Collector profile: Jan Mitchell's antiquities and the search for "the philosopher’s stone"

The man behind the Mitchell Prize, awarded last month, is also a major collector of Pre-Columbian gold sculpture


New York

In Jan Mitchell’s New York apartment, Peruvian and Colombian gold figures stand alongside Egyptian birds and cats. Hellenistic pottery and bronzes, Barye bronzes, Etruscan figures and the occasional Inuit carvings share space with Pre-Columbian terra cottas.

Soft-spoken, tan and blond, Mr Mitchell is surprisingly apologetic that he is not able to show his visitor more from his collection. “I had much more art in my Fifth Avenue apartment”, he said, but explained that he moved to a smaller dwelling on Park Avenue when his sons had grown up and left. His collection is dispersed among other houses in the US.

Born in Sweden seventy-five years ago, Mr Mitchell lived in Finland and Latvia before his family moved to Switzerland, where he graduated from gymnasium and university. He was already collecting by the time he came to the US in 1950, first to Washington and then to New York. “I had twenty-six restaurants and four hotels”, he explained, “By profession, I was a saloonkeeper”—which may help account for his warm hospitality. From 1950 to 1972, He owned Luchow’s, a German restaurant and beerhall that was a Manhattan landmark.

Mr Mitchell bought from the dealers André Emmerich, John Weiss and Earl Stendhal. He also bought an entire collection of Colombian objects from Mrs Lisa Hoffman of Geneva.

By the 1970s his Mesoamerican collection was gaining attention. In 1976, along with the Rockefeller and Bache collections, The gold objects travelled to the Soviet Union in an exhibition entitled, “Gold of Pre-Columbian America” and in 1985, eighty pieces came to the Met for the exhibition, “The art of Pre-Columbian Gold: the Jan Mitchell Collection.”

In 1991, Mr Mitchell gave seventy gold objects to the Metropolitan Museum and funded the renovation and enlargement of a gallery, which in 1993 opened as the Jan Mitchell Treasury, the most representative collection of gold of the ancient Americas. “Our little El Dorado”, Met director Philippe de Montebello called the room when it opened.

In 1977, Mitchell endowed his Prize for the History of Art (see p.43). The idea for it came to him, he said, when he tried to find recently published volumes, and was discouraged to find that books which had taken scholars decades to write went out of print in a year or two. He was also appalled at the how little scholarly authors earned from their work and this was another aspect of his inspiration for the prize.

Asked for his views on collecting today, Mr Mitchell lamented, “It is impossible as far as quality is concerned; it is impossible as far as price is concerned.” He stopped himself. “I’m giving you the wrong impression. It is just much harder.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The search for the philosopher’s stone'