Washington A California real estate tycoon turned philanthropist, whose hobbies include the Seattle Seahawks football team and big game hunting in Central Asia, today will give the Smithsonian Institution $80 million, the biggest donation in its history.
The gift, from Kenneth Behring, 72, of Danville, Calif., will go to the National Museum of American History, home of the dresses of the first ladies and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Behring, who sits on the Smithsonian's board and is a recipient of its James Smithson award, also is the Smithsonian's second biggest donor. He gave $20 million to the National Museum of Natural History in 1997.
A spokeswoman for Behring, Barbara Francis, confirmed the contribution but declined further comment. A formal presentation to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small and American history museum director Spencer Crew is set for this morning. While the museum will keep its name, its main building will be named after Behring.
Behring's earlier gift went to renovate the natural history museum and support its educational programs. The donation was a bit controversial because it was coupled with his gift of four stuffed bighorn sheep from Central Asia. Among them was an endangered Kara-Tau argali, a mountain sheep from Kazakhstan, which had an estimated population of only 100. Behring is a member of the Safari Club International, a big-game hunting organization.
Behring, who was worth $495 million in 1998, according to Forbes magazine's tally of America's wealthiest, long has been a museum entrepreneur and donor. His biography lists him as the founder of the Blackhawk Automotive Museum and the University of California's Berkeley Museum of Art, Science and Culture.
The auto museum features 130 of the world's most valuable cars, as well as a spider exhibit loaned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In mid- October, several items of political memorabilia borrowed from the Smithsonian, including the sword George Washington wore into battle, the hat Abraham Lincoln wore when he was assassinated and the microphone Franklin D. Roosevelt used during his fireside chats, will be temporary displayed at the auto museum.
The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846, 20 years after British scientist James Smithson bequeathed his entire estate to the United States. His gift was intended "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."