This philanthropist treasures her privacy

October 11, 1992|By John Dorsey

Despite the fact that she has been successfully buying furniture since the 1940s, Dorothy McIlvain Scott still remembers the one that got away.

It was in the 1960s, and she was in New York to look at a piece that was up for auction. "It was a Townsend-Goddard highboy [originally] from the Hunter house at Newport. It was in terrible condition, so I thought maybe people wouldn't bid high. But they did -- it went for $104,000, and when I got back to the [hotel] that night I got a call from my mother, and she said, 'You didn't do it, did you? If you did it, you'll have to find the money, because I'm not buying it.'

"It turned out that Doris Duke had bought it, and gave it [back] to the Hunter house."

There's plenty that didn't get away, though, including the 52 pieces of furniture and the other decorative arts from her collection that she has given and promised to give to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

One might think that might be enough of a benefaction for one lifetime, but although she is by her own wish not well known to the public at large Miss Scott is an almost legendary philanthropist in Baltimore.

Aside from the BMA, she has given and/or promised works to the Walters Art Gallery and the Maryland Historical Society, where she is vice president of the board. And she is a major benefactor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Union Memorial Hospital, among other institutions.

Her gestures are often both generous and appropriate. For example, she bought pieces of silver that had long ago been owned by the Carroll family of Mount Clare and gave them to Mount Clare in honor of a friend who had devoted much of her life to the house.

Tall and distinguished in bearing, Miss Scott has just passed her 80th birthday but looks years if not decades younger.

She and her mother became interested in collecting furniture "as a sort of hobby" in the early 1940s and took it up more seriously after World War II. There wasn't much old family furniture, because "our family home in Virginia had burned in the 1800s." After her mother's death in 1968, Miss Scott continued collecting for pleasure, she said.

Among the pieces she has sent to the BMA, she singles out two as especially important: "The Boston secretary with the hand-carved wooden eagle with the olive branch -- I have heard

there's only one other [like it] and that's in the Boston Museum, but that was some time ago and I don't know if they've found any more by now. And the [New York] sideboard is very rare with the bottles in it."

She says she doesn't miss the pieces that have gone to the museum, now that she has moved from her former home to a retirement community. "I would if I were in the same apartment, but this is a different atmosphere and I have enough around me that's old and that I've lived with." She did have to make a couple of recent purchases. "I bought two chests because I didn't have anything to put my clothes in."

About her decision to send so many of her things to the museum now, she says, "I wanted to do all this while I was mentally and physically able." But she doesn't like the idea of the publicity attending it all.

"I live a very private life. . . . I was raised that way and it's difficult for me to change. I don't want ever for people to feel that I'm above them or showing off or putting on airs. I just want the museum to have [the things] and not a whole lot about myself."

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