Large museums are rejecting funds from the Sackler family, underscoring the growing unease with the main source of the philanthropic dynasty’s riches: The painkiller at the center of the US opioid crisis.
With net worth estimated at more than US$13 billion, the Sacklers are among the world’s richest families, according to Forbes magazine.
They have used their wealth to become significant funders of the arts and education.
Their story is the epitome of the American dream: Three brothers — Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond — born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York City after World War I, became psychiatrists and then built Purdue Pharma after buying a struggling New York drug company in 1952.
Purdue became a dominant force in the pharmaceutical industry, largely due to the blockbuster painkiller OxyContin, the highly addictive drug now subject to more than 1,000 lawsuits over its role in the opioid crisis.
The company’s success helped the brothers amass enough wealth to become major philanthropists: The Sackler name is a visible presence at Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Yale, Tufts and Oxford universities, as well as entire wings of two of the world’s greatest museums — the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The donations earned Arthur the moniker of a “modern Medici” by art scholar Thomas Lawton.
Arthur passed away in 1987, nearly a decade before OxyContin was introduced, and his heirs sold his stake in Purdue to the other two brothers when he died.
The wealth of the remaining branches was based on what the New Yorker magazine called “an empire of pain” through “ruthless marketing.”
That tradition of giving continued in the next generation, with two of Raymond’s children endowing a professorship at the Yale Cancer Center.
“My father raised Jon and me to believe that philanthropy is an important part of how we should fill our days,” Richard Sackler said in 2009.
Richard, who lives in Austin, Texas, also has donated to both the Democratic and Republican parties, and conservative think tanks.
Mortimer Sackler had luxurious mansions in London, the south of France and Switzerland. Several of his seven children have been on the board of Purdue, while one, Mortimer D.A., gave US$9 million to the Guggenheim museum between 1995 and 2015.
However, the museum has cut all ties with the family.
“No additional gifts are planned, and the Guggenheim does not plan to accept any gifts,” the museum said on Friday last week.
The UK’s National Portrait Gallery earlier this month canceled a ￡1 million (US$1.32 million at the current exchange rate), donation from the Sackler Trust and the UK’s Tate galleries followed suit.
The trust on Monday announced that it was suspending all donations in Britain.
The privately held Purdue Pharma, based in Connecticut, released OxyContin in 1995 and the drug reportedly has generated more than US$30 billion in revenue.
In 2017, 47,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the US (prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl), according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
That same year, 1.7 million people were suffering from addiction to painkillers like OxyContin.
The Sackler family has been inextricably linked to the company: Mortimer and Raymond led Purdue as the company developed OxyContin into a blockbuster drug. Mortimer died in 2010 and Raymond in 2017. The last Sackler left the Purdue board earlier this month.
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