What I Buy and Why: Collector Dede Wilsey on Why She Prefers to Hang Her Kandinsky Sideways and How She Helps Museums Acquire Art

The longtime supporter of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco on the Caillebotte that got away and the pleasures of pet portraiture.

Dede Wilsey at home. Photo courtesy of Dede Wilsey.

Dede Wilsey has been a supporter of the de Young Museum in San Francisco since 1998, but she only began 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 tycoon Al Wilsey.

Since then, Dede has built 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 funded the museum’s acquisition of Canaletto’s Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute. The Venetian scene was due to be auctioned off 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 Fine Art Museums nabbed it hours before the sale was due to begin.

Since 2019, Wilsey has also underwritten the museums’ Free Saturday program, providing free general admission to the de Young and Legion of Honor for Bay Area residents every weekend.

Wilsey recently spoke to Artnet News from her San Francisco home, where commissioned portraits of her dogs share wall space with Monet and Kandinsky.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, Il Canaletto, Entrance to the Grand Canal looking East, with Santa Maria della Salute at right Image courtesy Christie's.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, Il Canaletto, Entrance to the Grand Canal looking East, with Santa Maria della Salute at right. Image courtesy Christie’s.

What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?

The first serious picture that 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 if I buy a happy painting, I’ll feel better. So, I bought a late Monet of Giverny with lots of pink flowers and trees. I didn’t feel any better. I thought if I buy 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 wasn’t sad anymore and I had lot of paintings. That’s how I started collecting.

What was your most recent purchase?

My most recent purchase was a Kandinsky. I’ve hung it on my powder room door—vertically, instead of horizontally. You can’t tell the difference. Once it is yours, you can do whatever you want with it.

For the Fine Arts Museums, I recently bought a Canaletto at the Getty auction. It’s a museum picture and it really belongs in a museum. Everything in the Getty’s house was just so special. We really didn’t want it to leave San Francisco. I bought it in memory of Ann Getty.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

I don’t know. I recently purchased a Gerome, a portrait of his daughter. It’s 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 touches me. Kandinsky is not something I would normally buy, either. But it’s great, I love it.

What is the most expensive work of art that you own?

A Monet water lily.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

At auction—Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

Well, I’m sure there are several and I’m sure I have sold them by now. I think everyone makes mistakes in the heat of the passion of buying something. Then you suddenly say to yourself, Why in the world did I do that?! I bought a Koons egg. It is loaned to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis. It is very heavy. It is fuchsia with a purple bow. I actually really love it, but it is just not very practical.

The Koons egg in Dede Wilsey's collection.

The Koons egg in Dede Wilsey’s collection.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What 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 picture. It looks just like my littlest Maltese. The first dog picture was commissioned 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 work 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 so huge that I wonder, where will I put this—or so tiny that I can’t really see it.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

Ahhhh. Caillebotte. A fabulous Caillebotte in London. I was there with John Buchanan, our director at the time. There was a very nice dealer who we knew in London. She said she would like to take us to somebody’s house and show us a fabulous painting. The picture was of a house, a villa. There were two people in beautiful clothes, a man and a woman with a parasol, walking away from you. Just fabulous. I said, “About how much?”

“$9 million.”

$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 work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

I’ve forgotten which museum it’s 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 picture by artist Rupert Bunny. He’s an Australian. It’s the most beautiful picture of a girl in a fabulous negligee, lying on a sofa reading a book. I look at this picture all the time. I can’t imagine having nothing to do but lie there and read a book. It’s very relaxing, watching her enjoying her book.

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