Eric Estorick, who died in 1993, was one of the wildest and most mysterious art dealers of his generation. He made a considerable fortune out of art but was largely ignored by the media - so it is by no means clear how he did it. One extraordinary deal is known - his promotion of Erte, the Russian theatre and ballet designer, whom he discovered at the age of 72 still selling drawings at pounds 25 a time and turned into a business concern with a turnover of $100m a year; this he did through the dazzlingly simple idea of mass-producing excl-usivity - selling 300 copies of a "limited edition" sculpture, for instance. Luckily for everyone, Erte did not die until he was 98.
In the last year of his life, Estorick opened the Gros-venor Gallery in Albermarle Street, London, in the hope of selling the vast stock of pictures and sculpture he had accumulated over the years - some by famous artists and some by artists he believed should be famous. He put Ray Perman, the former managing director of Chris-tie's New York, in charge of it and the gallery continues to sell Estorick's artworks. The shows mounted in 1994-95 included art from Russia, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Germany and Britain, represented by Henry Moore. Estorick was nothing if not eclectic.
The story behind the creation of the new Eric and Salome Estorick Foundation in Islington is thus an art market saga with an exceptionally happy ending. Estorick bequeathed the best of his modern Italian paintings and drawings to the foundation, plus two pictures that he instructed should be sold to endow it. One of them, a Kandinsky, was sold privately last year, and has paid for Northampton Lodge. The foundation is hoping to get lottery money to help with its conversion into an art gallery. Meanwhile, Alexandra Noble from the South Bank Centre has been appointed as curator and Estorick's huge collection of art books will be the core of a study centre on the top floor.
Eric Estorick was born in New York in 1913, the son of a Russian emigre in the paint business. After studying sociology at New York University, he started teaching at Columbia. He was left wing and took a special interest in the British Labour Party, writing two books about Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the post-war Labour government. Estorick started buying drawings in 1946-47, acquiring works by Picasso, Gris, Matisse, Leger and Braque: "Drawings in 1946 cost $200, $300, $400 and I had a few thousand dollars," he said in an unpublished memoir. "That was the start of it."
In 1947, on board the Queen Elizabeth, he met Salome Dessau, the art student daughter of a Nottingham textile manufacturer who supplied Marks & Spencer. By the end of the voyage they were engaged and began the collection of Italian paintings on their honeymoon. A former teacher at the Bauhaus, Arturo Bryks, introduced to the young couple by Stafford Cripps's daughter Peggy, gave them the idea of visiting Milan and meeting contemporary artists. Estorick became a friend of Sironi, Campigli, Morandi and de Chirico.
Two years after the war, Italian paintings still carried a taint of fascism, so they cost little. With Salome's help, Estorick was able to buy on a significant scale. In 1956, 118 of his best pictures and sculptures were shown at the Tate Gallery, providing the whole of an exhibition entitled Modern Italian Art. Most of the collection to go on exhibition in Islington next year was bought at this time. They settled in Britain and Estorick went to work for Marks & Spencer. By the early 1950s his appetite for art led him to dealing. Initially, his business was taking art by well- known names from Europe and selling it in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas's wife, Anne, became his partner and he sold to Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and many others.
In 1960 the Estoricks opened their first "Grosvenor Gallery" in Davies Street, London, and in 1963 moved it across the road to a huge and splendidly equipped space. Eric was the sensitive genius who found the art and Salome the level-headed businesswoman who made the gallery work. Estorick had no interest in conventional taste and set out to show art he personally valued. His taste was international - there were exhibitions from the United States, South Africa, Greece, Holland, Poland, Israel, China, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Between 1960 and 1964, he visited Russia 14 times and bought the work of avant garde artists of the revolutionary period, then frowned on by the Soviet regime - Goncharova, Larionov, El Lissitsky. He also bought contemporary art on a massive scale. In Georgia, Ilya Ehrenburg greeted him with the words: "I hear you are buying all the shit in Russia." Within a decade, the Russian influence on European modernism had been recognised and prices were rising.
Estorick was also interested in Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which were coming back into fashion in the 1960s. That led him to Erte, whom he met in Paris in 1967, becoming his exclusive world agent shortly afterwards. During the next 20 years Erte not only continued painting, he also made prints, sculpture and designs for clothes, jewellery and a variety of giftwear. His work went down well in America - collectors included Andy Warhol, Elton John, Martina Navratilova and Barbra Streisand - and proceeds soared. Erte died in 1990, leaving his residual estate, after several bequests, to his chauffeur, Serge Leeman. The Estorick company, Sevenarts, had to go to court in Britain and defend an action in France to establish its continuing ownership of the Erte trademark and copyright.
As Erte began to take up more and more of their time in the mid-1970s, the Estoricks closed their Davies Street gallery and moved abroad. It was not until 1993, following the deaths of Salome and Erte, that Eric Estorick again opened a street-level gallery, with a window and exhibition space, this time in Albermarle Street. He was 80, and died a few months later, leaving the business in trust for his daughter and grandson.
At the Grosvenor Gallery, you can buy exquisite Erte drawings and work by a variety of artists Estorick admired. The stock is strong on Russian and Italian art and often has a Jewish slant. There are lithographs by Chagall and Lissitsky and some 200 paintings by Oscar Rabin, a little- known dissident. There is a wealth of drawings by Campigli, Sironi and Gutfreund, among others, sculptures by Moore, Frink, Lehmbruck and Archipenko, and many works by Italian and eastern European artists who never made great reputations. The masterpieces of the Estoricks' collection, however, will be on view from next year at the new foundation, which is directed by their son, Michael. 8