The late Thomas H. Lee, a private-equity buyout pioneer, art collector, and philanthropist, passed away on February 23, 2023. He was 78 years old and left behind his wife of 27 years, five children, two grandchildren, and many unanswered questions. Lee’s suicide has reverberated throughout Wall Street, the museum world, and the art market.
As a longtime museum trustee, Lee amassed a significant art collection of postwar and contemporary works by artists such as Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, and Francis Bacon. Some of these artworks, including a monumental painting by Ellsworth Kelly, are promised gifts to museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lee became a collector and philanthropist in the 1990s after his Boston-based firm, Thomas H. Lee Partners, famously acquired Snapple for $135 million in 1992, took it public, and resold it to Quaker Oats two years later for $1.7 billion.
With $927 million from that sale, Lee started collecting art and joined the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994, where he served on the executive committee and committees overseeing the modern painting and sculpture department and nominations for the board. He was critical to charting the future of the institution by recruiting new talent, support, and ideas.
Lee was also an active art market participant and became a frequent presence at Christie’s and Sotheby’s salerooms, paying record prices for works by Arshile Gorky and Sigmar Polke.
His passion for Abstract Expressionism was evident in the artworks he collected, such as Pollock’s Number 22 and Rothko’s Olive Over Red. His wife, Ann Tenenbaum, also played a significant role in their collecting choices, and together they supported individual artists.
The implications of Lee’s passing on both private investments and art world are significant, given the value of his art collection and his role as a longtime museum trustee. While his legacy is still being written, his impact on the art world will be felt for years to come.