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Ira F. Brilliant, 84; Collector Amassed Beethoven Treasures

September 20, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Ira F. Brilliant, a real estate developer who built a distinguished collection of Beethoven memorabilia that included first-edition scores, letters, books and even a lock of the composer's hair, has died. He was 84.

Brilliant, whose collection led to the founding of a research center at San Jose State dedicated to the composer's life and music, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 10 at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose, said his son, Robert D. Brilliant.

He had moved from Phoenix to San Jose last year to be closer to his son and the center.

The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, established in 1983, is the only research and study center in the United States devoted to the composer, said William Meredith, its director.

Among its holdings are more than 300 first-edition manuscripts dating to the 1780s and Ludwig van Beethoven's adolescence. There are letters scrawled in the composer's illegible handwriting -- complete with misspellings -- and on long-term loan, two fragments of his skull.

"Because the most important antiquarian dealers in Europe respected Ira's sincerity and earnestness, they helped him build this amazing collection," Meredith said.

When Brilliant gave the university the material, it was considered the finest collection of Beethoven first editions in the country, Meredith said.

The most famous and peculiar piece in Brilliant's collection was the lock of Beethoven's hair that he and a few others purchased for about $7,300 at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1994.

The next year, in a surgical room at an Arizona medical center, a team that included a forensic anthropologist broke open the frame that contained the hair and split it between Brilliant and the principal investor, Dr. Alfredo "Che" Guevara, an Arizona urologist.

The 6-inch lock came to have value in the scientific community too. It was subjected to tests that caused researchers to suspect that the moody Beethoven had lead poisoning when he died in 1827. Later testing of skull fragments confirmed the theory.

The hair had been clipped from Beethoven's tousled mane the day after his death by a Viennese musician named Ferdinand Hiller. The practice was common at the time, Brilliant often said.

When the hair now known as the Guevara Lock was divided, 422 strands were given to the Brilliant center and Guevara kept 160.

A Beethoven enthusiast since his teens, Brilliant found himself in middle age wanting to hold something the composer had touched.

On what he gleefully admitted was a whim, he purchased his first Beethoven memorabilia in 1975, a letter signed by the composer.

"My interest in Beethoven is like a fire burning inside me," Brilliant said in "Beethoven's Hair," a 2000 book by Russell Martin that traces the history of the lock. A documentary of the same title, featuring Brilliant, was shown on Canadian and British television last year.

Brilliant turned to collecting music because the first editions were more affordable yet still historically important. Within a few years, the closet shelf in his Phoenix family room contained more than 70 first editions.

"He had seen so many people acquire a collection but, once they were gone, it goes to auction and is scattered again," his son said. "He thought, 'There must be a better way to do this.' "

He had approached Arizona State University about housing the collection but was rebuffed. A contact he had made at a manuscript convention led to a meeting with San Jose State officials. Within weeks, the Center for Beethoven Studies was born, opening to the public in 1985.

"It almost caught my dad off guard," Robert Brilliant said. "This was almost more than he dare ask for."

Ira Francis Brilliant was born Sept. 8, 1922, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the middle of three sons of Harry Brilliant and the former Anna Silverman.

His father had built a business making cleaning rags from surplus fabric. Groomed to take over the technical side of the business, Brilliant earned a bachelor's degree in textile chemistry from Lowell Textile Institute, a forerunner of the University of Massachusetts.

In college he also nurtured his affection for Beethoven by spinning 78-rpm records. Although he dabbled with playing the clarinet, he was not a musician.

Soon after graduating in 1943, Brilliant served in the Army in Europe, researching chemicals that could be used to treat soldiers' uniforms to protect them from gas attacks. The research was never used, his son said.

His first date with his future wife, Irma Maizels, in 1947 hinted at what was to come. They attended a Beethoven concert and married that same year.

In addition to his wife and son Robert, a video producer and scriptwriter of San Mateo, Calif., Brilliant is survived by a brother, Stanley, of New York City, and a grandson.

In 1963, Brilliant sold his family business and moved from Long Island to Phoenix. He developed commercial real estate, mainly shopping malls, in Scottsdale.

A Father's Day gift from his son in the early 1970s -- the book "The Beethoven Companion" -- rekindled Brilliant's interest in the composer.

Brilliant, whose last gifts to the collection were string quartet first editions, was fond of the several letters he had donated and a page detailing household accounts that showed Beethoven had purchased liverwurst, postage and four "rolls, stale."

"Ira was always thrilled because he knew that Beethoven had touched that," said Kathy Fox, an administrative assistant at the center. "But Ira was enthusiastic about everything in his life."

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