For more than 40 years, Ronald S. Lauder collected knights in shining armor. Now he has decided to be one.
At a time when cultural institutions all over the world are struggling in the pandemic, the cosmetics magnate and philanthropist is giving 91 pieces of arms and armor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which the New York institution is calling the most important donation of its kind in 80 years.
The Arms and Armor galleries have long been one of the museum’s main attractions, a gateway to culture for children captivated by the majestic warriors on horseback and an internationally renowned collection of chain mail, helmets and breastplates from Europe, Asia, America and the Middle East.
Those galleries will be named after Mr. Lauder.
“When I was collecting, I was collecting with the Met in mind,” he said in an interview. “Many of the things I bought were things the Met did not have.”
Mr. Lauder, who declined to disclose the donation’s value, said he decided to give at a time when so many museums were worried about the future. “It’s important to say, ‘We still care about institutions,’” he said. “It’s an important symbol.”
The donation, which includes funds to support gallery improvements and educational programs, features an armor made in Tuscany in a workshop patronized by the Medicis and another made in the royal court workshops at Greenwich as a gift to Friedrich Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel — both from the 17th century.
“Ronald has had a long relationship with the Met,” said Max Hollein, the Met’s director. “He’s literally been the patron saint of the Arms and Armor department.”
Growing up in New York City, Mr. Lauder recalled being awed by the museum’s armor as a youth and said he continued to see those same expressions of wonder on children’s faces in the galleries. “The collection had a major effect on me,” he said. “I still have the excitement when I come to see it.”
Mr. Lauder began collecting arms and armor in 1976 and developed a close relationship with Stephen Vincent Grancsay, who served as the Met’s curator in charge of Arms and Armor from 1929 to 1964. “He started to get me interested in it,” Mr. Lauder said.
“I have swords dating back to the crusades,” he added. “They tell a history of various kings, fighting. It would not be as famous as Waterloo, but these were important battles of their time.”
The billionaire, who founded the Neue Galerie and collects deeply in 16 other categories — including 20th-century German and Austrian art and design as well as World War II memorabilia — said he viewed arms and armor as art.
“Some of the greatest artists and sculptors of the 15th and 16th century were working in arms and armor,” Mr. Lauder said. “These are not names that people know, but these were some of the greatest artists of their time.
“You have to be very, very good at what you’re doing,” he continued. “Remember, these helmets were usually pounded out of pieces of metal. To make them perfectly round takes great ability.”
Over the years, Mr. Lauder has built one of the leading armor collections in the world. Pierre Terjanian, who leads the Met’s department, which consists of 14,000 objects, said Mr. Lauder “has always been regarded as a giant in the field of collecting European arms and armor.”
“I knew of him long before I had the opportunity to meet him,” Mr. Terjanian added.
Two of Mr. Lauder’s pieces were included in the Met’s recent ambitious show “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I,” which was organized by Mr. Terjanian with Mr. Lauder and his wife, Jo Carole, as lead sponsors.
As co-chairman of the department’s visiting committee, an advisory group, Mr. Lauder has also been part of the discussions about the Met’s arms and armor collection.
“He knows us well, because in those meetings we discuss our successes and our ambitions and sometimes our limitations,” Mr. Terjanian said. “He had many, many years to get to know us, and he has taken advantage of that position to help us.”
Several of the donated items fill holes in the Met’s collection and will allow the museum to present a more comprehensive narrative from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance. The Greenwich armor’s matching gauntlets, for example, will be reunited with the armor to which they originally belonged — the now-complete outfit will be on view for six months starting early this month.
“We had unmistakable gaps where we just couldn’t show what happened at certain places at certain times,” Mr. Terjanian said. “Those complete armors can anchor groups of objects that we have had but just didn’t have much context for. It’s a very well-rounded ensemble of stories that the gift enables us to tell.”
There will inevitably be some speculation that Mr. Lauder is trying to one-up his brother, Leonard A. Lauder, who in 2013 gave the Met his collection of 78 Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures, valued at more than $1 billion.
But Ronald Lauder said there was nothing to this: “We both have collections in different areas.”
Mr. Hollein also disputed that there was any sibling rivalry at work. “Both of them are great lovers of art,” he said. “The museum is lucky to have two great patrons like Leonard and Ronald.”
Although the Met would not provide an estimate of what Ronald Lauder’s gift is worth, Mr. Terjanian said, “With all the money in the world, I would challenge you to find anything of the like.”
At the same time, Mr. Lauder acknowledged that arms and armor are not exactly a hot segment of the art market; when the odd crossbow or jousting lance comes up for sale, there isn’t a lot of competition.
“I’m the only armor collector,” Mr. Lauder joked. “There is no one else.”