The story of Stanley J Seeger

If you're a regular reader of Paul Fraser Collectibles, you'll have heard the phrase "provenance is everything" a few times.

What about a provenance that helped Al Capone's cocktail shaker to a 3,233% increase on estimate, or saw Orson Welles' personal copy of the script for Citizen Kane up 392%?

Sure, the items themselves were pretty special, but in this auction last week, the draw of one of the greatest collectors of our time also helped attract the top bids.

Collectors were eager to own a piece from the collection of Stanley J Seeger.

Some say collecting grows on you, others claim they were born to collect: Stanley J Seeger was certainly in the latter portion.

Born in Milwaukee in 1930, his father was a doctor and passionate bibliophile, while his mother collected antiques. The family had gained their wealth through his grandfather, a Scotsman who made his fortune trading wood and oil.

With collecting blood running through his veins, Seeger was inspired as much by the thrill of acquiring new additions to his collection as he was by the beauty of the items. This passion for collecting also extended to the sale of collections he considered complete, making room for exciting new possibilities.

Picasso payout

Picasso boy with a pipe
On acquiring a piece from Picasso's Rose Period, Seeger considered his collection complete

Upon purchasing a piece from Picasso's rose period, Seeger concluded he no longer wanted any of the 88 works by the Spanish artist he had acquired over the course of his life. In a bad market, he auctioned the works for $32m at Sotheby's New York in 1993 with not a lot unsold.

"'Chris, will you keep your eyes open for a Rose period? That's all I need now.' We found one, and the collection was done. The crossword was complete," his partner of 32 years Christopher Cone told the Financial Times ahead of Sotheby's final sale of his collection, which saw a record attendance as collectors came out to pay their last respects.

In today's market, a sale of Picasso's work on that scale would have collectors' hearts a-flutter. Just one of the pieces could equal the total seen in the early 90s.

Yet Seeger's collection was not formed out of a desire to show off, flaunting some of the finest artworks in the faces of fellow collectors. Quite the opposite, Seeger was an introverted character who rarely appeared in public.

In fact, Seeger reportedly overhead a couple debating his existence at a viewing of his Picasso collection, but was not one to dispel the myth.

"What Stanley was doing in his collecting life was creating episodes, like little nests," said Cone.

"It was his way of keeping the outside world at bay. He was a very private, and very shy man."

European connection

His love for classical art led to the foundation of a Centre for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University

Initially studying architecture at Princeton, Seeger had a change of heart that saw him switch to music. This led him to train under composer Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence as a young man, and triggered his eventual move to Europe.

Inspired by the classical architecture and paintings of Florence, Seeger moved to Greece in the 1960s. In search of a quiet life, he spent his time gaining a deep appreciation for Greece's ancient wonders, spurring the foundation of a Centre for Hellenic Studies at his old university.

Throughout his travels, Seeger had acquired both classical and contemporary Italian artworks and had been introduced to the British artist Peter Lanyon at the Venice Biennale, becoming a passionate collector of his work thereafter.

After a move to London, Seeger was introduced to Christopher Cone. "We were two unhappy people who wanted to cheer each other up, and that is what we did for the next 32 years," said Cone.

Sutton Place

The former home of oil magnate J Paul Getty, the towering Tudor manor of Sutton Place proved too much for Seeger

Settling down in England, Seeger bought the Tudor manor house Sutton Place in Surrey, the dilapidated former home of oil tycoon J Paul Getty, in 1980. The lavish manor cost £8m ($13.3m) at the time, or £29m ($48.2) in 2014, attracting scrutiny from the press, who watched with a hawkish eye to see if this American collector would ruin a beautiful English landmark.

But Seeger would need a place for his collection, and wasn't going to let the Tudor styling of the house prevent him from displaying it. He famously hung one of Francis Bacon's triptychs, Studies of the Human Body (1979), in the Great Hall at Sutton Place, setting tongues wagging in the art community.

With the bright orange background of the canvas juxtaposed against the dark wood panelling of the hall, Seeger invited Francis Bacon himself to view the painting in its new home, later saying the artist had appreciated its placement.

But controversy wasn't Seeger's style and he also opened the building for concerts and exhibitions as part of the Sutton Place Heritage Trust, while restoring many of its features. Yet, Sutton Place still did not feel like home, and he and Cone sold it after just six years there.

In 2001, the Bacon triptych sold for $8.6m to set a record for a painting by the artist.

Imprimatur of outstanding quality

By this point, Seeger's collection had extended far beyond contemporary European artists, and he was now acquiring artworks from the likes of Cezanne, Miro and other "blue chip" names.

Alongside art, the collection featured a library of cookery books, a reflection of his love for fine food, as well as nostalgic Winnie-the-Pooh drawings, memorabilia from famous names, not to mention the world's foremost collection of works and memorabilia from Joseph Conrad.

In and out of hospital while living in a small farmhouse, Stanley J Seeger died in 2011 and, along with him, Cone's desire to keep the collection. Describing the sale as a "great relief", like Seeger, Cone was only too happy to part with the mammoth amassment.

Following the sale, chair of Sotheby's Europe, Melanie Clore commented: "Only once in a generation does a collector with such diverse, interesting and far-reaching taste as Stanley Seeger appear."

"Every single object has a story to tell and is enhanced by its association with one of the greatest collectors of his generation. The Seeger provenance is an imprimatur of outstanding quality, evoking the great passion and connoisseurship of one of the world's most exceptional collectors."

Exceptional collectibles with strong provenance not only bring strong returns, but immeasurable pleasure of ownership. Paul Fraser Collectibles has the next addition to your collection waiting in our online store.


Featured products

Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Sale price£399
In stock
Fidel Castro signed certificateFidel Castro Signed Certificate
Fidel Castro signed certificate
Sale price£2,995
In stock
King Henry VIII Autographed DocumentKing Henry VIII Autographed Document
King Henry VIII Autographed Document
Sale price£55,000
In stock