When curators began to catalogue the collection, it took five full-size moving trucks to transport the Vogels’ art to Washington from their apartment.
“This was a fabled collection,” said Cowart, who is now executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. “We all knew the National Gallery would never be able to acquire, piece by piece, such an astonishing collection.”
The National Gallery’s Vogel Collection now contains more than 900 works, and almost 300 more have been promised to the museum. The National Gallery staged major exhibitions drawn from the collection in 1994 and 2001.
“Their collection was lovingly formed in a very personal way,” said Powell, the National Gallery director. “They weren’t collecting for the National Gallery of Art. They were collecting for themselves and for an apartment in New York.”
Herbert Vogel was born Aug. 16, 1922, in New York City. His father was a tailor, and he grew up mostly in Harlem. He never completed high school.
After serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Vogel began working as a postal clerk, sorting mail at various post offices throughout Manhattan. He worked mostly at night, which allowed him to study art history at New York University during the daytime. He never told his coworkers about his interest in art.
He married Dorothy Hoffman in 1962. Besides his wife, survivors include a sister.
The Vogels took painting classes and had a studio for several years, with the hope of developing careers as abstract expressionists. They gave up their studio when they realized that were more interested in other artists’ work than in their own.
They lived simply, eating at neighborhood diners and Chinese restaurants. They stopped traveling to Europe in the 1970s in order to have more money to spend on art. They usually paid cash or worked out novel arrangements with artists.
“When they came to the studio, they always came with a wad of cash,” the renowned painter Chuck Close said in a 1992 interview with the New York newspaper Newsday. “You’d always wind up selling something for a fraction of what it was worth.”
The Vogels were featured on “60 Minutes” and in a 2008 documentary film by Megumi Sasaki called “Herb and Dorothy.” Their names have been carved in the wall at the entrance to the National Gallery’s West Building alongside those of other major benefactors.
After the National Gallery moved out about 2,500 pieces from the Vogels’ apartment in 1990, they filled it with more art over the next 20 years.
Mr. Vogel could not always articulate why he liked certain works of art more than others or what he looked for when collecting. Sasaki, the director of the 2008 documentary about the Vogels, ended up focusing the camera on his eyes, which instantly grew wide whenever he saw a new artwork that he admired.
“I just like art,” Mr. Vogel said in 1992. “ I don’t know why I like art. I don’t know why I like nature. I don’t know why I like animals. I don’t know why I even like myself.”