An orientalist in Manhattan: He lives in a 20-room New York apartment and is the world's richest dealer in Chinese art. But how did Robert Ellsworth get there?

Click to follow
AROBERT Ellsworth is a phenomenon and a mystery. 'I may not be the greatest Oriental art dealer in the world,' he told me recently, 'but I am the richest.' He is the son of a New York dentist and an opera singer and made the whole bundle himself. But how on earth did he do it? That is the mystery over which his competitors puzzle. 'Getting there is a great joy,' he said. 'Staying there is the greatest challenge of your life.'

I met the convivial 65-year-old bachelor in his 20-room apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue, one of the three best addresses in New York. He has seven bathrooms, having turned the eighth into a photographic darkroom. No one who lives in this famous building is worth less than dollars 200m ( pounds 140m), according to an article in New York magazine; Ellsworth describes himself, with unusual modesty, as 'the token pauper of 960'.

He bought his apartment during a recession in 1977 and got the other shareholders in the building to agree to his being licensed to sell antiques from the premises. He also has a weekend home in Fairfield, Connecticut, a couple of hours' drive north of New York. It is an old grist mill which he has extended by moving three 18th-century houses, stone by stone, to form a single complex.

We sat with a vast desk between us, sprouting a grove of early Indian bronzes. 'There are usually more,' he said. 'The three best are on loan to an exhibition at Asia House.' He had a Queen Anne silver beaker in one hand, filled (and refilled) with bourbon and crushed ice, and a cigarette in the other. It is most unusual, I am told, to find him without either. Claus von Bulow's dog wagged its way towards us through the Chippendale furniture and Chinese sculptures. Von Bulow used to live at 960 before he was arrested, tried and acquitted of attempting to murder his heiress wife. He gave Ellsworth his dog when he left the building.

Ellsworth's life has many other bizarre features. Last November he was made an honorary citizen of China, only the fourth man to receive the honour since 1949; 'the other three were Russian,' he says dismissively. Then there is his 30-year relationship with the film star Claudette Colbert; she is now 91 and he has recently built a lift on to her house in Barbados to accommodate a wheelchair. 'I look after her now,' he told me. 'She used to look after me.' He makes a flirtatious mystery over whether he gives Claudette presents on Valentine's Day or Mother's Day - presumably to encourage speculation over the nature of their long-standing relationship.

He also has a live-in companion called Masahiro Hashiguchi, a brilliant Japanese chef, whom he regards as his son; he and Ellsworth ran a restaurant called the Gibbon up the road - everyone who was anyone went there. They closed it last year after 15 years. 'The New York restaurant business is in trouble,' Ellsworth explains. 'No one dines anymore. They just eat.'

From Ellsworth himself and others I have tried to piece together his story. The secret of his success is a trader's instinct - he likes to call it 'peddling' - and an ability to charm millionaires, especially ladies. His achievement in the Oriental field is parallel to that of the legendary art dealer Lord Duveen, who sold English portraits and Old Masters to Americans in the first half of this century. Millionaires bought his pictures for any price he liked to ask because they were 'Duveens'; latter-day millionaires buy Ellsworth's Oriental art works in the same spirit.

'My father invented root canal treatment,' Ellsworth said, 'and perfected the porcelain capping of teeth.' His parents divorced when he was four after which he spent weekends with his father casting dental inlays and building orthodontal braces - a very good training for restoring Oriental bronzes, which he does in a back room at 960. He also got to know the maitre ds of every nightclub in New York before he was 13. 'My father dragged me along on his dates - he loved the stock market, the races and glamorous women.' After leaving school at 14, he ran errands for his mother's friends who were organising fund-raising sales for China War Relief. 'I went to pick up gifts from their supporters. If it was a snuff bottle, say, or a rose quartz necklace, I would wait till the ladies had priced it, then buy it, take it away and sell it the following weekend. I made an extra dollars 30-dollars 40 a month.' In post-war Germany he bartered his father's cigarette and coffee rations for antiques, then sold sulphur from the dental practice to Italy - where it was desperately needed as a cure for gonorrhoea and syphilis, he explains.

He got his first job at 17, working for a jeweller - he developed a useful sideline restringing old ladies' pearls. Then he met Alice Boney, the great lady of New York's Oriental art trade, and never looked back. Ellsworth pays Boney tribute for having taught him most of what he knows. It was through Boney, who died in 1988, that he began to meet America's millionaire collectors of Oriental art. Ellsworth opened a shop on 58th Street in 1959 and moved on to a town house in 1970, before settling at 960 Fifth Avenue in 1977. He built up his clientele as he went along. His biggest customer was the late John D Rockefeller III who gave his superb collection of Oriental art to the Asia Society in 1978 and built them a gallery on Park Avenue to house it. Another client was the great trading magnate from Hong Kong, Sir Joseph Hotung, whom he helped to form a collection of antique jades; it was Hotung who financed the recent renovation of the British Museum's Chinese galleries. But it is New York's Metropolitan Museum that provides the real showcase for Ellsworth's diligence.

In 1971 he published an important work of reference on dating Chinese furniture, and offered a group of pieces that had appeared as illustrations in the book to the Metropolitan Museum; half of them were a gift and the others were paid for by Brooke Astor, widow of Vincent Astor - a New York sprig of the fabulously wealthy Astor family. She also paid to have two galleries refurbished to show the furniture off.

Then came the Met's Charlotte and John Weber Galleries for ancient Chinese arts, roughly 50 per cent of them purchased through Ellsworth and, earlier this year, the museum's Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the arts of south and south-east Asia. The Irvings are also Ellsworth clients and have donated some spectacular pieces that they bought from him - a 12th-century Chola bronze of the elephant god Ganesa, for instance, which Ellsworth tells me is currently worth about dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1m). Douglas Dillon, who inherited a Wall Street finance house and pioneered the reconstruction of the Met's Oriental galleries during his long tenure as chairman of the museum trustees, also lives at 960 Fifth Avenue. So does Charlotte Weber. Both are close friends of Ellsworth. 'Nine-sixty is the best mousetrap in the world,' he told me.

His connection with China began in 1979 when he was allowed to visit the government warehouses, where art confiscated during the Cultural Revolution was stored, and buy what he liked of the 19th- and 20th-century pieces. He concentrated on paintings, travelling all over China to study and buy. In 1986 he

published a three-volume book called

Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 1800-1950. As with his furniture book - but on a much bigger scale - he donated all the 500 or so paintings illustrated in the book to the

Metropolitan, valuing them at dollars 22m ( pounds 17m); it is unlikely that he had paid anything like that sum for the paintings in China, but after the donation the rest of his stock shot up in value. He sold 113 paintings at Sotheby's in 1993 for dollars 825,362 ( pounds 570,000).

Ellsworth owes his Chinese citizenship to the support he has generated for the historic district of Huizhou in southern Anhui province. He established a foundation in Hong Kong to channel overseas funding for the restoration of its historic houses and temples. Huizhou is now so popular with tourists that the Chinese have had to build an airport there.

Ellsworth ascribes his phenomenal success as a dealer to having stored away one in every three items he bought - he has always had a superb stock of goods for sale. What's left is to be auctioned off when he dies. 'When I cool,' he said, breaking into Californian slang, 'my holdings will be sold in a consecutive seven-day sale. The last lot will be a single item, the finest piece of jade in the world - which I wear on my finger.' And he flashed the huge green stone, set in a gold ring, across the desk at me. -