As a graduate student more than 20 years ago, Nannette Maciejunes toured the Columbus home of Howard and Babette Sirak to view their remarkable collection of art. It was the most art Maciejunes had ever seen in a private home. She even got to touch a sculpture by Rodin.

As a graduate student more than 20 years ago, Nannette Maciejunes toured the Columbus home of Howard and Babette Sirak to view their remarkable collection of art. It was the most art Maciejunes had ever seen in a private home. She even got to touch a sculpture by Rodin.

As executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, Maciejunes now oversees The Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak Collection, which the museum acquired from the Siraks in 1991.

Beginning Sept. 23, the Sirak collection - which contains 78 works by 37 artists, including big names like Claude Monet and more unfamiliar artists like James Ensor - will be on view in its entirety for only the third time.

"It's hard to believe it's been 20 years," Maciejunes said, adding that, before the CMA acquired the collection, other museums would "fly in under cloak of darkness" to court the Siraks. But the Siraks wanted the collection to remain in Columbus, and its significance to the CMA has been huge.

"It's become such an integral part of the museum and our identity," said Dominique Vasseur, the CMA's curator of European art. "Many major museums in Europe know us because of the Sirak collection."

While several Sirak works trot the globe like ambassadors, others are cornerstones of the museum's permanent collection. When the show opens, these works will remain with their respective exhibits while the rest of the collection will be shown in the Ross Wing.

Vasseur said the collection embodies the Siraks' "taste, foresight and daring" because they often sought out unexpected works.

"They really have a bold streak," he said.

One of the most poignant works is "Sunflowers in the Windstorm" by German artist Emil Nolde.

Forbidden to paint by the Nazis, Nolde painted in secrecy - usually using watercolors for fear that the smell of his oil pigments would alert the Gestapo. His enduring oil painting "Sunflowers" is a testament to the artist's unwavering desire to create art amid threat and destruction.

Edgar Degas, renowned for his ballerina paintings, stands out in the Sirak collection for something else entirely.

"The last thing you expect from Degas is landscapes," Vasseur said. And yet the collection includes "Houses at the Foot of a Cliff," arguably the best landscape Degas ever created.

Nolde's "Sunflowers" and the Degas landscape are just two examples in an impressive collection built over the years through a partnership in art and in love.

"This seems to have been part of the romance of their marriage," Maciejunes said of the Siraks. "It was an expression of their love as a couple."

And undoubtedly, a wonderful gift to this city.