Works by John William Waterhouse from the collection of music industry icon Seymour Stein, sold at Sotheby's Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale 2018.
Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art

Music Industry Legend Seymour Stein: From Madonna to The Siren

By Simon Toll

A lthough on the pulse of the very latest modern trends, one of music’s greatest A&R men, Seymour Stein, has always been a great admirer of the art of the past and an enthusiastic collector. Sotheby's Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale in London on 12 July features a selection of magnificent works from his collection, which includes one of John William Waterhouse's most famous works, The Siren.

Stein's enthusiasm for collecting was demonstrated in 2003 when he sold a portion of his vast collection at Sotheby’s in New York, an eclectic selection of Art Deco furniture and porcelain, metalwork and glassware, European Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

At that time Seymour wrote, “I thought many times of opening a gallery to sell off most of what I purchased, for in truth I had bought enough to fill several homes. I was always too busy chasing bands to do anything about it… Looking over the paintings, furniture, porcelain and objects in preparation for this sale brought back wonderful memories in much the same way that hearing a favourite song from the past does.”

Seymour was probably born a collector and as a child in Brooklyn he amassed the usual things that captivate young boys - bottle-caps and bubble-gum trading cards, tin soldiers and postage stamps. These collections were sold when Seymour discovered Rhythm and Blues, Country, and doo-wop to fund his expanding record collection which became the largest at his junior high school. As an ambitious and energetic teenager, he worked for Billboard magazine and interned at King Records in Cincinnati, where he met his great mentor Syd Nathan. Nathan's collections of netsuke and inro inspired Seymour’s early interest in art. At the age of twenty-three, in 1966, Seymour founded Sire Records with the songwriter and producer Richard Gottehrer and the long list of successful signings began like a roll-call of the most progressive musicians around.

Seymour always believed that great music could come from anywhere, and it was his signing of Dutch band Focus in 1970 that provided Sire with its first million-selling single and album, Hocus Pocus and Moving Waves. Over the course of many years, Sire has released and had success with many artists: Radio Birdman and the Saints from Australia, Ofra Haza from Israel, Boney M and Falco from Germany, HIM from Finland, Laid Back from Denmark, and others. Sire’s breakthrough was in 1975 when The Ramones were signed, followed by Talking Heads soon afterwards, The Pretenders in 1980 and Madonna in 1982.

Sire also partnered up with legendary producer, Mike Vernon, and his Blue Horizon label in the UK, home to the original Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, which included Christine Perfect (McVie), and Duster Bennett, and helped launch those acts in the United States. Many of the greatest names in contemporary music came onto Sire’s books - The Undertones, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Soft Cell, The Smiths, The Replacements, Lou Reed, Madness, Primal Scream, Barenaked Ladies, Brian Wilson, K.D. Lang, Space Hog, Everything but the Girl, Cyndi Lauper, Erasure, The Cult, My Bloody Valentine, Morcheeba, Regina Spektor, Tom Tom Club, The Undertones, Ice-T, Seal…. As Seymour wrote in 2003 “It was like a 25-year non-stop ride on a roller coaster: totally exhilarating and great fun – and still the beat goes on!” In 2005 Seymour was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the lifetime-achievement category and in 2016, Stein was honoured with the Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

As Sire Records prospered, Seymour was often in Britain looking for new bands to sign and whilst in London and in Paris he developed a deep love and appetite for Art Deco and Art Nouveau design. During rare moments of ‘down-time’ Seymour frequented the furniture and porcelain auctions at the Drouot in Paris and the antique shops on the Rive Gauche. On rainy days in London he was a regular visitor to Sotheby’s galleries on Motcomb Street in Belgravia, buying early 20th century furniture and decorative arts. His collecting was voracious but only for the best examples – he knew what he liked and was well advised.

At that time Sotheby’s Victorian Pictures department was based in Belgravia and published small square catalogues for the sales of ‘Highly Important Victorian Paintings & Drawings’ bound in glossy hardback. These catalogues were a treasure-trove of pictures, particularly strong in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and Neo-classical school – many of which were being sold by the grandchildren of collectors who had bought the pictures around the turn of the twentieth century.

Among the earliest of Seymour’s purchases being offered now is The Red Cap by Sandys, whose name and reputation few would have known in 1976. This would not have concerned Seymour, who has always appreciated beauty for beauty’s sake and recognised talent where others had not - in his collecting and in his work. Seymour has long admired the work of Simeon Solomon and the collection is particularly rich for this talented, unique and tragic artist. The watercolours Bacchusand In the Summer Twilight will be well-known to many as they have been included in exhibitions and books devoted to the artist and to wider movements in European Symbolism and Pre-Raphaelitism. Both were bought in the 1990s but Seymour had appreciated Solomon’s work in the late 1970s when he bought several chalk studies of mystical heads.

By 1985 when Waterhouse’s sublime The Siren was added to the collection, a monograph on the artist had been published and a retrospective exhibition had been held at the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield in 1978. Waterhouse’s modern ideal of feminine beauty appealed to this new audience and his work was starting to become popular. It has been a star of the collection for twenty-eight years, increasing in popularity and fame as its image has been reproduced in books and included in exhibitions – including the Royal Academy blockbuster ten years ago. This painting inspired the title of Seymour’s biography, Siren Song written in conjunction with Gareth Murphy and published this summer. Seymour is marking the event by parting with some of his collection and Sotheby’s are very pleased to be able to celebrate his remarkable eye for beauty.

Seymour and I are very grateful to Rodney Richardson who has advised Seymour for over thirty years.
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