Antiquities and Archaeology
George Ortiz, a controversial collector of antiquities, died aged 86
His defenders saw him as a connoisseur with a brilliant eye but his detractors could never forgive his willingness to buy artefacts without provenance
By Dalya Alberge. Web only
Published online: 29 November 2013
He was a shy man who preferred his beloved ancient artefacts to talk for him. The name of George Ortiz has long divided opinions. His defenders saw him as a connoisseur with a brilliant eye who assembled one of the world’s greatest private collections of antiquities. Even his sternest critics agreed on that. But, however much they quietly admired his masterpieces, his detractors could never forgive his willingness to buy artefacts without provenance.
When the Royal Academy of Arts exhibited Ortiz’s collection in 1994, the eminent academic Lord Renfrew said that Ortiz should feel “ashamed [for] doing the past great damage by financing the large-scale looting, which is the ultimate source of so much of what he is able to exhibit”.
But no amount of criticism was going to stop Ortiz. While some archaeologists warned that plundering of historic sites was destroying archaeological evidence to feed the market for antiquities, Ortiz saw himself as protector of the world’s past.
He was convinced that without the market many antiquities would be destroyed. With true passion, he bought treasures representing the extraordinary achievements of ancient civilisations, from Sumer to Babylon, Egypt to Greece. He described first encounters with masterpieces as “falling in love” and felt a responsibility “to keep them for civilisation”.
Ortiz’s own background spanned cultures. Although those closest to him felt that he was secretive - always changing the subject when asked personal questions - he was born in Paris in 1927 into the Bolivian Patino tin-mining family. His father, Jorge Ortiz-Linares, was a Bolivian diplomat of aristocratic Spanish descent, one of the world's richest men. Ortiz grew up in Paris, eventually moving to Switzerland, settling into a beautiful 18th-century Geneva home.
Having studied philosophy at Harvard and flirted with Marxism, he found himself looking for “God, for the truth and for the absolute”. In 1949, he found his answer in ancient Greek art - “the spiritual birth of man” - and asked a dealer he had met in Greece to help him collect Greek art. The collecting bug
He later recalled that he instinctively hoped that by acquiring ancient Greek objects, he would acquire the spirit behind them – “that I would be imbued with their essence”.
Until then, he never studied archaeology or museums, but he began building a collection, taking a “purely intuitive” approach. He once said: “The vision of certain objects struck me viscerally. I let them speak to me… I began to go to museums and looked with intensity. I learnt by looking, by feeling, and then reading the labels and comparing. Why, what, when?”
One of his earliest acquisitions was a Neolithic idol who moved him “when I first saw her, and amazingly when I looked at her in moments of anguish or doubt these disappeared.”
Jewels of his collection included the Bull-Man, a striking alabaster Sumerian statuette, dating from the third millennium BC. The source was an old collection. But the provenance of his Roman bronze figure of Ajax, beautifully-modelled with its exaggerated musculature, was listed as merely “allegedly from Asia Minor”. Controversy
In his early days of collecting, few people worried about provenance. But after the 1970 Unesco Convention, archaeologists were alarmed that he was turning a blind eye to provenance.
In 1994, Lord Renfrew criticised the RA exhibition, saying that “a really reputable national organisation… ought not to [exhibit where one can infer] that objects have come from illicit excavations”. He damned collectors as the real looters, buying unprovenanced antiquities and financing the cycle of destruction.
But Sir Roger de Grey, the RA’s then president, merely described the exhibits as “the cream of a collection.”
Ortiz anyway ignored the criticisms, saying: “I would not collect if I thought what I was doing was either immoral or amoral.” He claimed that 80 per cent of his works with supposed illegal provenance are chance finds, and that restrictive laws will make people hide the provenance.
When talking about one of his pieces, he seemed like a small boy showing off a new toy. Such was his connoisseurship that, in 1993, Soviet museums allowed him to take his pick of treasures in curating an exhibition.
His own website openly acknowledged provenance gaps. A bronze female votary, 1700-1580 BC, states: “Provenance: no indication.”
Some thought that Ortiz was criticised unfairly. Auctioneer Simon de Pury remembers him as “one of the most passionate collectors I have ever met in any field” with an “exceptional eye”. Defending a friend, he said that Ortiz believed passionately in protecting the cultural heritage and was personally bruised by the criticism.
He had to part with some of his tribal art collection in 1977 after his daughter, Graziella, was kidnapped for ransom. She survived, and the law caught up with the kidnappers. A sale at Sotheby’s covered the ransom.
When Ortiz thought of impending death, his main concern was being “separated from my objects”. Collecting was his life. He also amassed books and manuscripts.
The future of the collection remains to be seen. In 1964, he married Catherine Haus and he once said that he would leave it to his four children, who all survive him. Dalya Alberge Dalya Alberge is a specialist arts and archaeology writer, and formerly arts correspondent of The Times.
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