HOW long has this been going on?" asked the late advertising tycoon Albert Davis Lasker (onetime head of Lord & Thomas), one afternoon in 1943. Before him, set up on easels in Manhattan's Wildenstein galleries, stood a $70,000 Gauguin and a $45,000 Renoir. For the man who made such products as Lucky Strike, Palmolive, Pepsodent, Kleenex and Kotex into household words, the world of art was opening. On hand to coach and whet his appetite was his wife Mary, who had majored in art at Radcliffe, gone on to help run a Manhattan gallery.

Adman Lasker at 64 plunged into the market,...

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