply stumbled into great finds. He made mistakes. He has regrets. Time and again, he references his own good fortune and good friends, including Coe, who died in 2010.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art previewed its $12 million Bloch Galleries space on Friday. The new galleries feature Henry Bloch’s 29 donated pieces, which include paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne displayed using cuttin

“He said the finest thing he had ever done in his life was to help me,” Bloch said. “I’d go to New York to buy art, and he’d go with me. Once in awhile, I’d pick out a picture, and he’d look at it and go, ‘It’s not good.’ We’d find some I didn’t really like and he’d go, ‘It’s fabulous. Buy it.’ He was the expert.”

Coe helped Bloch purchase Marion’s favorite painting, “The White Cupboard.” The 4-foot-tall oil painted in 1931 by French modernist Pierre Bonnard lived in the dining room.

“We went to New York with Ted and met with a dealer, and he said, ‘We have a great picture for you,’ ” Bloch said. “Ted and Marion and I were looking at it, and I said, ‘How much is it?’ He named a price, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s more than I can afford.’ And Ted says, ‘It’s a great picture, you ought to buy it.’ And Marion said, ‘Come on, let’s get it.’ So I was outnumbered.”

Bloch’s own favorite is a small painting of boats by Alfred Sisley. Done in 1885, it’s called “The Lock of Saint-Mammès.” The work once hung downstairs, but he had moved it upstairs because, for a long time, he just didn’t like it.

“One day the head of the auction house in London was here, and I took him upstairs to see the picture,” Bloch said. “He said, ‘It’s a great painting. There’s only one problem with it: It has a terrible frame on it. That’s why you don’t like it.’ So we picked up a beautiful frame for it, and then it became my favorite painting. It’s beautiful.”

He almost missed out on purchasing his van Gogh because it came available right in the middle of tax season for H&R Block. The dealer offered to buy it for him, eliminating the need for a trip to New York as April 15 approached.

After it was purchased, however, the dealer called Bloch with an intriguing offer.

“He said, ‘A man came up to me and offered to buy it for a million dollars more. Do you want to sell it to him?’ ” Bloch recalled. “I said, ‘No, but what do you think?’ And he said, ‘I would not sell it.’ So I said, ‘Good. Tell him no.’ 

The latest in light, sound and interactive technology highlight works in the new Bloch Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Bloch has story after story about his acquisitions.

In the sitting room hung Edoaurd Manet’s “The Croquet Party.” Bloch says experts have come to his home and spent the whole day just analyzing the 1871 masterpiece.

After he purchased Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s study of Jane Avril (1893) in New York, he discovered it was part of the Nelson museum’s very first exhibit in 1935. It actually graced the cover of the exhibition program.

“Rue Saint-Honore, Sun Effect, Afternoon,” by Camille Pissaro once was owned by actor Edward G. Robinson, and the lawyer for the woman who owned it at first wouldn’t accept a personal check as payment.

“I said, ‘Oh my God. My check’s fine,’ ” Bloch said. “He wanted a certified check or something. I don’t remember how we finally sorted it out.”

Bloch has actually stood in the window from which Pissaro painted the scene in 1898.

“We went up to the second floor of the apartment, and it looked just like this,” he said, pointing to the figures in the painting. “Except now they have automobiles instead of horses.”

Bloch said he once owned a Monet of Big Ben and the River Thames. It was painted in the evening when it was halfway dark out. Bloch said it even had the original frame on it.

He loved it. Their decorator hated it.

“Ted Graber, wonderful decorator — he did the White House under Ronald Reagan,” Bloch said. “He came down and looked at that picture, and said, ‘Get rid of that picture. It’s terrible.’ 

So Bloch called a dealer, who lowballed him a little. Still, the price was more than Bloch paid for it, so he sold it.

“It was a terrible mistake,” Bloch said. “I regret that one very much. Wonderful picture.”

And then there’s the painting everyone in the art world knows about.

The infamous Degas

Edgar Degas’ “Dancer Making Points” features a lone ballet dancer in a yellow dress with red flowers. When Bloch first learned it was for sale, he turned it down.

He was on a trip to Canada at the time. A dealer called to say she had a painting of a dancing girl by Degas.

“And I said, ‘To be honest with you, I already have one, and it’s got three dancing girls,’ ” Bloch recalled. “She said, ‘I guarantee you, this one is worth three times what that is.’ 

On Coe’s advice, he bought it.

The painting had been owned by copper heiress and philanthropist Huguette Clark. Clark lived to 104 but spent the last few years of her life as a recluse in a hospital suite while her massive homes remained deserted. A book on her life, “Empty Mansions,” has been optioned to be made into a movie.

As Bloch tells it, the Degas painting was discovered in the basement of an apartment building where Clark once lived.

“The man that found it remembered there was a fella that lived there that knew something about art,” Bloch recalled. “So he took it up there and said, ‘Look what I found by the furnace downstairs.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God. That’s a very famous picture. It’s worth a lot of money.’ 

As one might guess, there was a catch.

Fast forward a few years. The phone rings. Bloch answers. The voice on the other end says, “Mr. Bloch? This is the FBI. You have a painting and it’s stolen.’ 

“This woman had nothing to do with it,” Bloch said. “She was maybe 99, 98, when this was all happening. So I asked the director at the Nelson, Marc Wilson, ‘What am I going to do?’ And he said, ‘Henry, you can’t return it to them!’ But I said, ‘But it’s the FBI! They said it’s stolen!’ And he said, ‘Let me handle it for you.’ So he did. And Marc deserves a lot of credit for that. The easiest thing to do would have been to return it. He said, ‘Once you give it back it’s gone.’ 

According to a report by NBC News, Bloch and the museum struck a deal with Clark: The heiress would donate the painting to the Nelson. As part of the agreement, she would get an income tax deduction for the gift. For the deal to go through, the Blochs would have to turn over the painting to Clark’s representative for a brief period of time.

So, on a Monday morning in 2008, Clark’s reps drove to Bloch’s home, where Bloch and Wilson waited to make the exchange.

“Marc took it off the wall, carried it out to where they were sitting in the limousine, handed it to the lawyer and accountant,” Bloch recalled. “They accepted it, handed it back to him, he walked back in and hung it back on the wall.”

Loving investments

Even though Bloch’s paintings are now at the Nelson, his home isn’t devoid of art. He has a collection of Asian statuary and other works. Upstairs hangs a portrait of his wife, who died in 2013. The portrait was painted by Andy Warhol. A good story itself.

Bloch learned about Warhol from a friend at a football game. Intrigued, Bloch set up a time for Marion to meet up with the artist in New York. He called a hotel and arranged for a room with a fireplace, something with a nice background for the portrait.

“Andy Warhol walked in, he took Marion into a bedroom, took out a Polaroid camera, took a picture of her and left,” Bloch said. “I didn’t need that fancy room at all.”

Eventually, Warhol gave Marion and Henry four portraits. Bloch gave one to the Nelson. He said he offered the other two to his children. They all said no thanks.

“Warhol wasn’t famous at the time,” Bloch said. “But it’s my thought a married couple doesn’t want their mother-in-law’s painting hanging on the wall.”

Bloch said someone recently asked him why he didn’t give any to museums in New York or California or somewhere else. It never crossed his mind.

“I want to help the Nelson any way I can,” he said.

Looking back at his years of collecting, Bloch said the artworks were good investments, but money was never his motivation.

“Good art every year gets more valuable — every year,” he said. “If you want to make money, buy one by a famous artist, put it away and wait 10 years and you’ll double your money. I never did it for the money. We just loved it.”

Bloch Galleries

Opening Saturday, March 11. Though admission is free, timed tickets are required for the weekend of March 11-12. French pastries while supplies last. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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