From left: a Thessalian terracotta steatopygous idol, 6th millennium BC, 13.7 cm high, from the Ortiz Collection; George Ortiz at the 1993 exhibition of his ancient artworks in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (detail); a Greek geometric pottery krater, c. 700 BC, 26.4 cm high, from the Ortiz Collection
In 1994 London’s Royal Academy staged an exhibition of antiquities from the collection of George Ortiz. In Pursuit of the Absolute was curated by the collector himself, who also wrote the catalogue. To mark its 25th anniversary, Christie’s is displaying some highlights of the collection at its London headquarters.
George Ortiz, born in 1927, was the son of Bolivia’s ambassador to France. He grew up in Paris, and studied philosophy before travelling to Greece for the first time in 1949. He later described his first encounter with the art of the ancient world as being like a religious conversion: ‘Greek art exuded a spirit which I believe to be the spiritual birth of man... a humanism wherein the rational mind has the potential to seek everything there is to learn about the cosmos.’
George Ortiz at the 1993 exhibition of his ancient artworks in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Ortiz set about acquiring works that typified this Big Bang of the human soul. ‘My approach was purely intuitive,’ he said. ‘Certain objects struck me viscerally. I let them speak to me.’
The Christie’s show includes many of those elegant pieces: the Peloponnesian figure of a warrior in a plumed helmet and lace-up boots; a kouros, or marble torso, of a beautiful youth, sculpted just as Athens was reaching its intellectual height; a krater, or egg-shaped vase, decorated with a centaur. That portmanteau creature, painted around 700 BC, has unusual lions’ feet, as if the idea of the centaur was not yet fully formed in the Greek mind.
Representations of animals are a theme within the collection. A cinched bronze figure of a horse, perhaps cast in Thessaly; an Egyptian glazed terracotta cat that sits serenely on top of a papyrus plant. The cat is Egyptian: as Ortiz began to explore the art of antiquity, he saw the same Hellenistic ‘message of hope’ echoed elsewhere and in other ages. It was prefigured in works from the Neolithic period and carried forward to medieval Byzantium; it evolved in parallel on the continents of Africa and the Americas, and through the islands of the Pacific.
An Egyptian faience hippo, 1850-1700 BC, 13.5 cm long, from the Ortiz Collection
Ortiz realised that the special quality he first noted in Greece was universal. It is what the cat has in common with the kouros and the krater — that, and their owner’s almost mystical reverence for each individual work of art.
‘Objects came my way — some of them, unquestionably, because they had to,’ he said. ‘It is as though they knew I would love them, understand them... The collection is a proof that the past is in all of us, and we will be in all that comes after us.’
A Greek bronze youth in helmet and boots, circa 520 BC, 19.6 cm high, from the Ortiz Collection
A Sasanian parcel-gilt silver plate, circa 5th-7th century AD, 19.9 cm diameter, from the Ortiz Collection
The selection of 17 works in the non-selling show has been curated by Christie’s Head of Antiquities, G. Max Bernheimer. ‘Ortiz was one of the pre-eminent collectors of his day,’ says the specialist. ‘Following his death in 2013, it’s a privilege to be showing a selection of works from his collection on the 25th anniversary of the fantastic show at the Royal Academy.’
The George Ortiz Collection will be on view in the Augusta Gallery at Christie’s in London between 14 June and 12 July 2019