Arts / Galleries

Unlikely Texas Art Devotee’s Extraordinary Collection Hits the Sotheby’s Auction Block — Trucking Tycoon Jimmy Younger Embraced the Old Masters

The Inside Story of a Collection Like No Other

BY Wade Wilson // 01.24.24

Sotheby’s New York is recognizing an extraordinary legacy during the storied auction house’s Masters Week 2024. Next Wednesday, January 31, Sotheby’s is offering the collection of the devoted Houston art collector Jimmy Younger, who passed away in the Bayou City in 2022 at age 94, for auction.

Younger’s collecting, personal and professional histories culminate in an extraordinary life, which fascinates in its diversity and seemingly polarized experiences. An Oklahoma native, Younger was most known for his love of trucking and oil. He devoted much of his life to his two tank cleaning companies, Nederland Tank Wash and St. Gabriel Tank Wash. However, he was also a lover of art, opera and history, particularly the Old Masters — the focus of this Sotheby’s auction. 

Jonathan Bober, now retired Andrew W. Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art, writes of Younger’s life: “In an age that celebrates individuality while rewarding conformity, that vaunts originality while proffering imitation, Jimmy Younger was the real thing.”

“Jimmy had a mind bursting with curiosity, which is probably one explanation for his longevity,” art dealer Otto Naumann says.

To discuss the exquisite collection up for auction, as well as Younger’s richly charmed life, I spoke with George Wachter, chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America and co-chairman of Old Master Paintings Worldwide.

Trucking tycoon Jimmy Younger (Photo by Roman Herzig)
Trucking tycoon Jimmy Younger (Photo by Roman Herzig)

Wade Wilson: How, when, and why did Mr. Younger become interested in Old Masters — not an expected field of interest one might typically associate with a trucking tycoon? 

George Wachter: In my decades at Sotheby’s, I have never known another collector like Jimmy Younger. 

Mr. Younger began collecting in the 1970s with contemporary American painting, and by the 1980s, he began to focus on the art of the Dutch Golden Age. He would eventually donate these works to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In his next phase, Mr. Younger was even more unconventional for an American collector — he started to focus on Italian Mannerist and Baroque paintings and drawings. To this, he applied his singular energy and attention, and he became a true connoisseur in the field.

The collection is highlighted by masterpieces from 16th century Florence, including works by Domenico Puligo and Jacopino del Conte, and wonderful examples from the great artists of 17th century Bologna, including Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino and Guido Reni, as well as drawings by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem; Perino del Vaga and many more. Together, the paintings, drawings, sculpture, furniture and objects were a remarkable achievement.

How would you compare the oft-times more academic studies on paper with the drama of the paintings which comprise this diverse collection? 

GW: Mr. Younger loved the power of large oil paintings, from masterpieces by Domenico Puligo and Jacopino del Conte, to Guercino, Guido Reni and more featured in the sale.

However, his passion for collecting drawings is evident. To Younger, the drawings were a window into the creation of artworks, and the paintings were the creations themselves. For example, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem’s work Studies of a Reclining Woman and Two Seated Couples falls between the artist’s paintings and drawings, yet combines the best qualities of both.

Lot 209, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Studies of a Reclining Woman and Two Seated Couples
Lot 209, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem’s Studies of a Reclining Woman and Two Seated Couples

Is there a particular work in this auction that you consider most important? Do you have a favorite work that speaks to you in particular? 

GW: As a whole, the collection is comprised of groupings of works which tell the story of the various artistic trends that defined European Mannerist and Baroque art in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Jacopino del Conte is a stunningly beautiful mannerist picture. Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem’s beautiful oil-on-paper study sheet is an unfinished work that allows you to see the process of creation, with two completed figures of oil paint and other figures drawn with pencil.

Which work do you anticipate will fetch the highest bid in the auction? 

GW: The sale is led by Guercino’s Saint Mary Magdalene, estimated to achieve $600,000 to $800,000. The work will make its auction debut this month, and ahead of the sale, will be on public exhibition in our galleries for the first time in more than a decade.

Lot 228, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Called Guercino, Saint Mary Magdalene
Lot 228, Guercino’s Saint Mary Magdalene

What types of collectors do you expect will acquire the works from this very special and focused collection as it hits the auction block? 

GW: The diverse range of works represents the breadth of the Old Masters category, and offers something for collectors around the world, from drawings and paintings to sculptures, furniture and works of decorative art, and with a range of estimates. 

Given how much there is to discover — such as the exceptional work by rebel artist Salvator Rosa, as well as a rare oil-on paper study sheet by leading Dutch Mannerist painter Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, just to name a few — we hope to see interest from new and younger collectors who might discover works or artists just as Younger did in his collecting journey.

With many of these works emerging at auction after remaining in Younger’s collection for decades, the works on offer will present an opportunity for established collectors alike.

Sotheby’s live auction for the collection of Jimmy Younger takes place at Sotheby’s, 1334 York Avenue in New York City next Wednesday, January 31 at 1 pm. To learn about online bidding, exhibition times and more, go here.

Additional reporting from Caitlin Hsu.

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