UNC’s Ackland Art Museum gets $25 million gift, including Rembrandts

Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606 1669: Canal and Boats with a Distant View of Amsterdam, c. 1640; reed pen and finger rubbing in dark brown (iron-gall) ink, 4-1/16 x 8 in.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606 1669: Canal and Boats with a Distant View of Amsterdam, c. 1640; reed pen and finger rubbing in dark brown (iron-gall) ink, 4-1/16 x 8 in. Ackland Art Museum

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum announced its largest-ever donation Wednesday, a $25 million gift that includes seven Rembrandt works.

The donation is from Boston orthodontist and UNC alumnus Sheldon Peck and his wife, Leena, also an orthodontist, who have collected 17th century Dutch and Flemish masterworks for four decades. The Peck Collection features 134 works, valued at $17 million. The donation adds another $8 million for an endowment to support future acquisitions and a new curator.

The Ackland is the first public university art museum to own a collection of Rembrandt drawings. One of the sketches bears an inscription in the artist’s own handwriting, which until this donation was the last known privately held drawing with such an inscription.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt called the gift “a giant step forward” for the university’s museum, which is on campus near the center of downtown Chapel Hill. “It’s a wonderful expression of the importance of the arts here,” she said.

Museum director Katie Ziglar said in a statement, “We are overjoyed with the Pecks’ exceptionally generous gift of art, funds for its stewardship and support for future acquisitions. ... Works of such high achievement and quality will fascinate and delight Ackland visitors for decades to come.”

Along with the Rembrandts, the collection includes drawings by such notables as Peter Paul Rubens, Aelbert Cuyp, Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Peck, a Durham native, is an orthodontic specialist, educator and art collector. After receiving his undergraduate degree from UNC in 1963 and his doctorate from the UNC School of Dentistry in 1966, he moved to Boston for a residency in orthodontics. He was a clinical professor of developmental biology at Harvard University’s dental school for 20 years and also served as an adjunct professor of orthodontics at UNC’s dental school.

He has donated to the Ackland since 1988 and is a member of the museum’s national advisory board.

Decades ago, he gave a drawing by Allart van Everdingen to the museum in honor of his older brother, Harvey Peck, also a UNC alumnus. Works from the Pecks’ collection were featured in a 1999 Ackland traveling exhibition.

Standing in front of a wall of prints of the old master drawings, Peck said he and his wife loved each piece “as part of our family.”

“These precious artworks, original one-of-a-kind drawings, old master drawings from the Netherlands, represent the best of civilization,” Peck said. “After years of receiving our most studious gazes, these masterworks continue to elicit pleasure, learning and awe – the ultimate paybacks from art. We want this enrichment to continue by gifting these now unattainable great objects to a marvelous university museum, the Ackland, where they can be shared with the community and the world, for education and delight, in perpetuity.”

The drawings were bought at the world’s famous auction houses over several decades, and there were fruitful discoveries along the way, Peck said.

One Rembrandt “was sleeping in the bookshelves of the Earl of Warwick” in Great Britain and only hit the market when the family sold off part of its library to pay for roof repairs to its castle, he said.

Peck said he had been attracted to sketches because of their spontaneity and experimental nature – “the ideas being worked out before your eyes by gifted artists, rather than finished formal works of paintings, sculptures, prints, that had less of this artistic excitement.”

Dutch art in the 16th and 17th centuries, he said, represented “a golden age” of secular art that depicted everyday life. “We like that,” he said, “and we became easily hooked on collecting these timeless, world-class works.”

The collection’s works will be digitized for the Ackland’s website with high-resolution images and descriptions. A traveling exhibit is also planned.

“It will stay mostly here, though,” Peck said.

Herald-Sun staff writer Ray Gronberg contributed to this report.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill