Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Norton Dodge, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, made numerous trips to the Soviet Union, quietly and carefully acquiring thousands of works by nonconformist artists who were typically blocked from showing and selling their work. In 1991, he and his wife, Nancy Ruyle Dodge, donated 4,000 of those pieces to the Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Dodge died in 2011 at the age of 84, and Nancy has now donated the remainder of their collection—an astonishing 17,300 works by more than 1,000 artists—to the museum.
The Zimmerli has pegged the value of the art at $34 million, and the gift comes with a $10 million endowment, making the combined donation the single largest in the history of Rutgers.
In 1994, Norton Dodge was the subject of a memorable profile in the New Yorker by John McPhee called “The Ransom of Russian Art,” which became a book, also by McPhee, of the same name. McPhee wrote that, while the professor hunted for art in the intensely surveilled Soviet Union, “Dodge was, to say the least, somewhat threatening to the artists, but they were willing to accept the risk.” In the late ’70s, Dodge stopped traveling to the USSR, citing concerns he might be detained, though he continued to collect from abroad.
“We were all scared to death, all of us, including him,” one of the dissident artists is quoted saying of Dodge in McPhee’s story. “Maybe he needed excitement in his life. It was a threat, a constant physical threat. He could have been killed. He introduced himself as an American professor interested in Russian art. Nobody could make anything of him. He was a mysterious figure—a professor obviously with money. We couldn’t understand. He was strange, clumsy. He kept dropping things. He was afraid to reveal a name. We didn’t know if he worked for the K.G.B. or if somebody who brought him did. He kept his connections quite secretive. He didn’t mention his contacts. We didn’t ask him.”
Rumors long swirled that Dodge was a C.I.A. agent, or else somehow funded by the agency. He later said that he paid for his voluminous collecting with family money that had been generated by investing with Warren Buffett when the future multibillionaire, who has been called the “greatest investor ever,” was early in his career.