Sotheby's James Stourton glazes over the more cut-throat tendencies of private collectors in new book

This account by the UK chairman of Sotheby’s is enthusiastic but superficial


It is a remarkable achievement for the chairman of Sotheby’s UK to have produced this extended and well-researched book. He has set himself an ambitious goal: analysing over 160 private collections throughout the world, including paintings, works on paper, the decorative arts, Oriental and Pre-Columbian art, books and photography. Though many of the collections have passed into the ownership of museums, they are all described through the individuals who formed them. Collections made by museum curators—apart from a glancing reference to the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Alfred Barr—do not feature here. The taxonomy is by nationality, even though this convenient system is sometimes strained by the highly international backgrounds of many of the individuals.

In a (too-brief) introduction James Stourton discusses some of the issues around collecting. “France is the mother and father of this book and America its virile child,” he opines. He sees Van Gogh and Picasso as the paramount artists of the second half of the 20th century in terms of prices and popularity, replacing the old masters. For Mr Stourton, private collecting, particularly of contemporary art, often has a public dimension: it leads the formation of taste through notably brave individuals, and tends to be in advance of the art market. He describes the shift of American taste away from Europe towards America after World War II; the activity in Switzerland and the revival of collecting in Germany after 1945; the rise of collecting, notably of Chinese art, in Hong Kong; the importance in England of collections formed by art historians. The relationship between New York, Paris and London is a recurring theme, with the role of Italy sadly diminished other than in the activities of such men as the hyperactive Count Panza di Biumo. Mr Stourton has assembled so much evidence that he might have allowed himself, with advantage, a deeper analysis of the subject.

Mr Stourton has to allow that great wealth is highly desirable in this field, but he makes it clear that a passionate collector need not be rich. Some of the heroes of the book are figures like Dorothy and Herb Vogel, who live on her salary and use his (a post office clerk’s) to form one of the finest collections of contemporary American art, destined for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Collectors have had a bad press in recent academic literature, analysed as people of perverted and almost psychotic tendencies. Mr Stourton is aware of this approach, but for him their role is crucial in maintaining high standards and recognising emerging talent. He is very interested in the “road-to-Damascus” moment, the point at which collectors realised how much art was going to mean to them. And in such passages as his description of the denuded house of Sir Denis Mahon, he writes with penetrating sympathy.

Most of the book is dedicated to the description of individual collections, which as far as possible Mr Stourton has visited and discussed with the owners. Now and then this approach produces a slightly breathless Hello! magazine style—although perhaps this is appropriate, since, as he says, buying art at this level often has a club-like quality, with many of the participants knowing each other well. It is, understandably, only with deceased collectors that he allows himself any flicker of disapproval: while extolling the brilliant New York collector Emily Tremaine, for example, he conveys the nastier side of the fashionable art world in a little story of Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers (who were going down in her estimation) being refused admission to a party attended by Warhol and Lichtenstein (who were going up). It is a pity that so few owners (presumably) allowed their dwellings to be photographed, since Mr Stourton’s accounts of his subjects’ houses benefit considerably when the relationship between interior and objects is illustrated.

Many of the collections that Mr Stourton describes are extremely famous—Paul Mellon, Jayne Wrightsman, Robert von Hirsch, Peter Ludwig, Roland Penrose and so forth—although the ways they have been assembled are less familiar. But Mr Stourton ranges widely, introducing us to the idiosyncratic holdings of the former Louvre director, Pierre Rosenberg, full of obscure puzzles that the owner hopes to solve; the background to the re-creation of the Liechtenstein Collection; and the Hallmark Photographic Collection of American photography, the only corporate collection in the book.

Mr Stourton is admirable in his enthusiasm for works of art and for the people who find and buy them. Although the parade of so much wealth can be cloying, it is clear that the figures who really gain his admiration are the healthy obsessives, those for whom learning about and acquiring art is a passion.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Just smell the money and admire the acquisitions'