Rebels at heart, with the cigarettes to prove it, they partied with poet Gertude Stein and bought painting after painting from her even more rebellious artist friends, like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Correspondent Jacqueline Adams reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.
Imagine living in a household with three apartments on different floors in a Baltimore high rise, each of them filled to overflowing with masterpieces. The Cone sisters' nephew, Edward, now 83, remembers how Claribel kept one apartment for herself and another for her treasures.
"You see, it didn't even start as a collection. It all of a sudden started from buying some pictures to brighten up the house," explains Edward Cone. "Only one member of the family that I know of, a cousin, was ever allowed to go into her private apartment, and he said he could hardly weave his way through all of the books and the clutter and everything."
And what clutter! Henri Matisse's "Pewter Jug," and his "Blue Eyes," not to mention his portraits of the two old girls.
And then there were the nudes.
"She first showed me 'The Blue Nude' when I was 11 years old, and she said, 'I don't expect you to like it, but you must keep looking at it,'" Edward Cone recalls.
The Cone sisters were the portraits of respectability. But long before modernism became popular, they bought work from men destined to become icons of the 20th century: Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Picasso.
They positively splurged when it came to their favorite, Matisse. All told, they bought 500 works by Matisse, many hand picked by the artist himself.
"I think, first of all, they liked Matisse's personality better than Picasso's," says their nephew with a laugh. "He was more,...one of them, you know?"
"He was a middle-class Frenchman,...not a hot-headed Spaniard who was much more revolutionary in not only in his painting, perhaps, but in lifestyle and so forth. I mean, Picasso had a mistress. Matisse had a wife," Edward Cone adds.
The sisters never married. But thanks to the money their father and brothers made manufacturing denim, they were free to study and travel. Claribel Cone became a medical doctor, a pathologist, while sister Etta managed the household.
"Aunt Claribel wore quite extraordinary lace decorations and jewelry. Aunt Etta was more conservative," recalls Edward Cone. "But, as Gertrude Stein says, 'Anybody could see them.' Whenever they entered a public place, there was always some notice simply because they were large and commanded a certain respect wherever they went."
Between 1898 and 1949, they bought nearly 3,000 objects - not just oil paintings, drawings and sculpture, but also jewelry, furniture, fabrics, and books. And it all wound up at Baltimore's Museum of Art.
"There is no collection of Matisse that has this kind of depth, by way of drawings, sculpture, print making and paints. It's remarkable that way," says curator Jay Fisher.
He adds that Etta Cone's favorite, "The Red Studio," is one of Matisse's best still lifes from the 1920s. "The Purple Robe" from 1938 shows the artist's genius at taming riots of color and pattern. And then there is Matisse's "Yellow Dress."
"When she went to visit him, he'd gotten the model, the same dress, and Aunt Etta found her sitting in the same pose, you see, as the picture. That just overcame her. It was a delight," says Edward Cone.
He was just 16 in 1933 when he accompanied Aunt Etta to Matisse's studio in the south of France.
"It became quite clear that Aunt Etta had a real crush on Matisse," says Edward Cone, although Matisse's relationship with Etta was no doubt platonic.
"They kept letters from the artists that they knew," says Fisher. "He certainly talked about his family and, you know, there was the sense that she knew everyone in the family and was interested in their lives, just as he was interested in hers."
The correspondence was both personal and professional. During the six months he created his groundbreaking "Pink Nude," Matisse sent Etta Cone 22 photographs of the work in progress, thereby including her in its creation.
Says curator Fisher, "When it was finally finished and she came that summer and saw the picture for the first time, the picture that she had really, literally, been looking over Matisse's shoulder by way of those photographs, how could she hardly refuse it?"
"It was set that the painting would be hers," Fisher adds.
Whenever they were back in Baltimore, Etta Cone especially loved nothing better than showing off her collection to isitors.
"Each one of these pictures would have communicated, you know, some wonderful happy memory and a social memory, not just an artistic memory in the history of art," says Fisher.
The Matisses are traveling while Baltimore's Museum of Art refurbishes its Cone Wing. From Denver, they've moved on to Birmingham, Ala., and later, Toronto.
It may have started out as a domestic chore, but for Etta and Claribel Cone, art collecting became a hobby and then a passion. Their story is unique, because it is the story of a collaboration between a great artist and his two unconventional patrons.
"We never knew them as the fabulous Cone sisters," notes Edward Cone. "They're just Aunt Etta and Aunt Claribel."