Chester Beatty, known to friends and family as Chester or 'Chet', was born into a middle-class New York family in 1875 on the site of what is now Rockefeller Center, the youngest of three sons. Chester, Robert and Gedney, were born to Hetty and John Beatty, a banker and stockbroker. He graduated from Columbia School of Mines in 1898 and bought a one-way train ticket to Denver, Colorado. His first job in the mines earned him $2 per day as a 'mucker', clearing away rock and soil from mine tunnels. He was quickly promoted to supervisor of the Kektonga Silver Mine. His first mentor was T.A. Rickard, one of the most respected mining engineers in the American West. Rickard also introduced Beatty to his sister-in-law, Grace 'Ninette' Rickard, who Beatty married in Denver in 1900. In 1903 he joined John Hayes Hammond on the management team of the Guggenheim Exploration Company. This position soon made Beatty a very wealthy young man and in 1908 when he left the Guggenheims, he was regarded as one of the country's leading mining engineers. Beatty bought a house in the fashionable East Side of New York and set up an office on Broadway as an independent mining consultant. Ninette and their daughter (little Ninette) joined him during the summer of 1907, and in October their son, Chester Jr, was born. In 1911, Grace 'Ninette' died suddenly of Typhoid fever and this, no doubt, had an impact on his next big decision. In 1912 he purchased Baroda House in Kensington Palace Gardens and moved with his two young children to London the following year. Shortly after the move, he married his second wife, Edith Dunn, in the Kensington Registry Office. Both avid collectors, the two spend the next few decades travelling the globe and acquiring masterpieces for their unique collections.
In 1914, Beatty founded the London-based mining company, Selection Trust. The First World War delayed the expansion but during the 1920s the business became an extraordinary successful group of companies with interests in many countries, including Russia, The Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and Sierra Leone. It was in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) that Chester Beatty's fortune was made when he dared to exploit the copper belt. For this, he became known as the 'King of Copper'.
An early family anecdote recalls that, as a young boy, Chester caught the collection bug, bidding at auction for mining samples. He recalled attending an auction with his father at the age of ten, and bidding 10 cents on a piece of pink calcite. During his time in Denver he began collecting stamps, which grew into an award-winning collection. Before his move to London he had already started collecting Chinese snuff bottles and Japanese netsuke, inro and tsuba. During his first trip to Cairo in the winter of 1913/14, he became interested in papyrus and Islamic manuscripts. Due to a condition of the lungs called silicosis, which he had acquired through his years working in American mines, Beatty and his family would winter in Egypt until the outbreak of WWII and after in the south of France. In 1917, recovering from a bout of pneumonia and Spanish influenza, Beatty, Edith and his daughter Ninette, traveled by boat to Japan and China. During this trip he acquired painted albums and scrolls and he continued to purchase Chinese, Japanese and south-east Asian manuscripts, textiles and artefacts for the rest of his life.
In 1931 an announcement in the London Times cast Beatty as a great collector. He had acquired an immensely important collection of Biblical manuscripts, now known as the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri. The discovery changed the existing understanding of pre-Constantinian textual history. With the New Testament books - Gospels and Acts (BP I), Pauline Epistles (BP II) and Revelation (BP III) - all dated to the third century, these documents were not only were surprising for having survived the Diocletian persecutions at the beginning of the next century, but the dating moved New Testament scholarship back by at least one hundred years. The dating specifically of BP I (p45) to the mid-third century moved the understanding of when Christians accepted the four gospels as canonical to earlier than had previously been presumed.
"Beatty’s reputation as a collector grew, and so did his network of advisers and agents. As in his business life, Beatty relied on the advice of experienced specialists but made the final decision on any purchase himself. By this time Edith was also establishing herself as a serious collector in her own right. While she was buying Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and French furniture, Beatty was acquiring important Islamic material, including an exceptional collection of illuminated copies of the Quran, and Mughal, Turkish and Persian manuscripts. His Western holdings were enhanced by acquisitions of Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Greek manuscripts. To his Asian holdings he added Tibetan, Thai, Burmese and Sumatran manuscripts. His eye was drawn to richly illustrated material, fine bindings and beautiful calligraphy, but he was also deeply committed to preserving texts for their historic value. He concerned himself only with works of the finest quality, and this became the hallmark of his collection."
Initially Beatty was a competitive force in the burgeoning Orientalist art market of the early 20th century. The major library and museum institutions anticipated his presence when prospecting acquisitions. However, in 1925, Beatty began what would later become a robust partnership with the British Museum. Though in later cases he would purchase an object and simply donate it, for the manuscript now known as the Minto Album, Beatty amicably agreed to split the folios. The lot was sold to Sir Eric Maclagan, director of the British Museum as part of a joint-purchase agreement with Beatty for $3,950. Beatty had first pick of the folios, the museum bought the remainder for $2000, and Beatty charitably donated an additional folio. The Beattys were also patrons of the British Museum, donating 19 ancient Egyptian papyri to the Museum.
Between 1949 and 1939 Beatty acquired over 140 nineteenth-century paintings to display in the Picture Gallery of his London home. The Gallery had been built as a result of the conversion of the stables to a library in 1934; the Gallery linked the main house to the garden library. In 1940 Beatty packed up the paintings and shipped them to New York for safekeeping during the war. In 1949 Beatty decided to donate part of his collection of French nineteenth-century paintings to the Irish Nation as a token of appreciation to the Taoiseach of the day, John A. Costello, for his support in facilitating Beatty's move from London. These are now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland.
Beatty had supported the war effort, contributing a large amount of raw materials to the Allies. He received a belated knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1954 Birthday Honours List for his contribution to the wartime effort.
By the late 1940s, however, he had become disillusioned with Britain. Political deviations from his free-market values, coupled with increased foreign exchange restrictions impacted both his personal and collecting interests in Britain. Though he had initially envisioned deepening his relationship with the British Museum by donating his collection in its entirety (he had personally funded many of the museum acquisitions, and received expert consultations from the curators), he changed his mind when the new director insisted on deciding for himself if Beatty's collection met the museum's quality standards. The director also would not assure Beatty that his collection would remain intact, rather he would separate pieces out to different departments.
"In 1950, at the age of 75, Chester Beatty handed over the reins of Selection Trust to his son Chester Jr and relocated to Dublin, taking many by surprise.The reason often cited is Beatty’s growing frustration with post-war Britain, not least the defeat of the Conservative party in the 1945 general election. Having committed himself to the Allied war effort during the Second World War and served on a number of Churchill’s committees, he was shocked by the Labour party victory. He told a meeting of stockholders that London was no longer the centre of the mining world and that ‘the position would deteriorate while high taxation, unjust duties and rigid controls stopped new mining projects being launched’. There were other, personal, considerations, however, and his old spirit of adventure surely played a part. His son had bought a home in County Kildare in 1948, which probably prompted Beatty to look favourably on Ireland as a home, especially given his Irish roots: both his paternal grandparents were born in Ireland. Beatty was also seriously considering long-term plans for his collection. Concerned that it would be dispersed if he were to leave it to a large institution, he found another solution. His purpose-built library on Shrewsbury Road in a suburb of Dublin opened in 1953, first for researchers and later to the public."
He bought a large townhouse for himself on Ailesbury Road, in the Ballsbridge area of Dublin and a site on Shrewsbury Road for the construction of the Chester Beatty Library, which houses the collection, was built nearby on Shrewsbury Road, opening on 8 August 1953. The library was moved to its current location at Dublin Castle in 2000.
Beatty spent the remainder of his life between Dublin and the south of France. He was made a Freeman of Dublin in 1954 and was the first person granted honorary citizenship of Ireland in 1957. He continued to collection in the 1950s and 1960s, acquiring important Ethiopian manuscripts and Japanese printed material during that period.
Beatty died in Monte Carlo in Monaco in 1968; his Irish estate was valued at £7 million. He was accorded a state funeral by the Irish government – the first private citizen in Irish history to receive such an honour. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
The Chester Beatty Library on Shrewsbury Road and the collection it housed was bequeathed to a trust on behalf of the people of Ireland. In 2000, it opened in its current location: the eighteenth-century Clock Tower building on the grounds of Dublin Castle.