American art collector and businessman Spencer Hays, who pledged to donate his collection of more than six hundred works to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris last year, died Thursday at the age of eighty, AFP reports. The $381 million gift comprising works by artists Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Edgar Degas, among others, is the largest donation a foreign individual has ever made to a French museum.
In a statement announcing Hays’s death, French minister of culture Audrey Azoulay said the collector was “a great friend of France, a great friend of the arts, and of the Musee d’Orsay.” In October, President François Hollande named Hays and his wife, Marlene, Commandeurs de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest order of France.
The couple’s love for France inspired them to build a replica of the eighteenth-century Paris Hotel de Noirmoutier in Nashville, where they lived. The Hays started their collection with the purchase of a small Old Master work and with canvases by several American artists, which they added to during their regular trips to Paris.
Born in Oklahoma, Hays grew up in Texas and met Marlene in high school. In 1959, the couple moved to Nashville, where Hays began working at Southwestern—a company that helps students finance their college expenses by selling books—as a door-to-door salesman, though he quickly advanced, eventually becoming the company’s president, CEO, and majority shareholder. Hays went on to establish other successful companies including Tom James Co., which sells high-end men’s apparel, and the Athlon Media Group, which publishes Parade magazine.