The legacy of Henry Clay Frick, the tycoon once called the “most hated man in America,” has been rehabilitated by the invaluable art library created by his daughter.


The Precious Frick Library


The legacy of Henry Clay Frick, the tycoon once called the “most hated man in America,” has been rehabilitated by the invaluable art library created by his daughter.

On Jan. 19, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will come down off the wall at the Frick Collection in New York. As the masses finally drift from the long rooms and the Frick’s permanent cache of masterpieces, it’s an ideal moment for budding collectors to familiarize themselves with one of the museum’s hidden jewels: The Frick Art Reference Library.Heiress Helen Clay Frick founded the library in 1920 to honor her father, Henry Clay Frick, the year after the wealthy coke-coal and steel industrialist, financier, and art collector died. Frick was notorious for alternating his favoritism between Helen and her brother, Childs, the only Frick children to survive childhood. After Frick heavily favored Helen in his 1919 will, she and her brother stopped speaking, a 46-year estrangement that lasted until Childs’ death in 1965. But Helen remained adamantly loyal to her father; she actively defended his reputation throughout her life and used her $38 million inheritance—more than $500 million in today’s dollars—to further his philanthropic goals and dedication to art.

The Frick Art Reference Library is open to the public and invaluable to collectors and historians pursuing research.

Helen researched artists for her father while he was alive, but later channeled that energy into turning the Frick library into a premier center for historical, collecting, and provenance research. Frick’s private collection, from Frans Hals to James McNeill Whistler, is one of the most coveted in the world, but it’s the library built by his daughter that has pursued his goal “to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts, and to advance the general knowledge of kindred subjects.” Once crowded into the Frick mansion’s bowling alley, it is now housed in a 13-story structure designed by the architect responsible for the Jefferson Memorial and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Until her death in 1984, Helen worked tirelessly to fill the library’s archives withcatalogues raisonnés (catalogs of groups or schools of artists), historiography, iconography, technical analysis, auction-sales information, and documents related to patronage, collecting, and provenance. But her most important contribution to art history is arguably the library’s Photoarchive.

Helen commissioned her first photo expedition in 1922, with the goal of recording significant and seldom-reproduced works of art in Europe and the U.S. It was remarkably farsighted, as many of these priceless works were eventually lost, damaged, or destroyed in the war years that followed. Enlisting the help of renowned art historians and photographers—including Lawrence Park, W.W.S. Cook, and Clotilde Brière—Helen relied on her influence and determination to gain access to and document many jealously guarded private collections.

After 15 years of haphazard housing, the Frick library moved to its current location, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street, and opened to the public in 1935. During World War II, the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas was based at the library. It was closed for six months, marking the only time in its history that it shut its doors to the general public. The committee used the Photoarchive to identify sites of important cultural treasures that should be protected from the dangers of war, a campaign dramatized in the upcoming film The Monuments Men.

The library’s meticulous records—now more than one million photographic reproductions of Western artworks that span the fourth to the 20th centuries—were used after the war to help reunite artworks with their rightful owners, and does so to this day. The library has also partnered with the libraries of the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. as part of the New York Art Resources Consortium. In recent years, the library’s research has created exhibitions on the collections of other financiers, from the Medicis to the Rockefellers.

BUT THERE’S A LESSON on family legacy here, too. Beyond creating a renowned resource for art lovers, Helen’s work has greatly rehabilitated her family name. Many people today don’t know that Henry Frick was reviled. Called the “most hated man in America” and among the “worst American CEOs of all time,” Frick was infamous for his ruthless business tactics and brutal strikebreaking. He survived an assassination attempt thanks to the quick thinking of Carnegie Steel executive John George Alexander Leishman, and yet, five years later, the unsentimental tycoon helped orchestrate Leishman’s ouster from Carnegie Steel.

Frick’s sins have been largely eclipsed by Helen’s work, as the Frick name became associated with invaluable art and superlative research. That’s a lesson worth absorbing. On its own, the collection is of course deeply admired and coveted, but it’s the underappreciated library that has quietly built global goodwill and significantly rehabilitated the family’s reputation.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

One Response to The legacy of Henry Clay Frick, the tycoon once called the “most hated man in America,” has been rehabilitated by the invaluable art library created by his daughter.

  1. CrisisMaven says:

    “Frick’s sins have been largely eclipsed by Helen’s work” – well the elder Frick must have been one of the misanthropists who see in art (and some in animals) more value than in their fellow men. Which begs the question: him having been a ruthless businessman – would he not have considered the artists he collected “exalted” men, and if so, seeing they might have been bohemiens in the eyes of the average business man, how come he saw in them qualities he could not spot in those immediately surrounding him?

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