A remarkable Dutch auction

Joost Ritman made a third of the world's airline plastic tableware, but his real love was Dutch silver - and Dutch paintings, drawings, glass. Now all must be sold
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JOOST Ritman, 54, is a mystic belonging to the esoteric Rosicrucian order, a Dutch manufacturer of plastic tableware for airlines - and heavily in debt. One of the current sensations of the art market is the sale of his collection of Dutch Renaissance art, Art Nouveau jewellery and carpets valued at around £60m. The collection had found its way into a Christie's warehouse and an auction on behalf of his creditors was expected, when Sotheby's moved in and bought the lot outright. His library, worth another £40m or so, is still owned by his bank.

Ritman has explained to me the heady way he borrowed money to buy great art. "The financing of my library and art collection was directly related to the value of my shares in the family plastic company, de Ster," he said. "My capital in de Ster was valued at 100 million guilders (£41m) in 1986 and against that value I borrowed 100 million guilders from the bank to spend on the library and art. The cash-flow required to pay back the loan and make interest payments was guaranteed by de Ster."

By 1991 his loan had risen to 275 million guilders (£112m) and disaster struck. The Gulf War, accompanied by a world-wide recession, undermined the plastic company's profits and it was unable to service the debt. Ritman's shares in de Ster, the library and the art collection all ended up in the hands of the ING Bank - the mega financial institution that rescued Barings last month.

The first Sotheby's sale from the Ritman collection, devoted to his 17th- century Dutch silver, is scheduled to take place in Geneva on 16 May. There will be 85 lots of extraordinary Mannerist silver - including drinking vessels made from nautilus shells, animal horn and coconuts mounted in silver - valued at around 6m Swiss francs (£3.3m).

Meanwhile, two top London dealers have been brought in on the act. Adrian Eeles, who runs the print department of Artemis in Duke Street, helped Ritman form his collection of Rembrandt etchings - one of the best in the world - and Artemis is handling their resale. Robert Noortman, who deals in Old Master paintings from Bond Street and a gallery in Maastricht, Holland, is handling the sale of Ritman's 18 top Old Master paintings, all of them Dutch. Five are already sold, he tells me, and most of the rest are "reserved", several by Dutch museums.

The two dealers have become Sotheby's partners in the sale of the collection; Adrian Eeles explains that they are splitting expenses and profits on a 50:50 basis with Sotheby's, Artemis on the prints and Noortman on the pictures. It is an unprecedented example of a dealer-auction syndicate moving in to handle the sale of a major collection. If the whole collection, much of it bought during the 1980s boom at very high prices, had been dumped on the auction market, it might have had a very depressing affect. This way, the highest priced items will be disposed of privately through the two dealers.

Eeles is hoping to sell the whole Rembrandt collection as a unit but will not even mention a price. The collection is due to be exhibited in Holland and London this summer and in New York and Tokyo in the autumn.

The rise and fall of Joost Ritman is not an ordinary tale. He inherited his father's plastics company, de Ster, and over the next 20 years managed to secure about a third of the world market in airline tableware - he supplied British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa. But he is not a mere industrialist; he is also a philo-sopher and a mystic, a member of the hermetic Rosicrucian order.

No outsider knows very much about the Rosicrucians since their secrets are conveyed only to intiates. The religious order was reputedly founded by Christian Rosenkreuz, who was born in 1378 and died, at the age of 106, in 1484. His tomb was hidden for 120 years and rediscovered in 1604. The first account of his life and beliefs was published in 1614.

Ritman is one of his followers. His first enthusiasm as a collector was for books and manuscripts on mystic religion and hermetic philosphy. "I have 20,000 volumes covering the spiritual, inner trend of Western culture," he told me. His library is probably the most important in this field, and includes early printings by Caxton and others as well as illuminated medieval manuscripts. In the 17th century, many mystic works whose publication was banned in Catholic countries were printed in free-thinking Holland. The Dutch government recently declared the library a Dutch national treasure, which means that it cannot be broken up or sold abroad. It is still housed partly in Mr Ritman's family home on the Bloemgracht in Amsterdam and partly in a special library building just behind it.

The Bloemgracht is a picturesque canal in the historic centre of the city. In keeping with its surroundings, Ritman chose to decorate his home with the finest artistic products of the Dutch Golden Age, which is deemed to run from roughly 1600 to 1660. In every field he bought relatively few works but always those of impeccable quality and in superb condition. The paintings, silver, glass and carpets have now been stripped away and he is only left with his historic Dutch furnishings.

The star of the Old Master paintings is probably Figures in an Interior, a tavern interior by Jan Steen which depicts a woman cheating a man at cards in the foreground and a couple of lovers canoodling in the distance at the end of a sunlit passage. It has the exquisite rendering of textures - the girl's dress, the Turkish carpet on the card table - that is a special feature of the best Dutch 17th-century painting. Ritman bought it from the London dealer Johnny van Haeften; van Haeften paid £1,856,250 for it at Sotheby's, New York, in 1989.

Inevitably, many of Ritman's acquisitions came from auctions, and were often the top-priced items in international sales. The most important of his Rembrandt prints is the rare Christ Presented to the People, from 1655, which made £561,600 when the Duke of Devonshire sold a group of prints from the Chatsworth collection at Christie's on 5 December 1985. It was bought at the auction by David Thomson, son of Lord Thomson of Fleet, and only subsequently found its way to Ritman - presumably at a considerably higher price.

Ritman's collection of some 70 items of 17th-century Dutch glass includes no fewer than 40 pieces that were bought at Christie's sale of the Gupin collection in Amsterdam in 1989. He paid £247,845 for a tall, fluted wine glass engraved with a childish portrait of William III and dated 1657, the star turn of the Gupin sale.

With his collection of Art Nouveau jewellery, Ritman moved away from 17th-century Holland. "I fell in love with this period," he told me. "With Art Nouveau you find the power of imagination, an impulse directly linked to nature and the living cosmos. It reflects man living together with philosophy and spirituality." He has around 80 pieces by the great French jewellers of the late 19th century, Ren Lalique, Georges Fouquet and others: the jewels formed as sinuous ladies, flowers, fruits, birds etc, using gold and rich translucent enamels.

Sotheby's sales strategy is still in the process of being hammered out. The only definite auction date so far is for the silver collection; it will be held on 16 May in Geneva. The Art Nouveau jewellery and the glass will be sold next autumn in London. The carpets, which are mostly Caucasian tribal rugs, will probably be split between sales in London and New York.

Meanwhile, Mr Ritman, his optimism fuelled perhaps by his faith, is planning how to put together his next art collection. !