Renowned collector and TEFAF President Willem Baron van Dedem has died at the age of 86. The expert in Dutch Old Master paintings took the lead role on the Maastricht art fair’s board of trustees in 1997, becoming one of its ‘most loyal and faithful torchbearers.’ As a collector, he also made generous donations to the National Gallery in London, and the Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis in The Netherlands. He spoke to Michael Hall for Apollo magazine in 2010: we reproduce the interview in full today as testament to Baron van Dedem’s life and work.
Built at the start of the 18th century, Baron and Baroness van Dedem’s handsome brick house overlooks a secluded courtyard in west London, close to the Thames. On a January morning, when sleet mists the freezing air and patches of ice linger on the grass, the house’s tall, 18-paned sash windows look like the backdrop to a Dutch 17th-century painting of a winter scene – I half expect to see well-muffled figures hurrying past carrying skates. Inside, the feeling of being inside a painting lingers as I am shown into the glowingly warm panelled drawing room. Coffee cups glint invitingly like a still-life but they are handed round not by a Vermeer maid but by the Baroness, elegant, blonde and concerned – you must be so cold’. She and her husband have lived in London for the 25 years or so since their marriage and it takes a moment to catch the Dutch intonation in their voices.
Distinguished and patrician, in a well-cut tweed suit, Baron van Dedem could easily be a retired ambassador or politician, but the wealth that has allowed him to form the most distinguished modern collection in Britain of Dutch art of the Golden Age has been earned from a business career. Yet the impression of friendly diplomacy is not misplaced: the Baron has an important public role in the arts as president of the board of the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) at Maastricht. Privately, he is an ambassador in another sense–for the Dutch art that he knows and loves so deeply. Indeed, very few art historians are as eloquent on the subject. Even before I can ask him a question he starts discussing the interview with David Hockney in the January issue of Apollo. Pointing to a still-life by Willem Kalf of fruit and drinking glasses that hangs on the opposite wall, he comments ‘the corner of the carpet that covers the table in the painting is slightly blurred. I suppose Hockney would say that was because Kalf was using an optical device – I think it’s more likely he painted it that way so that the eye is led immediately to the objects on the table.’ The painting is one of five that the Baron has given to the Friends of the Mauritshuis, in the Hague, where it will eventually hang.
There may be a genetic component to Baron van Dedem’s collecting, for he is a great-nephew of the shipping magnate Daniel George van Beuningen, whose celebrated picture collection is now in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Baron van Dedem fondly remembers as a schoolboy examining Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel on his weekly Wednesday visits to his great-uncle. It was some years, however, before he sensed that his fate was to be a collector too. ‘I went to an art fair in Delft and that’s when I realised how drawn I was to the Dutch art on show – not just the paintings, but also the china and the silver. I wasn’t able to buy anything, but that’s when it all started – I was then 35.’
The Baron now owns some 60 paintings, but he calculates that this represents little more than a third of all those that he has bought in the course of his collecting career. ‘I have always kept a book of my purchases, and looking back I see that the earliest that I still own was number eight – numbers one to seven have been sold. After a bit I got dissatisfied with my early purchases – I’d looked at more, used my eyes more. What I’d bought was cheap but it wasn’t very good. So I traded in two paintings for one better one, and if you do that then you’ve taken your first step as a collector. You know you’re a real collector when you buy a painting and have no room to hang it.’
This desire to refine and improve the collection means that some of the paintings recorded in its catalogue, written by Peter C. Sutton and published in 2002 by Frances Lincoln, have already left the house. The Baron opens the book at a still life of a bowl of wild strawberries, painted in 1696 by Adriaen Coorte. “This was one of three paintings that I promised to the National Gallery in London, but then I saw a better Coorte at TEFAF so I bought it and sold this one. A little while later I met Neil MacGregor, who was then director of the National Gallery, at a dinner party and I said “You know that little Coorte that I’ve promised to you – well, I’ve sold it”. And he said immediately, “Because you’ve bought a better one”.’ This more imposing Coorte now forms part of Baron van Dedem’s promised gift to the gallery.
A collector’s ability to replace a work with something better can at times seem almost ruthless. When he saw Jan van de Cappelle’s majestic A Calm Sea with Ships near the Shore on Otto Nauman’s stand at Maastricht in 2001, the Baron knew at once that he wanted to buy it, but to raise the very high price he had to make a major sacrifice – an early painting by Rembrandt. This small panel, a depiction of three musicians representing the sense of heating, had been extended on all four sides by a later artist, and partly overpainted; it was not until the Baron had the painting conserved and reduced to its original dimensions that its attribution was accepted. Pleased that the painting has found a good home in an American private collection, the Baron reflects, ‘It was heartbreaking to part with that little Rembrandt, but I have no doubt I did the right thing. It was by a big name but a modest work, whereas the Van de Cappelle is a magnificent work, the very top of Dutch marine painting.’
Such acquisitions have prompted the Baron to consider publishing an addendum to the catalogue of his collection, but he is emphatic that the pace of acquisition is never again going to match the early days: “There are fewer obvious gaps in the collection, and it gets more and more difficult to buy – if an upcoming auction has four good Dutch 17th-century paintings it is a major achievement, and of course all the dealers who specialise in Dutch Old Masters will go after them. It’s almost impossible for me to buy at auction as a result.’ Nonetheless, the Baron is able to secure major prizes by trusting his eye – he points out that he bought his Kalf still life after it had gone unsold at Christie’s in 1995 because uncharacteristically for the artist it seemed to be unsigned (cleaning revealed a signature). Moreover, like several private collectors, he has benefited from American museums deaccessioning works. In 2007 he was able to buy Jan van der Heyden’s The Inn of the Black Pig at Maarsseveen when it was sold by the J. Paul Getty Museum at Sotheby’s in New York in 2007. It is of great historical interest as it reflects the new fashion for wealthy Amsterdam merchants – in this case Joan Huydecoper, for whom it was painted – to buy rural estates. ‘It is odd that the Getty sold it, as its importance had been explained in an article by Gary Schwartz in the museum’s own journal.’
Since, as the Baron says, ‘at Maastricht you are offered an overview of the top 80% on the market’, it is not surprising that several of his paintings have a TEFAF provenance – for example, his ravishing small panel by Gabriel Metsu of a young woman eating bread and cheese was bought at Maastricht from Johnny van Haeften in 1997. ‘The great advantage of a fair’, he explains, ‘is that you can walk around anonymously’ — perhaps not so very easy for the Baron at Maastricht – ‘whereas in a gallery you’ll feel under pressure, and can’t look round at your ease.’
This partly explains why fairs particularly appeal to new collectors. ‘One of my sons is an investment manager and deals with people who want to invest money in Holland – the successful newly rich, the sort of people who have built up a business and then sold it. Suddenly they have a huge amount of money and don’t know what to do with it. I say to him, take them to Maastricht, to TEFAF – it may open new vistas for them. Collecting brings people like that into contact with people they admire, and lifts their social sphere – it encourages a sort of social mobility.’ And do his children – he has four sons and a daughter – show any inclination to follow his lead as a collector? ‘Oh it’s too much responsibility in the present day and age – they don’t want the bother of security and so on.’
As president of the board of TEFAF, the Baron has no executive function: with no direct connection with the trade, his role is to act as impartial umpire, to ensure that all the dealers who are represented at the fair are treated equally. ‘One of my responsibilities, for example, is to ensure that the vetting is above reproach. The vetting at Maastricht is considered a benchmark, and many international fairs now say their vetting “is of Maastricht standard” – which is a great compliment.’ The board also has a supervisory role in the decisions about which dealers are to be admitted to the fair – there is a long waiting list. ‘The executive committee is a small team with therefore enormous powers of decision making, and the board is there to ensure that these powers are exercised fairly.’
By now we are impatient to look at more of the collection, and after a glimpse of a bedroom, hung with a magnificent Boudin seascape and a seductive Van Dongen cafe scene – the Baron and his wife are by no means exclusively committed to Dutch 17th-century art – we pause in the hall to admire a Vanitas by Paulus Moreelse, depicting a young woman pointing to her reflection in a mirror. ‘Do you see how the painter has hinted at the young woman’s mortality?’, asks the Baron. I peer at the painting, perplexed. ‘Look carefully at her reflection – it shows her as an old woman. It takes time to notice that. Peter Sutton didn’t believe me at first, but he does now.’
We walk up the wide stairs past a large portrait of the couple’s sons and son-in-law out shooting, by Baroness van Dedem, a well-known painter and sculptor who specialises in portraits. In the upstairs dining room we come to one of the collection’s great treasures, a still life of a breakfast table by Pieter Claesz, with his monogram and the date 1636. It has a special place in the Baron’s affections. ‘I think it has an inexplicable beauty. Claesz takes the simple objects of daily life and creates a magic that is very difficult to explain.’ As we move on to look at a limpid view of an estuary, painted by Jan van Goyen in 1645 – another promised gift to the National Gallery – the Baron enlarges on his theme. ‘The development of landscape, like the interest in still lifes, completely goes against the old idea that there’s no point in paying good money for a painting of something you can see out of your own window. Look at the Claesz – these were objects that a wealthy man could have on his table every day. In Dutch art of the 17th century the sponsors of art are no longer the church – thanks to Calvinism – or the court, they are the burghers. Yet why would a merchant see beauty in the simplicity of a still life? Why did this taste suddenly develop? It is still something that fascinates me.’
Yet while the Baron may ponder the motivations behind the art he loves, he has no doubt about its effect: ‘If I look at a landscape by Van Goyen, for example, and then look out of the window, I have been taught by a painter to discover beauty that otherwise I would pass by. Is that what the first buyers of these pictures thought?’ We are now back downstairs in the drawing room, where four paintings by Abel Grimmer depicting the seasons hang either side of a window. As we look at the small figures rousing themselves from winter for the new season’s tasks, and then glance out at the frosty London street I can see exactly what Baron van Dedem means.
This interview was first published in the March 2010 issue of Apollo magazine.