Stefan Edlis dies at 94; war refugee became plastics magnate, donated valued pieces to Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Institute

In 2015, he and his wife, Gael Neeson, gave a record-setting cache to the Art Institute – 42 pieces of art valued at more than $500 million, a donation featured in the 2018 HBO art documentary, “The Price of Everything.”

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Art collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson.

Art collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson.

File photo

When plastics mogul Stefan Edlis bought a Jeff Koons “Rabbit” in 1991, it cost him $945,000.

Today, it’s worth nearly $100 million, according to the institution where he donated it, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which announced his death Tuesday, in Chicago, at age 94.

In 2015, he and his wife, Gael Neeson, gave a record-setting cache to the Art Institute of Chicago — 42 works that some experts value at more than half a billion dollars.

Mr. Edlis said the gift was influenced by the Art Institute’s promise to keep the pieces on public display for half a century.


Arts philanthropists Stefan Edlis and his wife, Gael Neeson, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

MCA Chicago

Young Stefan, born in Vienna, was only 15 when his family fled Europe. He wound up burying dead Japanese soldiers at Iwo Jima while serving in the Navy in World War II, according to an interview with the MCA.

In 1965, Mr. Edlis founded Apollo Plastics in Chicago, which helped manufacture some of the postwar era’s most popular mass-produced objects: Motorola flip phones, RCA record players and Zenith radios.

Fittingly, his collection started with plastic artworks, according to ARTnews.

His taste was discerning and sweeping. The pieces he and his wife donated to the Art Institute included creations by Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Prince, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.

In the 2018 HBO art documentary “The Price of Everything,” Mr. Edlis paraphrased a famous Oscar Wilde line from the play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: “There’s a lot of people that know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

But there was no science — or any guarantees – in collecting, he told the Sun-Times in 1988.

“The art market marches to its own tune,” Mr. Edlis said. “Anyone who tries to forecast it is doomed to fail.”


Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson.

MCA Chicago

Mr. Edlis “influenced every great cultural institution in Chicago,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director of the MCA. “Stefan, joined by his wife Gael, loved how artists expand our thinking and perception of the world, and perhaps most of all, how artists test the limits. The MCA would not be what it is without Stefan and his boundless passion, curiosity, kindness, and optimism.”

“I consider Stefan Edlis, along with his wife Gael Neeson, to be the Nobel Laureates of Chicago philanthropy: they believe in investing in the culture of their community and the places they live and spend time,” said James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s president and director. “Their 2015 gift has been transformative on so many levels, and with it they join the pantheon of Chicago patrons who have ensured that the Art Institute can tell the story of Modern art in depth, decade-by-decade, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Mr. Edlis and his wife also donated millions to Chicago Opera Theater, WBEZ, the Santa Fe Ballet and the Aspen Art Museum, according to Inside Philanthropy. For part of the year, they lived in Aspen.

And they helped fund the Lyric Opera’s new Ring cycle, which will be presented in spring of 2020.

“Stefan was an amazing life force and a volcano of intellectual energy. He was devoted to Lyric, and he regularly attended performances, board meetings, and many special events,” said Lyric Opera CEO Anthony Freud. On Sept. 12, “He attended the announcement of Enrique Mazzola as Lyric’s music director-designate succeeding Sir Andrew Davis in 2021.”

As a little boy, he was a stamp collector, Mr. Edlis said in a 2015 interview with the Forward, a Jewish-American news publication.

In 1938, on Kristallnacht, he recalled that a member of a Nazi paramilitary group took the typewriter from the Edlis family’s home.

They were able to get to the U.S. in 1941. “When we arrived at the pier in Manhattan, my uncle was there, greeting me with a sandwich,” Mr Edlis told the Forward. “And life was good.”

He was an amateur sportscar driver, according to the MCA, starting out his racing career with a Fiat Abarth and later, a Porsche 911.

“Stefan and Gael reveled in their love of and for the arts,” said Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Citadel. “Their incredible acts of philanthropy have indelibly furthered both the Art Institute and MCA as leading cultural institutions in the world.”

Griffin, who recently made a record $125 million donation to the Museum of Science and Industry, said that while the gift was a decade in the making, “There’s no doubt that seeing Stefan’s generosity was inspirational to everyone in the city.”

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