The life, travels and collecting journey of Sam Josefowitz: ‘When something seems to you to be a masterpiece, dive in’

After founding a global music and publishing business, Sam Josefowitz pursued his passion for art in earnest, bringing the Pont-Aven painters into the spotlight and building the world’s most important private collection of Rembrandt prints

The collecting journey of Sam Josefowitz started when he was eight. Fascinated by the stamps on letters that his father received from around the world, he developed a habit of removing those stamps from their envelopes and pasting them diligently into an album.

Before long, he was also making regular trips to the market square in Lausanne, where the Josefowitz family lived, to attend a stamp exchange. He would spend almost all his weekly allowance on items of geographical or historical interest, and pick the brains of seasoned collectors and traders.

By his teens, a passion for stamps had evolved into a passion for art, one that would last the rest of his life. Sam purchased his first work (a print by Picasso) aged 16, and, over the course of subsequent decades, put together one of the 20th century’s most significant art collections.

Kees van Dongen, La Quiétude, 1918. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), La Quiétude, 1918. Oil on canvas. 45 x 57½ in (115 x 146 cm). Sold for £10,775,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Josefowitz is perhaps most readily associated with the Pont-Aven school of painters, who operated under Gauguin’s sway in the eponymous Breton town in the 1880s and 1890s — and whose place in the art-historical canon he, more than anyone, secured. He also keenly collected work by the Paris-based group they influenced: Les Nabis — notably, Félix Vallotton, Pierre Bonnard and Aristide Maillol.

Through years of research and connoisseurship, Josefowitz also created a peerless assembly of Old Master prints, including the finest collection of Rembrandt prints in private hands.

Finally, no summary of his artistic taste is complete without mentioning the fact that he spent his life travelling the world, taking the opportunity to learn about other cultures and to purchase myriad pieces from bygone civilisations in the process. His collection was one of great breadth, as well as depth.

Félix Vallotton, Cinq heures, 1898. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), Cinq heures, 1898. Gouache on board. 14⅛ x 22⅞ in (36 x 58.1 cm). Sold for £3,670,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

‘Only a lack of imagination limits you,’ Josefowitz once said of the art of collecting. ‘When something seems to you to be a masterpiece, dive in.’

The results of many of Josefowitz’s dives will be on offer at Christie’s this autumn in a series of auctions. These include Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz: A Lifetime of Discovery and Scholarship in London on 13 October 2023; sales dedicated to his Pont-Aven and Nabis works, in Paris on 20 and 21 October (and online, 12-25 October); and Old Master prints, in Old Masters Part I alongside a dedicated sale in London on 7 December.

Sam Josefowitz collected masterworks across 3,000 years of human culture

Sam Josefowitz collected masterworks across 3,000 years of human culture

Josefowitz was born into a middle-class Jewish family in the Lithuanian village of Anykščiai in 1921. When he was a boy, they all moved to Switzerland, where Sam received a solid education rooted in music, literature and history.

As an adolescent, he developed a love for the visual arts, briefly even considering a career as a sculptor. To a large extent, this was a product of repeated visits to the Kunsthaus Zürich, where he marvelled at the museum’s collection of Rodins. Josefowitz began a lifelong practice of reading art-historical books, too (as a collector, every one of his purchases would be preceded by thorough research).

Aristide Maillol, Portrait de Mademoiselle Jeanne Faraill, 1888-89. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), Portrait de Mademoiselle Jeanne Faraill, 1888-89. Oil on canvas. 59⅜ x 40⅜ in (150.9 x 102.4 cm) Sold for £2,399,500 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

As war loomed over Europe in the late 1930s, Josefowitz was sent to finish his schooling in the US. He took a degree in industrial engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State and was top of his class, despite having an imperfect grasp of English at the time. He went on to complete a Master’s in chemical engineering, before joining his father’s chemical business on Long Island.

Entrepreneurial talent was evident from the off. In 1946, Sam and his brother David set up the Concert Hall Society, a pioneering mail-order music publisher that grew into one of North America’s biggest record clubs.

‘The Pont-Aven painters’ essential interest lay in expressing the beauty of their subject’ — Sam Josefowitz

Success in business allowed Josefowitz to begin collecting art in earnest. Partly thanks to conversations with two historians of late-19th-century French art, Charles Chassé and John Rewald, he grew increasingly interested in the radical school of Pont-Aven.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the fishing village of Pont-Aven had become a thriving artistic colony, peopled by the likes of Paul Sérusier, Emile Bernard, Armand Séguin and Gauguin. They had been attracted by a mix of cheap living, pretty surroundings and a simple Breton society that harked back to the pre-industrial age.

Paul Sérusier (1863-1927), Le faucheur Breton, 1893. Oil on canvas. 36 x 20⅛ in (91.5 x 51 cm). Sold for £352,800 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

The artists developed a decorative, non-naturalistic style, typically featuring bold outlines, flat colour infill and a rejection of three-dimensionality. In the 1950s, when Josefowitz started collecting their work, they weren’t at all well known. (In Gauguin’s case, it was for the imagery he had created in the South Pacific that he was famous.)

Josefowitz said that he admired the Pont-Aven painters’ ‘honesty of expression’ and unwillingness ‘to show off, preach or politicise. Their essential interest lay in expressing the beauty of their subject.’

He himself travelled to Brittany many times on the hunt for pictures. With the determination of a collector who never waited for works simply to land in his lap, he took no end of planes, trains and automobiles, seeking out descendants of the Pont-Aven artists, as well as provincial gallerists and auctioneers.

At times he relied on telephone directories, but more often on word of mouth. In some cases, he said, ‘paintings were rolled up in an attic and cut off the stretchers, nobody having looked at them in many years’.

Paul Sérusier, Promenade dans les bois de Châteauneuf, 1894. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Paul Sérusier (1863-1927), Promenade dans les bois de Châteauneuf, 1894. Oil on canvas. 28¼ x 48 in (71.8 x 122.2 cm). Sold for £504,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Fast-forward to the end of the 20th century, and — thanks in large part to Josefowitz himself — the Pont-Aven school was now held in high esteem by the art world. The works he owned were regularly requested by museum directors worldwide for exhibitions on the group. (Josefowitz maintained a strong network of academics, curators and directors throughout his life, always welcoming them to his home to study his collection and always happy to lend pieces for public display, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and the Royal Academy of Arts, London.)

In 1985 he played an important role in the opening of the Musée de Pont-Aven, donating the wealth of archival documents he had amassed about the school. He also funded a research centre there, which bears his name.

This was followed in 1998 by the sale (a partial gift) of 17 Pont-Aven paintings, and the donation of 84 Pont-Aven prints, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Josefowitz was named an Officer of the Legion of Honour by the French state in 2005, with the then Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, referring to him at his induction ceremony as ‘a veritable ambassador of French culture’.

It’s worth adding that Josefowitz’s interest in the Pont-Aven school led him to discover — and, in certain cases, greatly admire — other artists who had worked in France at around the same time. This applies most obviously to the Nabis, but also includes the likes of Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Signac and Kees van Dongen. His collection is rich in works by all of these.

Caillebotte was another figure who remained relatively obscure after his death, and whose status has only really risen in recent decades. Josefowitz was often credited with having an intuition for spotting unsung artists who deserved a reputational boost. He never accepted such praise, however, insisting that ‘you don’t buy paintings with your intuition, you buy with your eyes’.

Gustave Caillebotte, Capucines, circa 1892. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Capucines, circa 1892. Oil on canvas. 41⅞ x 29¾ in (106.2 x 75.3 cm). Sold for £1,129,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

In the mid-1960s, shortly before Sam moved back to Switzerland permanently, the Josefowitz family expanded their mail-order business from music into literature. They created some of the largest book clubs in the world, including Cercle du Bibliophile in France and Heron Books in the UK. A New York Times  profile of Sam from 1969 estimated that the clubs were already selling between 12 and 14 million books a year.

This was also the decade in which Sam started collecting prints. It was an interest born out of a chance encounter on a flight between Paris and Geneva, when he happened to be sitting next to an American dealer (who would later become a friend) called Ira Gale.

The pair struck up a conversation, and Josefowitz took great interest in Gale’s expertise in Old Master engravings. They arranged to have lunch together the following day, during which Josefowitz bought two Rembrandts. He promptly went on to build a small library of books on printmaking, as well as discussing the subject with other experts and paying frequent visits to museums with notable prints cabinets.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait Etching at a Window, 1648. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-Portrait Etching at a Window, 1648. Etching and drypoint on laid paper. Sheet 159 x 133 mm. Sold for £277,200 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Rembrandt was Josefowitz’s favourite artist in the field: he found himself captivated on both an aesthetic and an intellectual level, as he gained an ever-greater understanding of the Dutchman’s technique.

He felt that his background in chemical engineering perhaps gave him an added affinity for what he saw. ‘The process of making a print — drypoint, etching, mezzotint, engraving or lithograph — is fairly complex,’ he said. ‘There is a different effect if you use zinc or copper as the matrix, different inks and their application, different papers, etc. It is [something] enjoyed by studying, a mixture of chemistry and art.’

Josefowitz went on to acquire prints by Edgar Degas, Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, alongside hundreds of Old Master prints in impressions of the highest quality. As well as Rembrandt, he cherished work by Mantegna, Dürer, Schongauer and Goya.

Wood sculpture of a standing Jizo Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha). Japan, Kamakura period, 1291 A.D. (detail). Height including base: 54½ in (138.5 cm). Sold for £3,670,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

An Assyrian gypsum relief of a Winged Genius (Apkallu). Reign of Ashurnasirpal II, circa 883-859 B.C. (detail). 26½ x 29⅝ in (67.5 x 75.2 cm). Sold for £3,912,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Other highlights of his wider collection include Asian works of art and antiquities, including an Assyrian relief finely carved with the figure of a bearded, Winged Genius — not to mention furniture by Diego Giacometti, examples of which will feature in the Masterpieces sale on 13 October.

Owing to the global reach of his business interests, Josefowitz travelled widely, and this allowed him to indulge a passion for discovering different artistic heritages. He ended up with a collection that spanned several continents and millennia.

Diego Giacometti, La console ‘Hommage à Böcklin’, circa 1978. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz

Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), La console ‘Hommage à Böcklin’, conceived circa 1978 (cast in 1980). Bronze and iron with green and grey patina and copper. Height: 35⅜ in (90 cm); width: 47¾ in (121.4 cm); depth: 13¼ in (33.6 cm). Sold for £5,122,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

According to James Stourton’s entry on Josefowitz in his book Great Collectors of Our Time, ‘size of objects was never an impediment’ for him. Stourton tells the story of the day the collector came across a life-size granite lion sculpture from the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, ‘which he couldn’t resist. It was too big for the house, [and so] sat for 30 years in the garden of his villa overlooking Lake Geneva.’

The lion was eventually sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where today it occupies pride of place at the entrance to the Egyptian galleries.

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Josefowitz, who died in 2015 aged 93, might be described as a leonine collector. ‘Sam was a man with a real passion to collect great things,’ says Jussi Pylkkänen, Global President at Christie’s. ‘But along with that, he had an inquisitive mind, always looking into where an object had come from and always revelling in that process of discovery.’

Explore The Sam Josefowitz Collection, October through December 2023, at Christie’s in London and Paris

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