During his life, Herbert Vogel was proof that it doesn’t take a vast fortune or connections to have a powerful impact. Vogel and his wife, Dorothy, lived in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, but they also managed to acquire more than 5,000 works by artists as diverse as Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Cindy Sherman, and Gene Davis. The couple used Vogel’s salary as a night mail clerk to fund their collection while living off Dorothy’s salary as a librarian.
The Vogels’ collection, which was estimated to be worth several millions of dollars, was donated to the National Gallery in 1992. Until then, the works had been sitting in the couple’s apartment along with their cats, turtles, and fish. According to Herb and Dorothy, a 2008 documentary about the couple by Megumi Sasaki, it took five tractor-trailers to transport the collection to Washington in its entirety.
Dorothy Vogel spoke in the film about why she and her husband chose to donate their collection to the National Gallery, saying it was because the gallery is free, it never sells donated works, and because having both had long careers working for the government, the Vogels thought that donating their collection to a federal entity would be like donating it to the country as a whole. The couple had also visited the museum on their honeymoon in 1962. In 2008, the Vogels worked with the National Gallery to distribute 2,500 of their works to 50 museums across the United States.
A 2008 Washington Post story about the Vogels explored what Herb and Dorothy said about its subjects and their unlikely success as collectors. “Part of the beauty of the Vogels is that they aren’t so academic about what they like,” wrote Rachel Beckman. “They act on intuition.” Despite having little in the way of formal art education, and even less in means, the couple used their passion for modern art to become true connoisseurs.
Herbert Vogel died in New York City on July 22 at the age of 89. He’s survived by his wife, Dorothy. The Post’s obituary for Vogel is here.