“Other” Koch’s “Real West” Engulfs Palm Beach Museum
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Every nook and cranny of Palm Beach’s Society of the Four Arts is bursting with over 500 paintings, photos, artifacts and antiquities for “Recapturing the West: The Collection of William I. Koch.”
Items are hung Salon-style, cascading down the walls.
There are even garments hanging from the ceiling.
Outside, the front lawn is littered with wagons.
“Unfortunately,” the billionaire collector noted during a preview on Friday, “the poor Four Arts just doesn’t have enough space.” This he remarked while standing in the midst of his hurriedly scurrying, large curatorial and handler staff, four Palm Beach police officers and a private security firm equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance rivaling the Secret Service. All were readying for Saturday’s opening.
Koch has been referred to as the “other” Koch because he’s often upstaged by his twin, David, also a billionaire art collector, who, along with their older brother Charles, runs Koch Industries. (Earlier this week The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that David Koch is funding the renovation and restoration of the fountain area in front of the museum on Fifth Avenue.) But in 1983 he escaped their shadows, sold them his share of the business, which they all inherited from their father, for a reported $470 million, and started his own Fortune 500 company, Oxbow Group. His current net worth is estimated at $3.5 billion.
The brothers had a long-standing legal feud as a result of the sale that lasted until 2001, when they settled. Now, Bill acknowledges David as his best friend. Yet, while David and Charles are highly involved in conservative politics, Bill prefers the less incendiary pursuit of collecting — mostly art and wine — voraciously. Koch likes to amass things.
“My wife thinks I should be on hoarders,” he joked, referring to his third wife, Bridget Rooney Koch, granddaughter of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney.
Inspired by his father’s legacy, he began collecting Western Art thirty years ago. He tears up, and momentarily pauses, as he shares his fond memories of working on his father’s ranch, outside of Wichita, Kansas, where he often performed grueling, physical labor. “It wasn’t a dude ranch,” he explained. Koch became enamored with the cowboy lifestyle and discovered he had more of an affinity with the working man than his country club peers.
There are items within “Recapturing the Real West” that have unrivaled historical significance, such as the only known photograph of Billy the Kid, which Koch nabbed at auction last year for $2.3million.
There are the over 150 guns from historic outlaws and lawmen, including ones that belonged to General Custer and Sitting Bull.
There are Charles Marion Russell paintings, Frederic Remington bronzes, antique cowboy hats, saddles, bowie knives, Jesse James’s gun, Jesse James’s killer’s gun, women’s apparel, Native American Indian artifacts, branding irons and a restored U.S. Mail stagecoach.
There’s Wyatt Earp’s vest and his star, which reads, “Constable.”
There are photographs of Jeremiah Johnson, Annie Oakley and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
There’s Custer’s guide-on, made by his wife, which is thought to be the flag flown at Little Big Horn.
The exhibit is organized into groupings, each creates an environment. One nook contains a general store.
An entire gallery houses a Western saloon, equipped with a fully restored, authentic bar, which you enter through the original swinging wooden doors.
In the corner, there’s a brothel containing erotic images, aids and corsets.
Koch quipped, “My wife hates this stuff.”
Throughout his guided tour, Koch, who has a Ph.D. in engineering from M.I.T., demonstrated vast historical knowledge. At one point, Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwich Gallery, remarked, “I’m from Independence, Kansas — home of the Jesse James Gang.”
Koch replied, “No, that’s the Dalton Gang and I have Bob Dalton’s gun.”
Broun later said, “I am blown away. We have a wonderful collection, but this puts it to shame.”
Where will the Koch collection go when the exhibit ends in mid-April? “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I am building my own Western town in Colorado,” said Koch. He then explained that the town will only be for family, friends and historians because, at his age, he doesn’t want to deal with the legal and accessibility hassles of opening a public institution.
He remarked, “I want to have a compound for my kids, and structured in such a way that they get along and not fight the way that I did with my brothers.”