S ir Peter Jonas (1946–2020) is legendary throughout the world of classical music as a ground-breaking and innovative opera director, favouring bold theatrical productions with the highest musical standards. In the 1980s he put the ENO on the map and during his tenure as director of the Bavarian State Opera it became the foremost opera house in Europe staging 85 new productions in 13 years.
He was largely responsible for the rebirth of Baroque opera and was a tireless campaigner for state funding of the arts both in the UK and in Germany. He was passionately committed to extending opera’s reach, pioneering live-streaming projections beyond opera house walls with Oper für alle (Opera for all), by which productions were projected onto a giant open-air screen, a practice subsequently copied worldwide. He worked with many of the greats: Sir George Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta.
Peter’s activity as an art collector is less well known. He was extremely modest and shared this private passion with only his closest colleagues and friends. I was lucky enough to meet Peter in the late 1990s when he really began collecting Old Master paintings in earnest, and I was a specialist at Sotheby’s in London. A workaholic, Peter travelled incessantly for the Munich opera, but also sat on boards of other European opera houses as well as lecturing regularly in Zurich, St Gallen and Berlin. Somehow, he always made time in his schedule to view the Old Master sales in London, carefully studying the sale catalogues and slipping out of meetings momentarily to bid by phone. He would look forward to the catalogues coming out with great enthusiasm, making careful shortlists of works which caught his eye, paying attention to attribution, condition and provenance and choosing judiciously within a reasonable budget.
Peter’s collecting interest lay mainly in early Renaissance and Baroque Flemish painting and in seventeenth-century Spanish Golden Age painting. In a 2008 lecture on the parallels between Rubens and opera, Peter outlined the development of his interest in Old Masters.
‘Conditioned by a strict Roman Catholic monastic boarding school education, my love of Old Master Paintings began with the early Sienese School, later graduating to the Italian Masters with a long passionate love affair with the work of Domenico Beccafumi, followed by forays into the early Flemish masters. Parallel with my life in the world of music and opera, the next stage on my visual arts journey of discovery brought me to the Spanish masters, in particular the trio of associates: Francisco de Zurbaran, Alonso Cano and Diego Velàzquez.’
Of course, Peter knew well the collection of the Alte Pinakothek and its many works by Rubens - he had a particular love for the great Flemish polymath. He appreciated the virtuoso effect of huge canvases such as the Löwenjad (Lion Hunt): ‘For any theatrical person it is as stunning and thrilling as a great balletic leap, frozen in space and time, or as moving as that extraordinary highest of notes from a great stage singer, the emotional power of which stays with us long after the tone itself has been superseded by others as the music drama continues.’
However, Peter went on to point out that the oil sketch for this work, also in the Alte Pinakothek, is even more extraordinary as its raw unfinished style conveys even more powerfully the sense of drama and movement. ‘Here, what we in the theatre endeavour to achieve on the stage, is so stunningly achieved by the master at a stroke: an outburst of violence, movement, drama; an adrenalin rush inhabiting its own system of seemingly impossible gravity. This version attains an exception to its provenance as a seventeenth-century work: it has a timeless sense of relevance, an aesthetic universality.’
Peter always dreamt of being able to own a Rubens sketch and could not believe his luck when, in 2008 at Sotheby’s, he managed to buy one of the small preparatory panels for the Torre de la Parada cycle. The Abduction of Ganymede (lot 5 from The Old Masters Evening Sale) was commissioned from Rubens for the Spanish royal hunting lodge outside Madrid and the finished painting is now at the Prado Museum. Peter was thrilled with this work, full of sensuality and drama, ‘all achieved with the most economical of means as though Rubens had dashed it off in a moment of inspiration sparked by the pressure of deadline.’
Another favourite work was the mystical painting of a female martyr saint by Alonso Cano (lot 7 from The Old Masters Evening Sale) bought at Sotheby’s in 1998. The canvas needed restoration and after acquiring it Peter closely followed the conservation work, visiting Zahira Veliz’s studio on several occasions. He was very proud that the Cano was subsequently requested for three major exhibitions in Spain. At the time of the 1998 sale the saint was identified as Saint Catherine of Siena. This subject had a particular resonance for him as his beloved sister, who died tragically aged only 25, was called Kathryn. Further research into the iconography has shown that the ethereal figure portrayed is in fact Saint Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, however, this did not alter his particular attachment to this painting.
Peter’s fascination with European culture in the broadest sense was part of his motivation to walk by foot across Europe, north to south, from Inverness to Palermo. He did this, over a period of several years, together with his wife, the violinist Barbara Burgdorf, wherever possible following ancient Roman roads, such as the Via Appia outside Rome. The classical world of Ancient Greece and Rome was another of Peter’s main interests and about ten years ago in addition to Old Master Paintings, he also began collecting Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art. Four of these sculptures are included in the London sale of Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art – Parts I & II (7 December 2021 and online 2–8 December 2021), notably a spectacular two-metre-long Roman 2nd century sarcophagus front with nereids and sea-creatures, which I witnessed Peter falling in love with at first sight in Basel and which had pride of place in his dining room (lot 67 from Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art Part I).
Peter’s infectious enthusiasm for the visual arts had an impact on the opera productions he oversaw. Take for example, Pierre Mendell’s poster for the 2006 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo in Munich, which was inspired by El Greco’s haunting portrait of the Grand Inquisitor Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
When Peter’s successor at the Munich opera house, Nikolaus Bachler, pointed out: ‘Since the Jonas era, the audience in Munich has been listening (also) with their eyes’, he was alluding to Peter’s rich artistic knowledge and curiosity which inevitably found its way into many of the opera productions he oversaw.
Peter battled with cancer for most of his adult life, defying all medical prognosis and had a very matter of fact relationship with death; he talked easily and quite often about what would happen with his ‘children’ when he was gone and was content with the idea that they should find new homes, agreeing perhaps with Walter Benjamin that The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as soon as it loses its personal owner’.
Peter was a wonderful collector to know, endlessly curious, irreverent, witty, always positive and generous with his time and knowledge. What’s more, he was also an outstanding person on a human level. Over the past twenty-five years Peter came to know well many members of Sotheby’s Old Masters department: all remember him with great fondness and are very proud to be able to present his collection.
 Quotations from Peter Jonas, ‘Via Munich, Monteverdi, Tacitus, Ovid, Cavalli and Pepys: the road to an appreciation of Rubens for the aesthetic pilgrim’, in Das andere Rubensbuch; Reinhold Baumstark zum Abschied, Munich 2009, pp. 97–105.
 W. Benjamin, Illuminations, London 1999 (ed.), pp. 61–69.
Property from the Collection of Sir Peter Jonas will be offered in the following sales: