LONDON A U.S. art collector whose 20th century paintings from Germany and Austria are valued at more than 100 million pounds ($160 million) has attacked what he called "trophy hunters" who have driven prices higher and created a bubble in the market.
Benedict Silverman, a property developer and philanthropist, has decided to put his collection of works by artists including Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Otto Dix up for sale to raise funds for an education fund called Reading Rescue.
The 83-year-old is fully aware that rising prices for the kind of art he has collected over the course of nearly half a century will benefit his charity work.
But in an outspoken criticism of the market, he accused many buyers of being interested in art mainly as an investment.
"The prices paid these days are for trophies, not for art," Silverman told Reuters in emailed responses to questions.
Around 25 paintings, drawings and pieces of furniture are on display at the Richard Nagy gallery in central London and will be sold privately over a period of time.
"You ask if it (the strength of the art market) is a positive development. It is not. Connoisseur collectors are left in the dust snapping at the heels of these trophy hunters.
"I think there is a bubble and I can't wait for it to break as real collectors are interested in the art, not the price."
Auction houses and many market experts argue that there is no bubble in the art market, and that a growing number of collectors across an increasing geographical spread are creating a solid foundation for rising prices.
But Silverman's unusually frank opinion, expressed as London gears up for Frieze art week when hundreds of wealthy buyers descend on the capital for a whirlwind of auctions, viewings and parties, is a reminder that not everyone is so sanguine.
"Collectors like me will always exist, but they are being knocked aside by the sharp elbows of speculators and professional collection builders who employ more knowledgeable people to make their decisions for them," Silverman said.
"Clearly if I was starting today I would not be able to build the sort of collection I have and few others will."
Nagy, a long-time collaborator with Silverman, said the collector had avoided auction houses to sell his art, preferring the discretion of a gallery and private sales.
"There has been a huge amount of interest, including from museums," Nagy told Reuters at his gallery in Old Bond Street.
Not all of the works have been priced, but a large 1917/18 Schiele depicting the artist and some of his peers in a version of the "Last Supper" is on offer at around 30 million pounds.
"Today these artists are seen as part of the mainstream of 20th century art, whereas 30 years ago it was thought of as an eccentric side-channel," Nagy added of the period and style of art on show.
Among the highlights are Ludwig Meidner's "The Incident in the Suburbs" of 1915, a dark-hued canvas depicting a man pushing aside another figure who has fallen to the ground against a backdrop of distorted buildings.
The picture, the first bought by Silverman in the late 1960s, reminded him of himself starting out in real estate and "pushing down" the competition to get ahead.
Schiele's "Around the Table" appears to equate the gathering of a group of artists with the communion of the Last Supper, and coming as it did so soon before his death in 1918, it was the final work in a long sequence of religious allegories.
His "Woman with Homunculus" of 1910 depicts a semi-nude young woman looking seductively over her shoulder yet also turning away from a deformed, child-like creature, while Klimt's "Ria Munk I" of 1912 is a striking deathbed portrait.
Reminiscent of John Everett Millais's "Ophelia", the square canvas depicts the daughter of a wealthy Viennese businessman who shot herself in the heart after falling out with her lover.
MUSEUMS "DRY AND EMOTIONLESS"
For Silverman, private collections would be the ideal home for his beloved possessions.
"I lived with all my works, looked at them all every day I was in the apartment and hope that the new buyers will do the same," he explained.
"I prefer the idea of them going to another collector who imposes his taste on a group of art works and for whom it will have a resonance even if it is different to mine.
"Do I want them to go to a museum? Probably not, even though I know they will eventually end up in museums," added the collector, who regularly loans his works out to museums.
"Generally I think museums are rather dry and emotionless places that do not bring any personality to the rooms in which they are hung, apart from their innate genius."
Asked how he thought he would feel when his art was sold, he replied: "I will try not to think about it. I have other pursuits to follow now. Having decided to sell, I'm turning the page ... and starting a new chapter."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)