In 1993, Sotheby’s put 88 works by Pablo Picasso up for sale at once. At the time, Picasso did not have the same market presence. The U.S. had only just begun pulling out of a recession too. The house wondered if they might have a flop on their hands, but Sotheby’s was willing to take the gamble.
The spread of works—from Cubist experiments to still lifes to ceramics—was vast, attesting to a figure whose output was varied and massively influential. In the end, it turned out that experts’ fears about the sale were misplaced. The auction netted a then-whopping $31 million, as collectors tussled for works by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. All of the works had come from one person: the reclusive collector Stanley J. Seeger, who, having amassed a significant Picasso collection, had parted ways with the works to purchase art by others who interested him.
“After he’d sold the Picassos, he started buying a whole lot more again, particularly modern British artists and photography,” David Nash, a New York–based dealer with Mitchell-Innes & Nash who formerly led Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern department, said in an interview. “He was very catholic in his tastes and interests, but he was a knowledgeable collector—he knew what he was doing.”
From Turner to Al Capone’s Silver Jug
Up until his death in 2011 at age 81, Seeger continued this unusual method collecting, acquiring major works and then selling them to obtain others that would one-day become equally as important. At various points, his collection, which he maintained with his partner Christopher Cone, included pieces by Max Beckmann, Henry Fuseli, Joan Miró, Barbara Hepworth, J. M. W. Turner, Paul Gauguin, Georges Braque, Howard Hodgkin, Egon Schiele, Malcolm Morley, and many more.
And his interests weren’t just limited to fine art, there were also Victorian design objects, a shooting script for Citizen Kane (“the greatest film ever made,” according to Seeger), a wicker basket formerly owned by Marilyn Monroe, a silver jug once used by Al Capone (Seeger and Cone used it to mix Bloody Marys), and the sign for an optician’s shop from the early 20th century. The couple rarely disagreed on purchases—a Victorian chair that Seeger bought was a point of contention—though Cone wished they could have delved more deeply into collecting pure abstraction, from Mondrian to Kandinsky, which Seeger didn’t care too much for.
“What Stanley was doing in his collecting life was creating episodes, like little nests,” Cone told the Financial Times in 2014. “It was his way of keeping the outside world at bay. He was a very private and very shy man.”
Born in 1930 in Milwaukee, Seeger grew interested in art early on. His maternal grandfather had made his fortune in the timber and oil businesses, and Seeger’s family had grown rich because of it. While he was studying musical composition at Princeton University in New Jersey, he went to Italy for the year to learn from the composer Luigi Dallapiccola, in the process developing a liking for modern art being produced in the era by the likes of Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, who were pushing abstraction in new directions. When he returned to the U.S., he bought works from dealer Catherine Viviano, whose New York gallery represented the Beckmann estate.
For the remainder of his life, Seeger lived in Europe. During the ’60s, Seeger moved to Greece, which instilled in him an interest in the country’s culture and ultimately led him to donate $2 million toward the formation of a Hellenic culture center in the ’70s.
Private Jets, Tudor Manors
In 1979, Seeger met Cone; the two soon flew together to Greece on Seeger’s private jet. Their whirlwind romance, despite the age difference (Seeger was 24 years Cone’s senior), would be consequential. The following year, the pair decided to move to England, and though Seeger had previously managed to keep himself out of the press, he made headlines when he bought Sutton Place, a British manor, just over an hour southwest of London, with 700 acres of land, from J. Paul Getty for £8 million (about £34.5 million today). That transaction marked the largest sum ever for a British property at the time.
“What Stanley was doing in his collecting life was creating episodes, like little nests.”
Sutton Place’s grand halls and majestic rooms once played host to elite guests such as Henry VIII. For a short period, they were strewn with works from Seeger’s holdings. In their new home, Cone and Seeger worked together to situate modern art in a 16th-century property, leading to some unexpected juxtapositions between old and new. The couple built a pond and put at its center a Miró sculpture. And, in the Great Hall, they put a prized Francis Bacon triptych front and center. “It caused a scandal,” Cone said in the FT interview. “You didn’t do things like that in a Grade I Tudor mansion.” Bacon, an artist who was notoriously hard to please, “loved” that hang, according to Cone.
Six years later, in 1986, Seeger sold Sutton Place to the philanthropist Frederick R. Koch. After that, he and Cone continued to bounce around Europe, at one point living on his yacht, but he was often hard to pin down, and where he went in the years up until his death largely remains a mystery.
It’s All in the Name
Seeger was private, and that partially accounted for the shock when the 1993 Picasso sale performed so well. After that sale, however, his name being attached to a given auction or even just a single lot signaled an important sale to watch—and a potential opportunity to rake in a good deal of money. “Eight years ago,” Carol Vogel wrote in a 2001 New York Times report, “the name Stanley J. Seeger was seldom heard in the art world.”
That year, Seeger became the subject of fascination once more when Sotheby’s put up for a sale another cache of works from his collection in a New York auction titled “The Eye of a Collector.” That sale, too, was a smash hit, besting its estimate of $38 million by raking in making $54 million. A version of Auguste Rodin’s Age of Bronze sold for $1.76 million, shooting way beyond its estimate of $264,000. And that was only a small sum compared to the evening’s top lot, the Bacon that once hung in the Great Hall of Sutton Place. That painting, titled Triptych—Studies of the Human Body (1979) and featuring abstracted fleshy forms against a cadmium-colored background, sold for $8.58 million, setting a new record for a Bacon at auction.
While Seeger’s holdings are these days best remembered for the milestones they generated in the salesroom, the collector himself was known to be circumspect of the market. “He was completely uninterested” in market trends, Nash said. “He had a good eye and a good intellect, and he knew a lot about what he was doing. He had no interest in social promotion. He had no interest in the investment potential of art.”
Nevertheless, he was a loyal client to Sotheby’s and could often be seen at auctions held there. “He liked to buy a lot at auction,” Nash said. “He liked the anonymity of it, that he could just walk into the salesroom and not have to have any contact with anybody.”