France honours art-loving couple for $350m donation to museum

A wealthy couple who discovered their love for art during a trip to Paris in the 1970s have donated the multi-million-dollar collection they have amassed since to the French capital. Texan businessman Spencer Hays and his wife, Marlene, were at the Elysee Palace on Saturday night to formalise the first instalment of their donation – 187 works including pieces by Edgar Degas and Amedeo Modigliani worth about $188 million – to the Musee d'Orsay. French president Francois Hollande told the couple they had given France not only their collection but also “access to culture for everyone”. Awarding the couple the Legion d'Honneur, one of the country’s highest honours, he added: “Your act, your donation, honours the French Republic.”

After our death, our collection will be gifted to the French people for the benefit of art lovers around the world. But, even more important to us, this collection is our legacy

Spencer Hays

The couple, who are both aged 80 and have been married for 60 years, have a collection of some 600 works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries worth 350 million euros. “When Marlene and I grew up in a little town in Gainesville, Texas, even visiting France was far beyond our great expectations. But in 1971 we made our first trip to Paris, and our love affair with this wonderful country began,” Mr Hays said during the ceremony. Their collection continues to grow. “The people who know you know your collection gets bigger around July 14 and December 7, because those are your birthdays,” Mr Hollande said. “And this year, once again, Marlene, you gave Spencer a Matisse, and you, Spencer, gave Marlene a Modigliani… It wasn’t easy to live up to that!”