The Nashville and New York-based American businessman, art collector and philanthropist Spencer Hays died on Thursday, 2 March, aged 80. In October 2016, Hays and his wife Marlene announced a gift of 137 turn-of-the-century works from their collection
—which is especially strong in Nabi artists including Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard—to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it will be shown in a dedicated space. All 600 works in their collection will eventually be given to the museum, the largest gift by a foreign donor to a French institution since 1945.
In a statement announcing Hays’s death, France’s Minister of Culture, Audrey Azoulay, said he and Marlene “only considered themselves the provisionary guardians” of their collection. They were each presented with the order of Commander of the Légion d’Honneur by the French president François Hollande last October.
Hays—who met his wife in the eighth grade in their hometown of Gainesville, Texas, where they both grew up in humble circumstances—began his business career as a door-to-door book salesman for the direct-selling educational book company Southwestern, where he eventually became the president and chief executive. He was also the majority shareholder of the Althon Media Group and founded the bespoke suit and shirt maker Tom James Co in 1966.
The couple began their collection with small Old Masters works and American art, according to an article in Nashville Arts Magazine
, but later turned to late 19th- and early 20th-century French art—developing a particular fondness for the Nabis—through their frequent trips to Paris from the 1970s onward. Ardent Francophiles, they also fashioned their Nashville home after a French house. Hays was a “great friend of France, a great friend of the arts and a lover of the musée d’Orsay”, Azoulay said in her statement.