One of Christie’s triumphs of the last season was the very slick marketing operation on the Vitale “collection” of highly important clocks. The 282 lots were sold in New York and London on 30 October and 26 November and totalled £4.36 million. Mr Francis Vitale’s flowery foreword to the catalogue described his vision as a collector in pursuit of “the best and rarest specimens created by the most important artists” and very few of the private bidders had any idea that he was America’s leading clock dealer whose entire stock had to be disposed of.
The sales followed on from an announcement on 17 May 1996 that Mr Vitale, formerly vice president of strategic development and corporate affairs for Engelhard, a specialist chemical, environmental technologies and engineering firm, had been fired for asset misappropriation and that the matter had been referred to the New Jersey’s Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office.
There has been no public announcement of the sum involved, but it is widely believed to be in the region of $13 million (£7.64 million). No charges have been filed and the matter is still under investigation. Engelhard are insured against losses such as this and the clock collection is being sold on behalf of two corporate identities, understood to be the insurance company and Engelhard themselves
Mr Vitale’s love affair with clocks began when he was still in his teens, with the purchase of a $90 American mantle clock. He bought widely in Europe and England, believing European workmanship to be superior to American. More than half his clocks came from a Zurich dealer, Richard Redding. Mr Redding described him as “a fanatic, an addict who got a huge kick every time he bought something. He just couldn’t refuse anything he really wanted and that pulled him away from the straight and narrow”. Mr Redding also added, “Vitale was always scrupulously honest to deal with but drove a very hard bargain. He had a reputation for being a very tough dealer. He couldn’t bear anything that looked old and dirty. All his clocks had to be restored to pristine condition”.
From being a collector, Mr Vitale began to deal in a quiet way. Then in 1991 he and his wife Linda took lavish illustrations in the trade press and opened Vitale and Vitale, a flamboyant gallery in Spring Lake, New Jersey. It stood out like a sore thumb in this sleepy, coastal town and was described by a fellow dealer as “more gaudy than a Trump Casino”. Here the immaculately restored clocks were shown in a sumptuous setting, the clocks in the window surrounded by elaborate gilt frames.
Considering the breadth and size of the collection and the fact that it was put together in only six to eight years, it was of very good and consistent quality. Everything sold at the auctions, with the total doubling its estimate. Christie’s said that the vendors had taken “a highly pragmatic view of reserves”, with some lots selling well below their low estimate. Nevertheless it was a huge number of clocks to sell at one time, none of them fresh to the market and almost all restored to a level unpleasing to English taste.
Christie’s decided to sell the flashier and more decorative clocks in New York. The London sale was a more sober, trade-dominated affair and according to Richard Redding, many of the French clocks sold for between thirty and one hundred percent more than the price at which he had sold them to Mr Vitale.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'An obsession that led to sacking and confiscation'