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Great Collectors of Our Time by James Stourton

A Timely Book for Unanticipated Reasons

By: - Feb 13, 2008

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Great Collector of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945
By James Stourton
Scala Publishers Ltd, London, 2007
497 pages, illustrated with index and bibliography
ISBN 978-1-85795-514-7

   Who would possibly be in a better position to write a scholarly overview of a selection of great collections formed since 1945 than James Stourton, Chairman of Sotherby's U.K., who joined the firm following Cambridge in 1979? This is both a reference and adventure story as it hones in on the fascinating topic of the relentless and driven urge to acquire great collections in a variety of fields, periods and continents. Because of the staggering numbers of major contemporary collectors Stourton has confined himself to comments on just a few of the most prominent.

    The book is divided into several sections- School of Paris, America Triumphant, Switzerland, Germany Rises, Oriental Assemblies, London Art City, and Europe Since the 1950s. These categories are then subdivided into thumbnails of a dozen or so prominent collectors each given several pages with illustrations.

        While Stourton peppers the text with his own views, the lives and adventures of the individuals are richly anecdotal and colorful, this is hardly the sort of page turner that one hunkers down with in front of the hearth on a winter's eve. It is not a book to absorb in a single gulp or even in several such episodes. Rather, this is a volume that I found myself turning to off and on over a stretch of time selecting an individual and collection to focus attention on. There were aspects that proved to be more compelling than others, based on my own interests and taste.

             In that sense the book serves best as a reference to pull down from time to time to fact check or gain insights to works encountered during research or popping up in a special exhibition.

             But that rather distant approach to the book, which is being flagged as "The first major survey of contemporary collectors and collecting since Douglas Cooper's Great Private Collections published in 1963" took an unexpected turn when the subjects of Stourton's scholarly thumbnails leap from the arts section to the front page above the fold. There are constant reports of spectacular thefts, law suits regarding tainted acquisitions from the Nazi era, or efforts of nations to recover looted antiquities.

                 Just recently, on February 11, a story in the Boston Globe had the sensational headline "Gunmen grab $163m in art at Swiss museum." For what Philippe de Montebello, retiring director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a recent lecture at the Clark called "The Great Unwashed" that headline is less about art than money. Most of us will probably never find our way to Emil Buhrle's (1890-1956) foundation and museum on a hill overlooking the lake of Zurich in Geneva, Switzerland. But suffice it to know that visitors will never again stand before one of the truly great Cezanne portraits "Boy in a Red Waistcoat" c. 1888-90. You will still find that image on the net, and in text books. Like other stolen works of art, however, the odds are five to one that it will never be recovered.

                  There is a surreal feeling that one should jet about the earth viewing all of the great masterpieces before they disappear. Like endangered species it seems that they are gone missing more and more every day and that the cold case files just pile up on the desks of frustrated investigators. Not all such thefts become compelling novels and star studded films with spectacular plots and dramatic getaways. The simple fact is that great treasures, the legacy of all of humanity, entrusted to the safe keeping of a handful of the mega rich, are just gone missing.

                  For that general public, which de Montebello encapsulated so colorfully, the spectacular headlines and smarmy news stories are more enticing than scholarly details published in the Burlington Magazine or the Art Bulletin. Actual art history and scholarship is a rather sloggy affair but money, the staggering value of art, is a more enticing read. It is the materialism that we find more riveting than the facts of connoisseurship.

                Reading between the lines of  Stourton's often absorbing text one wonders whether these collectors really knew what they were acquiring. One tends to conclude that they had deeper pockets than a depth of understanding for the material they acquired. The insight of  collectors tends to be confirmed more by rising market value than scholarship. Mostly, their motive seems to be a compulsion to buy stuff. Which may be Impressionist paintings, while the Great Unwashed may be in hot pursuit of baseball cards. 

                    The more interesting collections are formed by those who do not have great means but rather a great eye. Dorothy and Hebert Vogel do not show up in this high end compendium of collectors. They lacked the panache of rubbing shoulders at Sothebys. Instead they were New Yorkers of modest means who befriended artists before they were famous. Instead of going out for fancy dinners or exotic vacations they spent their savings on works of art which eventually greatly increased in  value. Clearly the artists loved the Vogels in a way that one may never imagine them getting chummy with Charles Saatchi or Eli and Edythe Broad. Because, for the Vogels, it was always about the art and never about the money.

                    There are also the remarkable accomplishments of  George Costakis (1913-1990) a minor diplomatic functionary in Moscow who stumbled over and almost single handedly rediscovered the condemned and repressed masterpieces of the Great Utopia of the Russian Avant-garde which was crushed by Stalin. Linking to a network of relatives and heirs Costakis hunted down great works which he acquired with modest means. Works were often sold or given to him primarily because he cared and would provide some measure of recognition and security for them. In a remarkable series of events the Russian government and curatorial functionaries awoke to the fact that the collection was indeed worth something, in fact a national treasure, when he sought permission to remove it from Moscow. He managed to depart with an increment of what he had assembled. While he sold some pieces, after many bids and negotiations, he eventually left it all to the Greek government and the Costakis Colection is now on view in the Lazarine Monastery in Thessalonika. 

               Stourton quotes Costakis on five rules for collectors. Which, of course, he failed to adhere to. "1. A real collector must feel like a millionaire even if he is penniless. Money must never stand in his way. 2. Rationalization is the collector's greatest enemy. 3. The collector must be prepared to make heroic sacrifices. Self-denial passes but the work of art endures. 4. Collectors don't haggle. 5. A collector must define the limits of his collecting and never go outside them."

            The collector Emil Buhrle was a German born industrialist, living in Switzerland, who manufactured and sold arms to the Third Reich. From the safety of a neutral country he was able to preserve a great fortune largely based on war profits. At least 13 works in his collection were included in the list of British art specialist Douglas Cooper as "looted art." It is unknown how many of the works Buhrle acquired comprised "flight art" works smuggled out by Jewish owners and sold under stress at a small fraction of market value. Many of these disputed works are now the subject of high profile law suits by heirs. Ironically, many of the stressed works were handled by Jewish art dealers including Paul Rosenberg in Paris whom Buhrle bought from extensively.

             Writing on Buhrle, Stourton provides a rather severe image. "The post-war giant was unquestionably Emil Buhrle, a man of extreme verbal economy and with an almost impenetrably severe exterior. There weren't many Europeans who could write a check for 100,000 pounds for a work of art in the immediate post –war period, but Emil Buhrle was certainly one of them." His greatest activity as a collector occurred during the final decade of his life.

              Possibly this succinct study by James Stourton will prove to be widely read in years to come for all the wrong reasons. One imagines it is not what the author had in mind.