Stanley J. Seeger. PHOTO: © ROY RILEY.
LONDON - Stanley J. Seeger was one of the world’s most prolific and private collectors, acquiring magnificent works in numerous fields from paintings by Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns and Francis Bacon to books by Joseph Conrad. Marcus Linell, who worked on some of the most famous sales from the collection, spoke to Seeger’s partner in both life and collecting, Christopher Cone.
Stanley Seeger once said to his partner Christopher Cone, “when I think of myself, it is as an island alone in the middle of the sea.” As one of the greatest collectors of his generation, Seeger was determined to guard his privacy in the middle of the sea of the art world. Over the last three decades of Seeger’s life, Cone observed both the pattern of his life and his collecting, recalling him “as an immensely private person and, while his collecting was both an aesthetic and intellectual pleasure to him, it was something he enjoyed privately.” So successful was Seeger at ensuring his invisibility that a day or so before his highly successful auction of 88 Picassos at Sotheby’s New York in 1992, he and Cone went to look at an exhibition of Picasso drawings at a gallery and overheard the owner tell a visitor that he did “not believe that there was such a person as Stanley Seeger.” Delighted at this tribute, they left the gallery unnoticed.
Cone was introduced to Seeger by the artist John Craxton, who “thought that I might be able to cheer Stanley up a bit, and took me to his Mayfair mews house for dinner. As an impoverished Sotheby’s Belgravia Victorian picture cataloguer, the experience of entering that pretty, and unostentatious house was something I shall never forget. The front door opened and there, standing beside an ancient oak dresser was Stanley, exotically, but typically, dressed in a gloriously blue African robe with long hair and a beard and the most intensely blue, rather sad, eyes. Over supper, I came to understand that Stanley was a softly spoken, reticent and gentle being, seemingly very shy, intense, and with an impish sense of humour. He asked me at one point, and with no relevance to anything, whether I could fly a vertical takeoff jet. ‘Oh dear, never mind - but you could take lessons?’ was his optimistic reaction to my negative response. This was altogether too weird and wonderful for words, but was to become the pattern and current of my life for the next 32 years.”
Seeger was a collector in wildly diverse fields, as Cone recalls, “the golden age of his collecting began in the late 1970s, when he inherited his fortune.” Over the course of a year he moved to Sutton Place, the rather neglected Tudor mansion belonging to J. Paul Getty; underbid Turner’s Juliet and her Nurse at $6.4 million, which was then the most valuable painting ever sold at auction; and acquired a remarkable Bacon triptych, which controversially he hung in the Great Hall at Sutton Place. Cone had already glimpsed the breadth of Seeger's taste on that first encounter: “Books were very much in evidence too, collections of first editions of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Gertrude Stein and others. Also vying for attention were antiquities, and, to my untutored eye, a disconcerting, rather angry-looking collection of pre-Columbian figures on shelves in the master bedroom.”
Stanley J. Seeger’s striking triptych by Francis Bacon set a new record for the artist when it sold at Sotheby’s in 2001. PHOTO: © 2013 ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK / DACS, LONDON.
Seeger had consuming passions, and perhaps his greatest was for Picasso. “Stanley was by instinct cerebral and reclusive," recalls Cone. "But understanding Picasso became an obsession for him. He responded to the sensuality of Picasso and he loved tough but predominantly figurative art. His acquisition of Picasso’s work was like solving a particularly difficult puzzle. He had to finish it, but once he had fully explored it, he needed to move on.” Characteristically, this change of direction was transformed into a new pleasure.
Over the last twenty years, Cone and Seeger oversaw with great attention to detail the auction of $100 million of paintings and other works of art, while continuing to collect. For example, another passion, which was still in progress when he died, was his extraordinary collection of works by Joseph Conrad, which will be sold at Sotheby’s in London this July. Cone recounts the personal connection for Seeger: “The collection is another example of his obsessiveness. It contains almost every edition of Conrad ever printed, as well as presentation copies and letters and the last great manuscript in private hands, Typhoon, which he bought at Sotheby’s New York in 1990. Stanley shared with Conrad a love of the sea, and the freedom of it. Stanley was footloose. For many years he lived on a boat in the Aegean.”
The origin of Seeger’s wealth is a classic American tale. His fortune was based on land; huge tracts on the border between Arkansas and Louisiana, acquired by his grandfather in the 1890s. For about a hundred years this same land provided first timber for construction, then oil and gas and finally a huge paper-mill supplied with pulp from the trees replanted by Seeger's father. Following his death, the company continued in great profitability for many years before finally being sold with the main beneficiaries being Seeger and his family. Seeger was not raised surrounded by art, but even at Princeton where he studied architecture and music – “a clue to the way his mind worked,” says Cone – he had started to collect. An exhibition of some of those acquisitions was mounted at his alma mater in 1961, after which he worked with the fabled art dealer Catherine Viviano, discovering contemporary Italian art that he bought throughout his life, and Peter Lanyon, another of Viviano’s stable of artists.
Picasso’s Étreinte is one of a number of works from the Seeger Collection offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale on 19 June.
Another of Seeger’s passions, as already alluded to, was the transformation of high profile houses, such as Getty’s Elizabethan mansion Sutton Place. It was a thrilling challenge and the whole house was renovated under the guidance of Sir Hugh Casson and Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, who laid out spectacular gardens. However, the results attracted so much unlooked-for attention that it soon became time to move on. Thereafter, Cone and Seeger's life became more peripatetic though on a less expansive scale: first with Deanery Garden, a beautiful Lutyens house, and Gertrude Jekyll garden in Sonning on Thames, and then a succession of other houses or flats in Switzerland, Britain, Italy, as well as Seeger's beloved yacht Rosa. They collected in order to furnish this succession of houses, as additions to specific collections or simply on impulse for pieces that appealed or amused. Seeger had a great eye as a decorator and every house became a distinctive private space for the couple and a close circle of friends.
After ten years of buying, however, the accumulated collections had in some cases reached completion and in others needed to be rationalised. This was my introduction to the phenomenon that was Stanley J. Seeger: in 1992, I received a call from Cone to say Seeger had decided to sell everything. We prepared elaborate plans for a succession of sales around the world, but this was not to be. Both Stanley and Christopher enjoyed selling as much as buying and the result was a succession of sales over a period of 20 years in New York, London and Milan. All have been resounding successes and the Joseph Conrad Library will reveal another facet of the collecting of this extraordinary couple. It will also confirm to me that Seeger and Cone worked perfectly together, acting as a single unit – almost one person with two wholly different and extremely agile brains.
A friend of Stanley J. Seeger and Christopher Cone for over 30 years, Marcus Linell has been closely involved with all the sales from the collection and now works on special projects.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]