Few Dutchmen have ever been seized as powerfully as the Amsterdam manufacturer Joseph (Joost) Ritman with what Werner Muensterberger calls the “unruly passion” of collecting.
In the course of forty years he amassed the most important private collections in the Netherlands of Rembrandt etchings (122 sheets), sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch silver and gold (more than one hundred items), glass (somewhat fewer than one hundred items), maiolica, mother-of-pearl, ivory and furniture. In several of these categories the Ritman collection, before large parts of it were sold last month (see The Art Newspaper No. 47, March 1995, p. 27), was the strongest in private hands and comparable to all but the best museum collections. While this cannot be said of the twenty-five paintings, they were nonetheless one of the most valuable private collections in the country.
Ritman’s holdings in drawings, tiles, ceramics, clocks, sculpture and textiles of the Golden Age can be called noteworthy; his Art Nouveau jewellery was outstanding, and many a lesser collector would be more than satisfied with what he accumulated in some of his minor areas of interest: Oriental carpets, Chinese porcelain, Egyptian antiquities, and Russian lacquer.
While this in itself would easily qualify Ritman as the foremost collector in the Netherlands, his “art”, as he calls it, is of less importance than his books and manuscripts. The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (Library of Hermetic Philosophy, founded 1975), consisting of 16,000 volumes, among them about 1,000 manuscripts and incunabula, was put on the Dutch government list of protected cultural goods on 25 November 1994 as “the only nearly complete centre [in the Netherlands or anywhere else] for the study of the Christian-Hermetic tradition”. That tradition was named after Hermes Trismegistus, the god who in Egypt presided over the rules of the cosmic and natural order, the intellect and the spirit. As Ritman explains it, the library encompasses the thought of all those in Europe and the ancient Near East who sought to plumb the ties between the creator, the cosmos and the individual.
Ritman was born in 1941 into the brotherhood of Rosicrucianism. Today he is one of the spiritual leaders of the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, the main branch of the movement in the Netherlands. He relates all he does to the teachings of this “Christocentric” creed, and is inclined to think in paired, squared, pentagonal and septipartite concepts and, especially, in triads. Creator, cosmos and man; the ethereal spheres, the intellectual/artistic realm and the world of form; spirituality, culture and materiality. The concrete form of this triad in Ritman’s own life are the library, the art collection (in large part incorporated in a company known as Dutch Renaissance Art) and the family business, De Ster, which makes disposable utensils for airlines.
“My business encircles the globe. The library covers the entire Western world. The art is centred in Holland. In collecting Dutch art and antiques I wanted to bring back to the Netherlands the best products made when this country was at the peak of its creative powers. I began to collect major works of art when I was thirty-five years old, the beginning of the summer of a person’s life, after having earned the fortune that allowed me to do so during my high spring between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-five”.
Ritman’s art and book collections are installed in his own house, a seventeenth-century patrician residence on the Bloemgracht in Amsterdam. It is not a fashionable address, but it is where De Ster has been located since Ritman was born, and he feels that he belongs there. Even after the sale of part of his collection he still owns more than a thousand objects, among which he lives. It is not the house of a purist period-worshipper.
The first old book in his library, the 1653 edition of Aurora by the German mystic Jakob Böhme, was a present from his mother in 1964. When Ritman began buying Rembrandt etchings in 1978, one of his first purchases was Rembrandt’s evocation of the German mystic “Faust”, whom Ritman associates with Christian Rosenkreuz himself, after whom Rosicrucianism is named. Since 1978 Ritman has bought two additional impressions of the “Faust” and when the copperplate for the etching came on the market two years ago (at Artemis in London) he bought that as well.
Ritman’s explanation of how he gets on in life sounds bizarre and would not merit much consideration coming from someone who had not built and maintained a significant private museum of fine and decorative arts and a major research library, while running a worldwide business with 750 employees (there were ten when he took it over), raising a family of seven children and playing a leading role in religious life. “God is an endless circle with an unlimited diameter and an omnipresent centre. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I have direct access to that centre. I operate straight from the source. My motto is Ad Fontes”.
Ritman does not accumulate art for his own pleasure alone. He lends items readily to exhibitions and contributes towards purchases and exhibitions by museums. In 1993, with his company on the brink of disaster, he contributed DFl.100,000 towards the purchase by the Rijksmuseum of Rembrandt’s portrait of Johannes Uytenbogaert, whom he admires as a religious leader. When Ritman claims that his chief aim is not acquisition but the furthering of communication concerning art and culture, no one can accuse him of hypocrisy.
Such was the scale on which Ritman collected that the only comparative figures that come close to it are the combined major purchases of all the museums of the Netherlands. Since their acquisition budgets are small, the Dutch museums must turn to outside sources in order to acquire expensive objects. Their main single outside source is the Vereniging Rembrandt (Rem-brandt Foundation), founded in 1883 to preserve cultural treasures for the Netherlands. On average, the Vereniging Rembrandt provides about 40% of the funds for the acquisitions it underwrites.
In the five years from 1984 through 1988, the Vereniging contributed annually toward the purchase of objects worth about DFl.6 million. (This figure does not reflect the largest single purchase, for DFl.10 million, by the Rijksmuseum, of Rembrandt’s “Haesje Claesdr.”, toward which the Vereniging Rembrandt contributed far less than 40%.) In the same period, Ritman’s average expenditure on art (not including the library) was about DFl.4.5 million a year. If we limit the comparison to areas in which both were active, Dutch Old Master paintings (again excluding the “Haesje”) and silver, we find that Ritman was spending almost as much as all the museums jointly on paintings, and three-and-a-half times as much on silver. In glass, furniture, tapestry, ivory and mother-of-pearl Ritman was in a class of his own, virtually exercising a monopoly on the market.
Striking as it is to find a single individual outspending all Dutch museums for seventeenth-century art in the mid-1980s, the figures for the years 1989 and 1990 are even more impressive. In those two years he spent more than five times as much money on art as was spent on all Rembrandt Society purchases by all the museums in the Netherlands put together.
It was in 1991, in the transition from the summer to the autumn of his life, that Ritman came a cropper. The outbreak of the Gulf War decimated passenger travel by air, while the bank which had been financing his purchases (NMB) merged with the postal giro bank to form the ING, which was less impressed than the NMB by collateral in the form of silver and ivory and paintings and mystical books. The bank froze Dutch Renaissance Art and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica and seized control of De Ster. Five years of manoeuvres and negotiations led to the present solution with regard to the objects: in November 1994 the library was saved through the intervention of the Ministry of Culture, and in March 1995 five parts of the art collection were sold: the paintings, Rembrandt etchings, glass, silver, and Oriental carpets. They were bought by a consortium formed by the art dealers Noortman (the paintings), Artemis (the prints) and Sotheby’s (the rest).
Choosing between whatever options he had, says Ritman, was not difficult. “My collecting was guided by two ladies: Lady Sophia (Wisdom) brought me my books, and Lady Fortune my art. The attribute of Lady Fortune is a wheel. When you follow her you know that you can go down as well as up. If you cannot deal with loss, you should not have possessions. But the library is under the sign of Lady Sophia. Wisdom does not go up and down. It accumulates. So of course I had to keep my library, even though it too, in its physical form, is a hostage to Fortune”.
What did Ritman buy and what is its value as art and as a group of collections? Now that the chips are down these will be the questions that matter the most. Objects for which Ritman paid DFl.94 million are involved.
The rarest of the collections now going under the hammer at Sotheby’s are the glass (November) and the silver (18 May in Geneva). Seventeenth-century glass was the product of two arts: that of the glass-maker, usually an anonymous craftsman in an atelier in Holland, Flanders, France or Venice, and that of the engraver, more often than not an unnamed amateur. The Ritman holdings include a signed goblet by one of the best-known of these engravers, Willem van Heemskerck. Much glass was made for weddings or births, to commemorate deaths or serve as a sign of political allegiance. The most striking piece in the Ritman collection is an ordinary flute with a diamond-cut image of the young Willem III, copied from a contemporary engraving. The supply of such pieces has virtually dried up, and unless one buyer steps in, as Ritman did at the 1989 Guepin sale, from which nearly half of the items derive, one cannot imagine where another collection of this kind will ever come from. In money, the glass represents only some 6.8% of the total value of the collection, in the prices paid by Ritman.
The old Dutch and Flemish silver and gold represents about 17% of the collection in value. Most of the highly valued pieces from the seventeenth century were made for official bodies, townships, civic guard companies and guilds. The prize piece in the Ritman collection is a vessel in the shape of a rearing horse made about 1600 probably for the Gorcum civic guard. With over one hundred pieces, all the various shapes and modes of silver are represented: Nautilus and coconut shells, windmill cups, candelabra and the more everyday varieties as well.
The Art Nouveau jewellery (12.7%) appealed to Ritman for its return to nature, although the Symbolist element is not lost on him. In 1990 he acquired at one go the largest private collection of combs in existence. The jewellery expert at Sotheby’s London, Philippe Garner, is entranced with what he calls a “tightly edited collection, not at all haphazard”. It includes, he says, signal pieces by the key masters of Art Nouveau, Lalique and the Fouquets. He calls them “artists’ pieces with strong authorship”, as opposed to the commercial products of the same jewellers. Much has never been worn, Garner suspects. This part of the collection may be sold by private treaty.
The 122 Rembrandt etchings (19.3%) include two of the most sought-after prints in Rembrandt’s graphic oeuvre: an “Ecce Homo” (the fine impression from the Chatsworth Collection), and a “Hundred-guilder print”. A print expert from the Rijksmuseum who knows the collection well, says that it concentrates on first-rate, unusual and experimental impressions. Many of the prints come from well known older collections, and have been through the hands of fewer owners than most. Appropriately, Artemis will be offering the collection as a whole.
The most expensive part of the collection, the Dutch Old Master paintings, representing 37.3% of expended sums, is not the most distinctive. Nonetheless several of the works rank among the very best ever produced by their makers. In this category is Willem van de Velde the Elder’s “Battle of Bergen”, Ludolf Bakhuysen’s “Princess Maria”, Jan Steen’s “Card players with a girl concealing the ace of hearts” and a “Woman scrubbing” by David Teniers the Younger. There is no reason to treat the paintings as a group, and Noortman has already sold six of them in the first month they were on offer. The “Battle of Bergen” is going to be displayed on consignment at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.
The other 6.9% of objects are the Oriental carpets. They are to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in November in New York and London.
Joost Ritman is a phenomenally sanguine man. While he claimed it as his ambition, in assembling his art collection, to enrich his native country with its lost treasures, now that they are about to be dispersed to the four winds he finds that too an appropriate destination. “Let them be ambassadors of Holland to the world. They are going off with my name attached to them. So after all I have contributed something. Hermes says that everything you receive and then relinquish you renew. I have renewed the objects in my collection. Because my name stands for quality, they will have more attention paid to them than they otherwise would. The Dutch Golden Age is well served by the dispersal of the collection. And it was never really mine to begin with”.
The reaction of the art world seems to confirm this judgment. Whereas the possible breaking up of the library evoked horrified responses from scholars and librarians - Umberto Eco was the best-known student of the occult to petition the Dutch government to do somthing - the sale of the art has elicited no such reaction. Even the sale at auction of the silver and glass is being accepted with equanimity by the Dutch museums, which are not underendowed in these areas, while the trade is pleased to see such top-quality goods come back into circulation.
Ritman has his own predictably unpredictable slant on the coming sales. “I love art. But what I love even more is building a world of confrontations and experiences of which I am the centre. What matters in life is not preserving, but persevering. In any case”, he concludes with a final dialectic twist, “I will carry on collecting. But first I have to regain control of my company”.
• Information obtained by The Art Newspaper indicates that Mr Ritman has recently purchased back from Sotheby’s some of his own collection. Eleven pieces of silver have been repurchased. The most expensive of these is a Netherlandish dice glass with silver mounts, price DFl.108,000. A group of ten pieces was sold back for a total of DFl.250,000, including a pair of salt cellars by Adrian de Grebber, Delft, 1611; a pineapple cup by Abraham Gallus I, Amsterdam 1626; and a silver mounted coconut drinking cup.
What Joost Ritman spent
Amount in DFl/£/$ Percentage
Paintings DFl.30,036,745/£12.5 mil/$19 mil 32.0
Rembrandt etchings DFl.23, 571, 643/£9.8 mil/$15 mil 25.1
Silver and gold DFl.14,275,191/£6 mil/$9 mil 15.2
Jewellery DFl.12,892,406/£5.4 mil/$8.2 mil 13.7
Textiles, carpets DFl.7,406,641/£3 mil/$4.7 mil 7.9
Glass DFl.5,700,066/£2.3 mil/$3.6 mil 6.1
Total DFl.93,882,692/£39 million/$60 million
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'What happens when Lady Luck runs out'