THE VIENNESE SUCCESSION
Benedict Silverman has spent decades assembling the best of 20th-century German and Austrian art — and now he’s selling it all. Josh Spero asks him why
WHEN COLLECTORS SAY they identify with pictures or were drawn to buy them, they generally mean it evokes a strong emotional consonance — think of all the grand, self-pitying kings who had Christ painted on the cross. They don’t see the paintings as biographies or maps. The first painting Benedict Silverman bought, however, seemed to him to hold up a mirror to his life in the late Sixties. A dark and stormy Ludwig Meidner picture (pictured below), it shows a man running out of a looming town, stepping on people’s heads while the ground churns underneath him and the sky glowers.
‘I had joined the Mortgage Corporation of America, which specialised in building, sales and financing of commercial real estate, notably shopping centres,’ he says, ‘and that was me, the central figure, scared stiff, trying to get ahead, that’s me pushing down the competition, not being too sure of what I was doing so the earth was crumbling all around me, and those are the buildings I’m trying to buy or finance or sell in the background.’
But he felt it, too: ‘Every picture I collected had emotional impact for me. Serious, real emotional impact — not all of it unpleasant emotional impact, some of it quite pleasant — but they all had impact, stomach, gut.’
Pictured above: Encounter by Ludwig Meidner, which Richard Nagy is selling from the Benedict Silverman Collection
Which is why it’s surprising that Silverman, tall and hale if somewhat bowed by jetlag and his 82 years, is not having trouble letting go of his collection of 20th-century German and Austrian art and design. Silverman has consigned these works of the very first rank to Richard Nagy, his long-time dealer and friend: Schiele’s outstanding drawing Self-Portrait as St Sebastian (pictured below); two Otto Dix portraits from either end of his career; paintings by Grosz, Beckmann and Klimt; and Wiener Werkstätte furniture of almost divine craft and beauty.
The collector can bid farewell to the collection in Nagy’s Old Bond Street gallery (as can you until 24 November) before Nagy sells the pieces to a new generation of the discerning. Sotheby’s Helena Newman, an expert in German and Austrian art, says it will be ‘a real discovery for the majority of people in the art world’.
THE DECISION WAS simple, made with a businessman’s clarity: Silverman will be putting the proceeds — estimated at over £100 million — into his foundation, which sponsors literacy charities. As he and Richard talk to me amid the gallery, the paintings looking on, he’s clear on the benefits, too — ‘When you teach a six-year-old how to read, you’re saving his life’ — and they outweigh any emotional cost: ‘I often get asked, “Aren’t you sad? Don’t you feel like you’re parting with children?” It’s not the case with me: this chapter is closed, I have no favourites I regret parting with, I want to keep… Every collector never forgets they are temporary custodians of the works they collect. We never forget that. Well, my chapter’s over. Somebody else gets it now.’
Several somebodies, most likely. While it is conceivable that one collector could dig deep and buy the Silverman Collection lock, stock and Werkstätte barrel, neither Silverman nor Nagy envisages this, and Silverman doesn’t even desire it. Almost every picture has a story behind it, and Silverman can tell you when he bought it, from whom, who the underbidder was, as well as the pictures he sold and the pictures he missed. He laments missing a Schiele because he wasn’t ready for the ‘jump you make mentally as a collector between under two-three million and over ten million’, and Schiele’s Dying Sunflower, with its evanescent poetry of life and death, slipped out of his hands, too.
‘I get asked, “Aren’t you sad? Don’t you feel you’re parting with children?” It’s not the case with me’
‘But when Schiele and his Tafelrunde [a Last Supper-ish painting of the artist and his circle at a table, pictured bottom] came along, I was ready, and I bought that privately. As a collector you say’ — and he adopts a vinegary aggressive wise-guy tone — ‘“I’m not gonna tolerate the faint heart any longer. We don’t have the money, we’ll find it, we’ll get it, we’ll jerk the dealer around, we’ll do whatever it takes — but I’m gonna buy it.” And that was when I stepped up. So if I had to have one of the three, I got the right one.’
THE ONLY PAINTINGS in Silverman’s Florida home as he grew up in the 1930s were ‘maybe some third-rate landscapes for decorative purposes’; there was no collecting gene. Where, then, do his taste and indeed his collecting bug come from?
Silverman himself offers a Freudian, if slightly unclear, explanation. His mother, of German extraction, met his father, whose family was from the Balkans via Palestine and England, and they had Benedict in 1929. Five years later, ‘My mother gave birth to my twin sisters. She had something called postpartum depression, which in those days was incurable — and she never came home. As a child, that’s a permanent scar on you. Produces a lot of guilt because you can’t help feeling you sent, drove her away, something you did, and it had a profound effect on me.’
Pictured above: Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait as Saint Sebastian, part of the Benedict Silverman Collection
This activated his collecting gene: stamps and coins as a child, Chinese cloisonné when he first got married, then with serious intent, spending and taste Tiffany lampshades, Art Nouveau furniture and his Austro-German fine art. In these later collections you can discern a child of the interwar years (as you can in his love of Brecht, Weill and Beckett), and were this a novel, Silverman would be trying to redeem the crises and losses of those years with his purchases — but this is not a novel. This period he loves, he says, because these artists made ‘so many things that went on to live for ever…’
‘And change everything,’ says Richard Nagy.
‘And change everything.’
THE OTHER REASON that one person might not buy the entire collection is the expense. Prices for Austrian and German art have rocketed since a record was set in 1990 for a Beckmann, says Helena Newman. I ask Silverman about whether one could start such a collection from scratch today, given the hyperinflation of the art market, but he interprets this as a question about how much profit he’s making and I get a slightly frayed answer: ‘I never did it for money, I never expected it to bring a lot of money. I have a passionate belief that real collectors don’t measure things in money. Now that it’s done, I’m glad that it’s going into a foundation — God knows, money tainted 90 per cent of my life, but this part of my life is untainted by the drive to make money out of it.’
Richard Nagy steps in and describes how the market has changed; supply is tight and only tightening. ‘I don’t think it’s about value — it’s about supply. After these pictures are dispersed you can wait — maybe you’ll get one a year, if you’re lucky, of this sort of quality. It would take as long as it’s taken Benedict. Yes, it’s probably possible to put it together but it will be that much more difficult.’ He cites ‘one of the greatest Old Master collectors of Italian baroque painting’ who is ‘basically giving up because he says, “I can’t find anything to buy.”’
Pictured above: Egon Schiele’s Tafelrunde
Mr Silverman had earlier made his feelings clear about the money sluicing through the art world. You shouldn’t buy just to invest: a billionaire who hired a curator to create a collection earned his particular ire. ‘I just’ — he puts hands on head in disgust — ‘I can’t imagine anything worse. They do it so they can say, “Over there’s my airplane, over there’s my yacht, over there’s my mansion in the Hamptons, and over here’s my art collection.”’
It’s only getting worse. ‘There’s too much money in it now that doesn’t understand anything that, that aren’t real collectors — too much money, they can’t even pronounce the name of the artist.’ What counts is passion: ‘When Saint Sebastian came up for auction, I told Richard, “We’re going to buy that because I regard it as the best drawing Schiele ever did,” and we overpaid — even the auctioneer said we overpaid. That’s life! I have no respect for collectors who stop because it’s bad business to go higher.’
The Silverman Collection is on display at Richard Nagy, 22 Old Bond Street, until 24 November
All images courtesy of Richard Nagy