In the summer of 1911 the financier J. Pierpont Morgan was seventy-four years old and semi-retired. He had spent his professional career raising capital (largely in Europe at first) to build American railroads and industrial corporations. He also served as America’s unofficial central banker, trying to stabilize the chaotic US business cycle, keep the Treasury solvent, and stop Wall Street panics. And he had a second major career as a collector of art. Educated in Switzerland and Germany in the 1850s—his family had moved to London in 1854 when his father joined an Anglo-American merchant bank—he was familiar with Europe’s great museums by the age of twenty. After he started work in New York in 1857, he took off long periods every year to travel abroad, learning about the history, architecture, and art of Europe and Egypt.
By the 1890s, the center of world finance had shifted from London to New York, and economic necessity brought great European art collections onto the market as aristocrats long on ancestry but short of cash sought to trade with Americans who had exactly the opposite problem. Morgan, after funneling investment capital from Europe to the emerging US markets for four decades, played a comparable part in the transatlantic transfer of cultural wealth, both as president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (from 1904 to 1913) and in the fine collections he amassed on his own. Though not a scholarly connoisseur, he had a “good eye,” a lifelong, sensuous taste for beautiful things, and excellent advice.
For years he kept most of his collections at his house in London, 14 Princes Gate, partly because of a US government revenue act that imposed a 20 percent tariff on imported works of art. Only after Congress removed the tariff in 1909 did Morgan begin to bring his collections to the United States.
He loved the company of women—a quality women always find attractive—and was quite good-looking as a young man. His first wife, Amelia Sturges, died of tuberculosis four months after their wedding. Three years later he married again, but this marriage, to Frances Louisa Tracy, did not turn out well. By the early 1890s he was spending most of his time with other female companions—he practiced a kind of serial monogamy outside his marriage—and his appeal to women did not diminish when, in his forties, an inherited skin disease called rhinophyma (excess growth of sebaceous tissue) turned his nose into a hideous purple bulb. Under the right circumstances, he had a sense of humor about it. Margot Tennant, who later married the future prime minister H.H. Asquith, met Morgan in the 1880s, and reported in her diary that he asked her: “What wd you do if you were me with all my riches yet having this terrible nose?” She replied, “I sd. not mind so much if I were you as you can never have been very good-looking”—and concluded: “This seems to have …