S hortly after my 10th birthday on Sunday 26 November 1972, my father took me to the local Landesmuseum in Münster for the opening of an art exhibition. A gentleman came towards us and, amazed by the little boy who was so obviously enthralled by the paintings around him, took my hand and began to discuss them with me. I spotted a dog chewing on a bone, hiding beneath a table beside some elegantly-dressed figures in a park. I was amazed by the rich colours used to describe a mountainous landscape at dusk. I explored the details of these scenes with my new-found teacher. And I was hooked.
The works I had been looking at were paintings of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. And the man I had met was the distinguished collector, Frans C. Butôt. That encounter in 1972 was the start of a long and valuable friendship, and the catalyst for my own journey as a collector.
F.C. Butôt was an urbane Dutch tobacco merchant with an unerring instinct for first-class art. Advised by Laurens J. Bol, then director of the Dordrechts Museum, Butôt began collecting 17th-century Dutch art in the post-war years. He relied unfailingly on his eyes rather than his ears. During my numerous visits to his alpine residence in St. Gilgen at Lake Wolfgang, he taught me to focus on the quality of a work’s execution and its condition, rather than to listen to the big names that stole headlines on the art market. I will never forget his words to me: “Thomas”, he said, “only buy paintings that are well-preserved. Teach your eye to recognise restoration. Only a few works remain in the same condition as they were 300 years ago.” It is this advice that informed purchases such as the Arcadian landscape by Albert Meyeringh: unlined, with its original canvas stretchers, an old varnish and minimal or no intervention by restorers.
Over the decades I battled at auctions, galleries and art fairs with eminent collectors, such as Willem Russell and Carl Schünemann, for the best works by lesser-known artists. In my determined hunt for the finest examples of Golden Age painting by these so-called ‘petits maîtres’ I acquired many works sometimes just minutes after the opening of prestigious fairs, as was the case with the Barn Interior by Herman Saflteven, described by The New York Times as “a gem” of TEFAF in 2009. On the occasion of the auction of Butôt’s collection at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam in 1993, we were also able to acquire over 10 of my erstwhile mentor’s own paintings and it is these, along with his words of advice to me, that are at the heart of the SØR Rusche collection.
It was not only Butôt’s infectious enthusiasm and sage counsel that fired my passion for collecting, however. It was the paintings themselves that first captivated me at that exhibition in 1972. Why did the artistic output of 17th-century Holland seem to me so aptly named ‘The Golden Age’?
First and foremost I delight in the craftsmanship of these works. From the delicately rendered minutiae that I had admired as a 10-year-old, I came to love the skill evident in paintings from trompe l’œil compositions, designed to deceive our senses, to the tangible beauty of floral still lifes, to the evocations of landscapes, subject to all sorts of atmospheric conditions. The range of subjects treated during the 17th-century is testament to the artists’ seemingly inexhaustible capacity for pictorial invention. Nor is naturalism the primary object of many of these works. The subtext often found in these paintings, and the consequent scope for interpretation, has also always captivated me. In short, the possibilities for discourse around these pictures are endless!
The highlight of my life as a collector to date must certainly be the exhibition of our paintings curated by Wim Pijbes in 2008, at the Kunsthalle in Rotterdam. It was put together in order to reflect exactly this variety of subjects and their interpretations through high-quality works. We entitled the exhibition ‘At Home in the Golden Age’, and this feeling of being ‘at home’ has always informed my collection.
With other art forms, notably Contemporary works, value can often be contingent on size. No such correlation exists in the world of Old Master Paintings. Indeed, great artists - perhaps none more so than the Dutch masters - are often proved to be so through their ability to bring to life pictures of smaller dimensions. I greatly appreciate this quality, but I have also had practical reasons for collecting works on a more diminutive scale. The smaller the picture, the more chance there is that you have space to hang it on your wall, and the greater the opportunity, therefore, to live surrounded by art - the very purpose for which these paintings were created.