A Knight’s Tale

Philanthropist and art benefactor Sir Arthur Gilbert died at his Beverly Hills home Sunday of a heart attack. He was 88 and had struggled with cancer and diabetes. The Journal had slated the following profile of Gilbert, a leading philanthropist, art collector and businessman, to run in this issue. Anita Chabria met with him last week.

Sir Arthur Gilbert was one of Los Angeles’ few resident knights, having been honored by the Queen of England two years ago, but he was best-known here as a philanthropist and real estate entrepreneur who helped shape his adopted city.

Born Arthur Bernstein in 1913, Gilbert came to the United States from London in 1949. Early in life, he and his first wife, Rosalinde, who passed away in 1995 from Alzheimer’s disease, ran an exclusive evening wear manufacturing company that catered to London’s post-war wealthy. But Gilbert felt that taxes were too high in his homeland, and longed for better weather. He found it in Los Angeles.

Most of Gilbert’s fortune came from real estate. He had dabbled in commercial real estate with his older brother while living in London, but it wasn’t until his immigration to the States that land deals became a focus.

In 1955, he purchased 100 acres in the then-barren City of Commerce. Since then, he had been involved in scores of projects, including the coup of bringing Barney’s New York to Beverly Hills in a long-term lease at his building in a prime strip of Wilshire Boulevard. Other projects include the Union Bank building at the corner of Beverly and Wilshire and Gibraltar Square in Beverly Hills. When buying real estate, Gilbert always felt that location was the most important feature. His motto was “always buy the best you can,” says longtime friend Richard Ziman.

Despite the numerous projects he created, Gilbert once told a newspaper reporter that the only one of his buildings he ever liked was the modern home he built for himself on a bluff in Coldwater Canyon.

Gilbert was also a philanthropist with a list of pet projects that spanned the globe. He was a founder of the Music Center, and a major supporter of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, from which he received the Albert Einstein Award in 1978.

In 1999 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his long-term support, including a $25 million donation to the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. He had attended the university’s opening in 1925, when he was 12 years old.

Gilbert’s father, one of England’s most prominent furriers, was very religious and lived six months of each year in Israel. Although Gilbert remained in boarding school in London during most of those family excursions, the deep commitment he had toward Israel and Jewish causes can be seen in his long legacy of giving.

Aside from philanthropy and real estate, Gilbert was known for two personal passions: playing tennis and collecting art.

Gilbert was more often found in workout clothes than business suits, according to friends, and made it a point to play tennis every day when in good health. He even refused to work on Wednesdays, instead dubbing it his “holy day” and spending it at his tennis club, says wife Marjorie Gilbert.

“Arthur never wore long pants before 6 o’clock,” said Ziman, who added that Gilbert was most often found in trademark yellow shorts.

But it was Gilbert’s second passion — art collecting — that created a legacy worthy of a knighthood.

He began collecting silver and gold pieces solely to furnish his Coldwater Canyon home in 1960. Within 15 years, he had amassed a collection significant enough to warrant an exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“He bought everything he saw,” says Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel, private curator of Gilbert’s collections.

He originally intended to give his silver and mosaic collections to LACMA, but had increasingly tense relations with the museum over where and how the collections would be displayed. By 1996, Gilbert was on poor terms with the L.A. museum, and instead gave the pieces to the Somerset House in England. The recently redone museum on the Thames River will use the silver collection as its centerpiece, giving his contributions 25,000 square feet of exhibition space. The decorative arts collection on display contains more than 800 pieces of gold and silver. He also amassed one of the most significant collections of Italian mosaics in the world, matched only by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

For donating those collections, valued at more than $125 million, Queen Elizabeth II gave Gilbert a knighthood in 1999.

“He wanted the public to enjoy his art,” says Marjorie Gilbert. “From Day One, Arthur never built the collection for himself.”

Services for Gilbert will be held Fri., September 7 at 12 noon at Hillside Mortuary.

Gilbert is survived by Lady Marjorie Gilbert, her daughter Susan and granddaughter Ashley; by his son Colin, granddaughter Windy (Terry) Gallagher; great-grandsons Patrick, Keelan, Colin and his sister Mathilda Barnett.

Donations may be sent to the American Diabetes Association, 6300 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 90048.