Billionaire Peter Buck Buys Rare Objects and Donates Them to Smithsonian Museums

By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

In 2004, nuclear-physicist-cum-billionaire Peter Buck, 77, purchased one of the world's most fabulous rubies for an undisclosed sum and donated it to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in memory of Carmen Lúcia Buck, his late wife.

Buck described the acquisition process, which began with Carmen's longtime jeweler, Frank Cappiello, whom Buck has known for the past quarter-century:

"To paraphrase, what Frank originally said was: 'Hey Pete! Got this great idea. What you do is, spend a lot of money and buy this ruby, and immediately give it away!' "

And Buck did just that.

Same deal with the 224-year-old George Washington letter that Buck recently donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which announced the acquisition on July 16 and plans to display it early next year.

Again, it was Cappiello (who has expanded his purview to include rare manuscripts) who brought the letter to Buck's attention, suggesting that the Smithsonian might be eager to clutch the historic missive to its stately bosom.

According to Smithsonian curator Harry Rubenstein, Washington himself had kept a copy of the letter in question, from which the recently unearthed original varies slightly. It provides stronger proof of Washington's conviction that the states ought to, as Washington writes, "Act as a Nation" -- valuable sentiments indeed, given that Washington aired them two years prior to the Constitutional Convention. The letter continues: "If we are afraid to trust one another under qualified powers there is an end to the Union."

Buck offered to purchase the letter for the Smithsonian, saying that if they didn't want the letter, they could have the money anyway. But they did want the letter, and Buck coughed up a cool quarter-million for the document's purchase and care. Although for Buck, perhaps the cash wasn't so much coughed up as it was gently exhaled.

A longtime resident of Danbury, Conn., Buck ponied up $1,000 in 1965 to open the first Subway sandwich shop with friend Fred DeLuca. At the time, Buck was working for General Electric, designing nuclear reactors. Since then, Subway has exploded into a worldwide franchise (yes, you can get a Veggie Delite in Afghanistan), and Buck and DeLuca regularly appear on Forbes's roster of fabulously wealthy persons. In March, the magazine estimated Buck's worth at $1.6 billion.

The Smithsonian-Buck relationship, now five years old and going strong, was originally orchestrated by Cappiello. When Smithsonian curator Jeff Post met Cappiello at a jewelry function in 2002, he mentioned that the Smithsonian was desirous of acquiring the ruby, Cappiello says. So when Buck and Cappiello, two years later, discussed purchasing the stone in Carmen's memory, Cappiello knew exactly where it would find a welcoming home.

After Buck donated the gem, now dubbed the Carmen Lúcia Ruby, Natural History Museum Director Cristián Samper invited Buck to join the museum's board. And the relationship continues, as so many long-distance affairs do, with the help of gifts and visits -- Buck travels to D.C. twice yearly to attend board meetings and take a peek at the galleries.

One of his first stops, of course, is always the Minerals and Gem Gallery, where the Carmen Lúcia Ruby -- a gleaming Burmese stone the size of a large throat lozenge, set with two diamonds in a platinum ring -- is displayed behind glass, within sight of the Hope Diamond.

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