Managing and curating art collections

Some people treat their works of art a little like they treat their dogs. They see a cute puppy in a window which everyone else wants, buy it for themselves and then dispatch it to some vast and distant kennel (or freeport, for art). Out of sight, out of mind. Well, like puppies, art collections need love, and the experience of my family’s collection is that there are more proactive ways of loving them – and letting others love them too.

The Schorr Collection is mainly focused upon Old Masters but also embraces nineteenth and twentieth century paintings, plus prints, books and other holdings. At its core are roughly 425 Old Master and nineteenth century paintings, encompassing French, Italian, British, Dutch, Flemish and Spanish schools in particular. The initial impetus behind the collections overall came in the 1970s from my father, David Lewis, but it developed into a passion for the entire family. One of my favourite pictures is illustrated here. The Philosopher, Bias of Priene, by Ribera exudes both great intensity and great warmth. Bias was one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, reputedly a man of very considerable wisdom, judgement and good sense. He was even kind enough to lend his name to the English language!

My greatest personal pleasure in the context of the Schorr Collection has been books. Our shelves are filled by categories as diverse as art and economics, travel and incunabula but we like to spread the word too. We have, therefore, loaned books and ephemera from two particular fields, namely judaica and very early children’s material. There is a rather poignant story behind the formation of the latter. Some twenty years ago, somewhat opportunistically, I was approached by a Birmingham antiquarian book dealer I knew who stated that he had recently acquired a rare cache of children’s books, games, toys and educational tools. They broadly straddled the period from 1650 – 1825 and had been accumulated over her lifetime by an elderly lady who, most regrettably, had been forced to sell them to cover personal losses incurred as a name at the Corporation of Lloyd’s. It was her dearest wish that the collection be kept intact rather than sold piecemeal and the dealer sought to honour her request.

I was no expert in this area by any means but I recognised the inherent quality within and, after due consultation, purchased it in toto for the Schorr Collection. It comprised chapbooks, alphabets, battledores, harlequinades, paper dolls, panoramas, optical devices and more besides, a fascinating window into a largely forgotten world. The concept of reading for pleasure had been denied to children until the mid seventeenth century. Until then, only the bible and other devotional texts were typically available to the young but the improvement in printing presses, distribution of labour and changing cultural trends witnessed a profusion of material. Not much survives today due to the tendency of children to break things! However, we have been fortunate enough to add a few complementary items to this collection and it now resides on long term loan to a distinguished university library.

This loan arrangement has a dual benefit. It permits these often delicate books and papers to be conserved in climate controlled conditions but, simultaneously, they are available for scholarship and research. Indeed, from time to time, they may also be included in exhibitions open to the public but the underlying theme is to share works from the Schorr Collection, wherever possible, for wider consumption. This philosophy is most evident within the Old Master and nineteenth century component of which around half are on long term loan to museums and other institutions in the UK, US and beyond. It has always been the family policy to share its holdings with as wide an audience as reasonably possible and this approach has helped forge many excellent relationships across the wider market. This also ensures assets are geographically disparate, insurance and related costs are always met by the borrower and we have the added pleasure of enabling others to enjoy them too. The only condition imposed is that, excepting special circumstances, all items on loan are on display to the public.

Not everyone applies these criteria. If you do use a freeport or similar repository, there is a huge credit risk in placing (collectively) tens of billions of pounds of assets in one place, regardless of the level of security. If it all went up in smoke, deliberately or otherwise, the insurance industry would have a collective heart attack. The cost would be incalculable. Insufficient consideration is given to the potential for catastrophe. The art market today is heavily populated by accumulators, as distinct from collectors, whose acquisition strategy is often governed by a need for diversification and other expressions of financial savvy. Yet it is a curious thing that such shrewdness is undermined by a casual disregard of the physical risk of placing so many eggs in one basket.

There are numerous tax-free zones scattered across the globe, though only a few provide dedicated services for the art market. These zones are effectively bonded warehouses that permit users to transact their business in a sort of bubble, cocooned from the world beyond. Switzerland has long dominated but there are a few other options if you want to park your prize goods away from prying eyes. Singapore possesses a huge facility at Changi airport, surely an ill conceived location for so much precious cargo, while Luxembourg and China are hot on their heels. Others will no doubt follow but their future popularity will depend in part on the level of disclosure required by the authorities. Singapore has profited from the more restrictive conditions imposed in Switzerland, where an investigation into financial irregularities in the banking sector led to concerted scrutiny into the transparency of all assets within its jurisdiction.

The other extreme is that you can love a collection too much whereby you insist on building your own museum and sticking your name on the front door. This draws attention for rather different reasons. Your attitude to your collection needn’t reflect either extreme, of course: there are two golden middle ways. One is to enjoy your work privately but to use it as an incentive to invite people round and host events at home. One family in London I know has far more art than walls to hang it on. The collection is comprised substantially of contemporary works which are periodically rotated across their residences. If it is not up, it is stored in the warehouse, but they compensate in kind by generously hosting dinners and viewings for patrons and friends of, inter alia, the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums.

Some families keep this perhaps too private: many collections are kept under wraps, only available to the favoured few, and rarely see the light of day. Some items may be released for special exhibitions though, of course, this does depend partly upon the portability and fragility of the objects. Moreover, watches, jewellery, silver, objets d’art and so forth have a usefulness and modest size that allows owners to justifiably keep them all close to hand. The second way – and our preferred way at the Schorr Collection – is to loan works to public collections. Now, this can go wrong: the aforementioned family suffered a bad experience many years ago when a valuable piece was damaged in transit from an exhibition. But it goes right far more often.

The management of the Schorr Collection brings some interesting challenges. There is no curator as such but the family principals run it with the guidance of a small coterie of close advisers. Loans are conducted far and wide with institutions large and small. This can yield some surprising consequences. A painting by Salvator Rosa is on loan to a property under the aegis of English Heritage which was the venue for a private theatrical performance. The room displaying the Rosa was redeployed for the evening as a changing room where, regrettably, the heavy brocade of the 17th century costumes caused the rail to tip over and damage the painting. The only blessing was that it was a clean gash and did not affect the main body of the work. Fortunately, it was assessed and restored by a deeply embarrassed English Heritage but it is a graphic reminder that even a phalanx of staff and protocols cannot guarantee absolute protection. Accidents do happen despite the best laid plans.

By contrast, a pair of portraits by Millais have been on loan for many years to a boarding school in the north of England. This might be considered something of a hazard but there was a rather more personal dimension to this arrangement. The school had originally been the home of the sitters. They were a prosperous, well to do couple who, in the Victorian custom, commissioned Millais to record their likenesses. The portraits were acquired at auction on behalf of the Schorr Collection but, after the sale, it emerged that the underbidder had been the school governors who sought to reunite the paintings with their first home.

It was agreed that, subject to adequate insurance cover and the usual caveats, including glass protection, they would be lent to the school. They remain there to this day without blemish. St Trinian’s it is not but it is, nonetheless, a lively, happy, rumbustious place. The pictures are loved and appreciated by the children, staff and guests alike, and the nature of this loan reflects the ethos of the Schorr Collection. Indeed, visiting rights are conferred every day – the only complication is to remember to come during term time as, of course, the school is closed for the holidays!

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