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An auction for science

PR specialist May Rubião left part of her estate to FAPESP to fund stem-cell research

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES On the left, Natureza morta by Aldo Bonadei; to the right, A grande cidade azulada by Antonio Bandeira, and Fachada, by Alfredo VolpiLÉO RAMOS CHAVES

A donated collection of 70 pieces of art, jewelry, furniture, and ornaments will help fund genetics research in Brazil. May Nunes de Souza Rubião, who passed away in February at the ripe age of 94, bequeathed a portion of her estate worth about R$3 million to FAPESP on the condition it was auctioned and the proceeds placed in an endowment fund to support stem-cell research on preventing and treating degenerative diseases. The auction took place on the night of October 24, selling more than half of the items on sale and raising about R$540,000 in proceeds. The highest-selling item was a still life painted in 1970 by São Paulo artist Aldo Bonadei (1906–1984), which carried a minimum bid of R$180,000 and, after 26 bids in a bidders’ duel, was purchased for R$305,000. May Rubião was the sole owner of the painting, which she purchased from Bonadei along with other works. The cheapest items were a silver toothpick holder, a chandelier and a carpet, selling for R$1,000 each. Among the most disputed items were an eighteenth-century silver ornament sold for R$7,500, and a bronze horse sculpture sold for R$3,300.

A number of items remaining unsold were purchased by antique dealers and art galleries in the days following the auction. By early November, 57 of the 70 items had been purchased, including the most valuable article in the collection: the oil painting A grande cidade azulada by Ceará-born painter Antonio Bandeira (1922–1967), which was first exhibited at the 2nd São Paulo Biennial in 1953 and was purchased for R$1.67 million. Total proceeds to date amount to a little over R$3 million.

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES Cavalo, a black-patinated bronze sculpture by Caetano FraccaroliLÉO RAMOS CHAVES

With a number of articles still remaining to be sold, the exact amount of proceeds will likely be known only in February. The aggregate amount will determine how the funds will be invested. “Ideally we would create a long-term fund, managed by FAPESP, from which only the dividends would be used toward two or three education or research grants, without drawing on the principal. But for that we would need to raise over R$5 million,” says José Moraes, May Rubião’s nephew and administrator of her estate.

According to FAPESP’s Chief Counsel, Gustavo Mônaco, this is the first time FAPESP has received an endowment under a will. “There have been no other donations of this kind on record since the Foundation was created in 1962,” says Mônaco. FAPESP is funded out of the São Paulo State Treasury (the Constitution of 1989 requires that 1% of the state’s tax revenue be allocated to the Foundation) as well as by tuition revenues and funds received from government agencies, institutions and companies under cooperation agreements. In 2016, R$1.137 billion was invested in more than 24,000 research programs.

léo ramos chaves A Portuguese Baroque cherubim…léo ramos chaves

In the US and Europe, it is not uncommon for entrepreneurs and philanthropists to help fund research through donations to universities or scientific institutions or by creating foundations managing large endowment funds. But examples of this form of private giving in Brazil are still few and far between (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 219). The most prominent example endowment-wise is the Serrapilheira Institute, a nonprofit organization created this year to manage a R$350 million endowment donated by João and Branca Moreira Salles for investment in research projects across several fields of knowledge (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 254).

Two bills dealing with endowment funds are currently going through Congress. One bill, which passed the Senate in September and is now pending in the House of Representatives, sets out regulations on how donations to universities are managed. Authored by Senator Ana Amélia (of the PP-RS party), the original wording required that funds donated to public education and research institutions be managed through endowment funds—such as those existing in some universities—receiving endowments from alumni. The framework has since been amended under a substitute bill by Senator Armando Monteiro (PTB-PE), which provides the option for funds to be managed through foundations. The second bill took an opposite course, passing the Chamber in September and now pending in the Senate. Authored by Congresswoman Bruna Furlan (PSDB-SP), the bill regulates the endowment funds of federal universities. Under the new bill, each university will create a fund to manage assets from donations or other sources, and the money is required to be used to fund research and university extension. The option for donations to be allocated at the donor’s discretion has been withdrawn.

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES …a seventeenth-century sideboard displaying articles from the collection…LÉO RAMOS CHAVES

In the previous century, it had been a tradition in Brazil to leave to public universities the estates of people who died with no heirs. A decree-act promulgated in 1945 established that vacant estates were to inure to the benefit of state governments and be invested in higher education. In São Paulo, the University of São Paulo (USP) was the first to receive assets from vacant estates in 1957, and in 1985 was joined by the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and São Paulo State University (UNESP). Following a change in law in 1990, however, municipal governments became the beneficiaries of vacant estates.

Donations of collections and works of art to universities are fairly common and typically go to museums and libraries. One of the best-known examples was the donation by art patrons Yolanda Penteado and Ciccillo Matarazzo of their collections to form USP’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in 1962. Four years ago, USP opened the Brasiliana Guita & José Mindlin Library with a collection of 32,000 books—largely rare works—bequeathed by businessman José Mindlin (1914–2010).

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES …a platinum and diamond brooch and earrings…LÉO RAMOS CHAVES

May Rubião worked in PR for over 40 years at Metal Leve, a company founded by Mindlin. According to her nephew, José Moraes, the entrepreneur’s example was a source of inspiration for her. “My aunt was a woman ahead of her time, who earned a degree in arts and literature and then in social science in the early years of USP. She took an interest in public relations at a time when women rarely held employment, and was among the pioneers of the field in Brazil after completing internships in Washington, London, and Paris,” he says. She married João Álvares Rubião Neto (1915–2010), a lawyer born into a family of coffee growers in the municipality of Bananal, São Paulo; part of the furniture offered at the auction formerly belonged to his family’s farm, Fazenda Resgate. The couple had no children. The idea of leaving part of her estate for stem-cell research, her nephew says, came as part of her aspiration to support leading-edge research. “She thought it a noble cause to help society overcome the burden of degenerative diseases,” he says.

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES …and a patinated bronze sculpture by Bruno GiorgiLÉO RAMOS CHAVES

Moraes tried to persuade his aunt to make the donation in life. “She had a strong personality and was reluctant to part with a collection that had been her life’s passion to assemble,” he explains, noting that she had been friends with painter Antonio Bandeira when they both lived in Paris. When Rubião ultimately made the decision to donate her collection for stem-cell research, she sought advice from Celso Lafer, then president of FAPESP, with whom she had worked at Metal Leve—the Lafers were shareholders in the company. “When she approached me for advice I recommended FAPESP as an institution I believed could manage the funds most efficiently,” says Celso Lafer. “The donation sets a good precedent and could encourage others to follow suit.” According to Lafer, science, technology, and the university were an important part of May Rubião’s life. “She studied at USP in the company of researchers such as Mário Wagner Vieira da Cunha and Juarez Brandão Lopes. At Metal Leve, she witnessed first-hand the creation of a pioneering technological development center and she was the sister-in-law of physicist and USP professor Abrahão de Moraes,” he says.

May Rubião told FAPESP she had made it a beneficiary of her will around two and a half years ago. But Chief Counsel Gustavo Mônaco believes May Rubião’s donation may not remain the only instance of private giving to FAPESP for long. The Foundation has recently learned it will be the beneficiary of a will made by a woman with no heirs. “We don’t know the details yet, but we do know her estate includes a number of properties and that she has decided to leave them to the Foundation because she believes investing in research would put her assets to use for a noble cause. This particular benefactor was unaware of and so could not have been influenced by May Rubião’s will,” says Mônaco.