Biggest Dutch collection to go under the hammer as Anton Dreesmann's life's work goes on sale at Christie's

Dreesmann was a passionate and committed collector who barely ever sold on his beloved acquisitions



The story goes that it all began with the purchase of a Dutch cabinet in 1955, but his friends rather believe that during that very same period Dr Anton C.R. Dreesmann also bought his first French cupboard, a gold snuff box, a Chinese porcelain plate, an Old Master painting and many other valuable pieces. In the following 40 years, this third-generation member of the founding family of the biggest Dutch department store, Vroom & Dreesmann, was a passionate collector, amassing over 1,300 works of art. Every single piece was exhibited at home, to be enjoyed and studied. Still, he was practical, as he once compared his collection with a tailor-made suit. Don’t donate a suit to another person, he said, for the trousers will be too short and the jacket won’t fit properly. Likewise, don’t bother the next generation with something you’ve built, such as an art collection, because times change and so do fashions in taste.

Two years ago Anton Dreesmann died, aged 76. Now his family is selling his entire collection. It is the biggest Dutch private collection to come to auction and will be offered in London from 9 to 11 April and in Amsterdam on 16 April.

Art collecting is in the family. When the founding father of the stores, Anton S.R. senior, died in 1934, Dr Dreesmann’s father Willem inherited the collection of art and antiques. Willem collected art at a very young age as well. After his death, his collection was offered at auction at Frederik Muller’s in Amsterdam in 1960 and raised about £1 million. One of the Dreesmann advisors was the antique dealer Staal and his son Charley, who had a shop next to the Vroom & Dreesmann store at the Rokin in Amsterdam. Paintings were bought from Douwes and Cramer among others. From the mid-1950s on, young Anton also bought his antiques from Charley and these famous art dealers.

But pretty soon, he was bypassing dealers and buying at auction by himself. Shortly after World War II, he graduated in law and economics, and his energy and intellect turned Vroom & Dreesmann into the biggest retailer in the Netherlands with cleaning and industrial subsidiaries, and overseas investments in Brazil.

He devoted the same determination to collecting. He was not the type of collector to select the finest pieces of art by just one artist, nor did he collect to achieve social status and admiration. Dr Dreesmann was an investigator who, as soon as he purchased a new work of art, read all the scholarly studies and every single article on the subject and added the books (preferably first and special editions) to his private library. Each piece was documented carefully by a file containing the receipt, copies from the catalogue,reviews from newspapers, clippings of articles, and letters concerning loans to museum exhibitions. In fact, he did not need the paperwork, because even after years, he knew exactly by heart when it was added to the collection, how much it had cost and what other interesting lots had been offered at the same auction.

He enjoyed every piece from his collection and was so much attached to them that he never let them go. The only thing he sold, two years ago, was a group of 18th- to 20th-century coins and late Roman and early Byzantine coins.

Over more than 30 years he sold only four or five pictures, so his collection was enormous, with hundreds of drawings and watercolours, which covered the walls from plinth to ceiling like a jigsaw puzzle. In1980 he even had his house built as a shell around his collection. He started out with a ground plan in which he marked where to put his favourite French cabinet, his showcase of silver, his Amsterdam clock. The municipal counsel of Laren, near Utrecht, was unimpressed by the exterior, stating that the house looked like one of his department stores. Indeed, it was not a pretty home, but this was of no interest to Dr Dreesmann.

Now the collection is to be dismantled. In London, Old Master paintings and drawings, Impressionist and Modern paintings, European furniture and works of art, gold snuff boxes, miniatures and China porcelain, and in Amsterdam silver, glass and mainly Dutch paintings, drawings and furniture will be offered. With an estimated value of €24 million (£15.6m; $22m) for over 1,000 lots, it will be the biggest Dutch private collection at auction in a single sale ever. Whether it will be the most valuable Dutch collection remains to be seen, for his rival Joseph (Joost) Ritman also possessed a major collection of art once. In 1995 he went bankrupt and sold his 350 works of art and his famous library, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, of over 16,000 titles, to the art consortium made up of Sotheby’s, Artemis and the Dutch dealer Noortman, for $24 million.

Among the offerings from the Dreesmann collection are “Danseuse en bleu” by Degas (£150/200,000), “Waterloo Bridge” by Monet (£100/150,000), “Au Bois de Boulogne” by Van Dongen (£400/500,000), works by Franz Marc, Foujita, Heckel, Schiele, Gauguin, Modigliani and Chagall, beautiful 18th-century French furniture (including a marquetry table by J.P. Latz, £250/400,000), giltbronzes (one by R. van der Cruse, £150/250,000), a snuffbox by J.C. Neuber (£100/150,000) and paintings by S. van Ruysdael, J. van Goyen, A. Cuyp and H. Avercamp. In the Amsterdam sale, top quality silver (by Paulus, Adam and Christian van Vianen), rare glass (by Frans Greenwood) and fine furniture are included.

Eighteen Old Masters feature in the Amsterdam auction, mainly views of the town. The modern section has only 25 paintings, none of them abstract. As a do-it-yourself expert, Dr Dreesmann did make some mistakes. There is one great, magic realist portrait of Wilma by the famous Dutch painter Carel Willinck, but the tiny frame (the same Dr Dreesmann used on the 19th-century and modern paintings and every drawing and watercolour in his collection) puts Willinck in a strait-jacket. And not all the other modern works are truly impressive works of art. Dr Dreesmann only had one 19th-century Dutch Impressionist painting, by Isaac Israels, and no Impressionist masters of the Hague School. Well, to be honest, once you have bought Van Dongen’s Bois de Boulogne, who wants marshy grey polder landscapes?

The Dr Anton C.R. Dreesmann Collection

Christie’s London:

9 April: Impressionist and Modern Art

10 April: European Furniture, Works of Art and Chinese Porcelain

11 April: Old Master Pictures and Drawings, Gold Snuff boxes and Objets de Vertu

Christie’s Amsterdam:

April 16: Dutch Paintings and Works of Art

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Biggest Dutch collection to go under the hammer'