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The gift

Peter and Paula Lunder quietly accumulated $100 million in art. Then, just as quietly, they gave it all to Colby College.

For years, the philanthropists Peter and Paula Lunder displayed their art anonymously, using the pseudonym "A Private Collection" when they lent a $1.8 million Georgia O'Keeffe painting for a show at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Famously private, the Lunders wanted praise lavished on their art -- not on themselves.

"They hate the fuss," longtime friend and former Colby College president William Cotter said. "They hate when someone puts price tags and names on their collection. They're embarrassed, really."

Peter Lunder, the former Dexter Shoe Company president, and his wife, who live in Maine and own a home in Boston, have assembled one of the nation's largest and most valuable collections of American art. Appraised at $100 million, the Lunder portfolio comprises 500 works by American masters including O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Sol LeWitt, and Edward Hopper. They have 201 prints by James McNeill Whistler, one of the largest collections of the artist's works in private hands.

But they just don't talk publicly about it. Even after the couple pledged their entire collection to Peter's alma mater Colby College in May -- one of the largest art gifts ever to a liberal arts college -- they declined all interview requests. "We appreciate the interest in us and in the Colby Museum," Paula Lunder said recently when reached by telephone at their Scarborough home. "But we don't talk to the press."

During his tenure at Colby, Cotter persuaded the couple to place their name on donations in order to inspire other philanthropy. But the Lunders still prefer for their artwork to speak for itself. They want praise for their donations to fall upon the institutions they support: Colby, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Babson College, and others. Friends say their silence demonstrates humility.

But still they receive attention here. In Waterville, where they lived for decades and still own a home, the Lunder name reverberates. Drive onto the Colby campus and you are engulfed in buildings named for the couple and their relatives.

On the right, you pass the Alfond Track honoring Harold Alfond, the uncle of Peter Lunder and founder of Dexter Shoes. On your left are the Alfond-Wales Tennis Courts. Down the road is Lunder House, the admissions building. Across campus is the Lunder Wing of the Colby Museum. Students receive Lunder Scholarships. The Lunders endowed the museum curator position. Even the museum guards are paid with Lunder funding.

"American art collectors are often people who feel they're building a stronger country. They have a deep sense of public-spiritedness," said Elizabeth Broun, a longtime acquaintance and director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "That's especially true of the Lunders."

That patriotism is evident in their art. Classic and all-American, their portfolio emphasizes 19th-century painting and sculpture. The Lunders's many New England landscapes reflect a deep interest in Maine and Massachusetts. But they also own dozens of Western paintings of cowboys and Native Americans. Their Georgia O'Keeffe showcases a distinctly different, 20th-century Midwestern style.

"It is the American story and American culture as refracted through art that really interests them," current Colby President William D. Adams said. Broun described the couple and their collection as "strongly patriotic" and "rooted in the history of Maine and the United States."

In their early '70s the Lunders still traverse the country from coast to coast, according to longtime friend and former Waterville neighbor Judy Brody. They own homes in Waterville, Scarborough, Boston, and Palm Beach, Fla. They visit their son and daughter-in-law in California and other three children in Boston. They pay regular visits to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

But they are far from extravagant, friends and colleagues say. Their Waterville home is a modest ranch nestled behind a white picket fence and beneath a massive willow. Paula never wears jewelry, friends say. "There's a French expression, 'Don't look for noon at 2 o'clock in the afternoon,"' fellow Colby benefactor Paul J. Schupf said. "There's nothing with the Lunders that you don't see. They're the ultimate straight shooters."

If they were featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Schupf said, the headline would be "Nice People Succeed, Reward Maine."

"Famously simple, New England people," New York art dealer Thomas Colville agreed.

"Genuinely unassuming," Broun said.

"Salt-of-the-earth people," former Colby art professor David Lubin said.

This is the Lunder conundrum: They avoid the press spotlight, yet their name is everywhere. They are ordinary Mainers, yet they own a $100 million fortune in art. They have a universal reputation for simplicity, yet they have become royal members of high-art circles.

"They are known from sea to sea," Broun said. How many people's private collections are more valuable? "Within the world of American art, you could count them on the fingers of one hand," she said. "And you might not use all the fingers."

From shoes to Sox
Until his uncle Harold sold the Dexter Shoe Company to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. for $416 million in 1993, Peter Lunder worked in the shoe business his entire life. Asked about his demeanor, friends often use the word "businesslike."

"I have no idea what his hobbies are," Schupf said. "I know that Peter takes walks on the beach. Beyond that, I have no idea. Not a clue. You don't ask the Lunders that. We talk incessantly, but never about our private lives. He's very quiet, a very private person."

Peter's father died when he was in high school, and Alfond became "like a surrogate father," said Brody, who went to Colby with Peter and remains a close family friend. After Peter graduated from Colby in 1956 -- where, according to the yearbook, he was president of the Tau Delta Phi fraternity and participated in Hillel -- he worked briefly for another shoe company before joining his uncle at Dexter.

Besides business, art, Colby, and his family, Peter cares passionately about the Red Sox. At the Lunders's home in Waterville, Brody recalls, he used to invite friends into a small den to watch Sox games on a television beneath a Western painting.

In 1978, Dexter Shoe Company became a shareholder of the team. After Berkshire Hathaway's takeover, the Alfond family chose to remain partial owners of the Red Sox. The Lunders still own a box at Fenway, where Brody said Opening Day is an annual family rite.

The Lunders began seriously collecting art in the 1980s and quickly "caught fire," Broun said. Paula's sister is an artist and they enjoyed the philanthropic element of collecting. The betterment of Maine became their primary goal, Adams said.

Lubin visited one of the Lunders's homes for a meal and conversation recently and viewed some of the pieces pledged to Colby.

"The images work as an ensemble when you're walking through their house," he said. "A Homer will be across the hall from a Whistler -- and they'll share a common theme like a body of water." Over the next six years, the Lunder Collection will be transferred permanently to a new wing at the Colby Museum, although dozens of their pieces already reside at Colby.

Like most high-end collectors, the Lunders seek extensive advice from art critics and fellow collectors before purchases. But they have a reputation as shrewd, independent decision makers. "They don't approach it as stamp collecting," Colville said. "They don't say, 'We need one of these' or 'We need one of those.' The painting needs to speak to them."

The works that speak to them share a certain "humanity," Colville said. "There's a warmth. They're very imaginative paintings," he said. "They're rich in detail. They're not sterile."

The Lunders act as equal partners, friends say. If they don't both like a piece, they probably won't buy it, said George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian, where the Lunders endowed a conservation center.

Adams, the Colby president, recently spent a day with the Lunders at the Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses in New York. "I was really struck with how smart they were," he said. The Lunders commented in detail on various artists, schools of work, and historical movements. But they bought nothing. "Peter thought everything was overpriced," Adams said. "He has a very discerning eye."

'Floating on cloud nine'
Each May, the Colby Museum Board of Governors convenes at the elite Harmonie Club in New York. This year, after breakfast and mingling, President Adams kicked off the summit by announcing the Lunders's $100 million gift.

"Everyone gasped," art professor Veronique Plesch said. "It colored the whole rest of the day. People were floating on cloud nine." After the announcement, the Lunders spoke briefly about their admiration for Colby, Plesch recalls. But they said little about themselves. The meeting moved quickly to the next order of business.

"This collection could have gone to the Met, the Smithsonian. Anyone would have leapt at it," Bates College Museum of Art director Mark Bessire said. "It's an amazing gift for a liberal arts college."

By all accounts, the Lunder donation launches Colby into the highest echelon of college museums. It's a coup for the relatively young museum, which until recently had not competed with world-renowned galleries. Before the museum's founding in 1959, Plesch said, Colby hung its art in the cafeteria. "They might have had food fights under these 19th-century portraits," she said. "That's scary."

During the Colby presidency of Cotter, Adams's predecessor, the museum became a top priority on campus. Interested in competing with older museums at Bowdoin and Smith, Colby began courting major donors like Schupf. An admirer but not an alumnus of the college, Schupf became a close associate of Cotter, the president from 1979 to 2000, and then-museum director Hugh Gourley. Together with the Lunder donations, his gifts elevated the museum from regional to national prominence.

"I gave the naming gift for the wing for the art of Alex Katz," he said. "Then the Lunders gave the Lunder Wing. Then I gave the Paul J. Schupf Sculpture Court. Then they have the Lunder collection." He added: "It's been a wonderful trip with these people."

The Lunders return frequently to Waterville. Their first stop is always Colby, Brody said, where they both serve on boards, Paula as a life trustee and Peter as an overseer. "Everyone here is on a first-name basis with them," art professor Ankeney Weitz said.

Still there are limits to the Lunders's openness. Despite a long friendship and similar ambitions, Schupf has learned to keep his relationship with the Lunders about art -- not about the Lunders themselves. At a Colby event years ago, a trustee asked Peter Lunder an inappropriately personal question, Schupf recalls. Schupf could tell the trustee had crossed the line.

"Peter gave him a little smile and turned away," Schupf said. "Peter didn't say, 'Go jump in a lake.' He just turned away. That's the kind of person he is."

Robbie Brown can be reached at jbrown@globe.com.

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