Art Market: Berger's Big Takeaway

A new force in the art market was revealed when William Berger's collection went on view, says Geraldine Norman
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It was Queen Elizabeth I that did it. William Berger saw her on the cover of a Sotheby's catalogue in April 1996 and it was love at first sight. He didn't shift his butt from Denver, mind you. But he sent his daughter Marion to London to check her out and he bought her for pounds 128,000 by bidding over the telephone from his bedside. (It's 3am in Denver when an auctioneer mounts the podium for an 11am sale in London.) That's how he became a collector of British art - currently the world's most active collector.

The existence of this new force in the market was revealed on 15 November when Berger's collection went on show to the public for the first time in the new European and American Galleries at the Denver Art Museum. One gallery is devoted exclusively to his collection while other works are spotted here and there among the museum's own pictures. Berger has given the museum his art on long-term loan, hoping that it will create a new generation of art lovers in Denver. His ambition is to raise the museum's attendance figures from their present 300,000 or so to a million by buying and exhibiting the kind of pictures the public can identify with. The British school has a "universal" appeal, he says. "Britain's where our language comes from, where the computer comes from and - hell! - almost everything else."

What Berger sees in British art is anecdote and history at rock- bottom prices and he feels that anecdote and history are what will make people visit museums in middle America. His collecting has a strong idealistic edge but he tends to talk about it in investment terms. He doesn't buy star lots but fishes among the minor early pictures that come up for sale. Pre-19th-century British pictures have been very out of fashion for the last 10 years and he's quite right in regarding them as a "good buy". The collection now contains roughly 200 pictures and a smattering of other objects and is increasing almost daily. Berger was up at 3am again for Sotheby's sale of British pictures on Wednesday 12 November and Christie's on Friday 14 November. He punted heavily at Christie's, often lifting prices to unexpected levels by his enthusiasm.

He is particularly pleased with a portrait of a young girl and her King Charles spaniel which had been catalogued for sale six months ago as the work of Britain's great 18th-century master William Hogarth - but was withdrawn after the attribution was doubted. This time, the very Hogarthian beauty was catalogued as "Circle of William Hogarth" and Berger bought her for pounds 34,500, almost double the pre-sale estimate. The price he paid for an Elizabethan portrait (no known artist) of a vice-admiral who fought the Spanish Armada at pounds 18,400 also doubled Christie's estimate as did the pounds 17,250 for a Victorian portrait of Two Deerhounds by John Frederick Herring Senior. "Ten out of 10 for quality, and 10 out of 10 for condition", Berger says enthusiastically, "I can just see the large number of dog lovers who are going to love that painting."

The Deerhounds is typical of the kind of painting that he thinks will pull people into the Denver art museum. But he also expects them to respond to landscape and history painting. Berger's mid-November purchases included two minor 18th-century landscapes, a John Wootton at pounds 2,300 and a Paul Sandby oil of Welsh river at sunset at pounds 4,600. Sandby is most famous as a watercolourist and Berger was pleased that "the oil cost less than you'd have to pay for a Sandby watercolour." He rounded the morning off with a bit of historical drama: The Goddess Roma appearing to Julius Caesar by Richard Westall at pounds 4,600.

Bill Berger is 72, the father of American mutual funds - investment funds that allow the small guy to share in the growth of the stock market. His two main funds, valued at around $20m in 1989/90, reached the $3b mark by the time he retired in 1994. He only started to buy art after he retired. "Before that every ounce of my emotion had to go into the market."

He stands almost 7ft-high, a gentle Father Christmas figure with a bristly white beard, big spectacles over bright idealistic eyes, a slow rolling gait, due to poor circulation in his legs; and a tremendous amount of money. He and his second wife Bernadette have seven children between them by previous spouses, but the children are not to inherit more than a competence. Berger has noticed that leaving children a lot of money is bad for them. Most of his fortune is to be tied up in two foundations: one devoted to persuading young people to know and love nature and the other to getting the public to love art. Most of the children are involved with the foundations one way or another. Katherine, a devoted horsewoman, has charge of the nature lovers. Marian, twice married and a mother, has signed up for Sotheby's three-year art course in London in order to advise her father. "I've never seen her so happy," he says.

Meanwhile he and Bernadette - they only married two years ago after being together for 20 years - are having a ball buying art. Her wedding present was mythological romp in a landscape, La Tendre Pastorale, by Boucher - Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour's pet painter and an artist Bernadette particularly loves - and cost $574,500 at Christie's in New York in May 1996. "Boucher is corny to me", says Bill, "except for some of his drawings" - they have several. "But I suppose he's better than a lot of other painters of chocolate box tops and greetings cards."

The Berger home - let alone the Denver museum - is packed with art. A terrifying, life-size Chinese temple guard, dating from the 17th century, greets their guests at the front door. There are archaic Chinese bronzes, a very large Han Dynasty (206BC to 221AD) pottery horse and Ming blue and white vases. There are John Singer Sargents, Winslow Homers and other highlights of the American school. But the American school grew so expensive that the Bergers couldn't go on and turned to British art instead. And that's where Queen Elizabeth came in.

She originally attracted the Bergers' attention as an item to decorate their home but they were also fascinated by the opportunity to buy into history. "With Queen Elizabeth we felt we could get a grasp of the Elizabethan era - an era full of raw human emotion and intrigue," says Bill. Christie's catalogued her as by Van der Meulen but Roy Strong, former director of the V&A and an expert on Tudor portraiture, has decided she is by Hans Ewarth - and a portrait done from her life, at that. Most portraits of Elizabeth are copies of a standard picture made without access to the Queen. The portraits she posed for are, of course, much more valuable.

In the same sale as Elizabeth there was a Van Dyck which the Bergers also tried for but missed - she was bought back by one of the descendants of the sitter. This initial foray taught them something - that the British school was extraordinary cheap compared to more fashionable fields like Impressionist and Modern pictures. "I listen to the market," says Bill, "and the market told me that money was better spent here." He was amazed at how cheaply you could acquire Tudor portraits considering their age.

The next major acquisition was what the Bergers call "Eddie", a portrait of Edward VI as a very well dressed toddler of 14 months from the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger which cost pounds 287,500 in July 1996. There is another version of this portrait in the National Gallery, Washington, generally considered the "original", but the Bergers sneakingly hope that their version might one day be upgraded from copy to first in line.

Then they acquired a whole spate of Tudor portraits. Among the most striking are the Three Young Girls of around 1620 by a follower of William Larkin which cost pounds 244,500 in November 1996. Identically dressed in rich red damask dresses with lace collars and cuffs, the three sisters stare solemnly out at the world. Comment-ing on the Bergers' fascination with early pictures, Roy Strong has said: "Outside of the Tate Gallery and, more particularly, the National Portrait Gallery, I know of no other such extensive public display. That is what sets this collection apart."

But the Bergers have not limited themselves to the early years of the British School. They have plenty of 18th-century pictures, including portraits by Reynolds, Wright of Derby, Hoppner, Ramsey and others. The family's interest in horses is reflected in paintings by Wootton, Stubbs, Herring, Ferneley, Pollard and Munnings.

Last summer, the collection took a new turn. An extremely rare English Gothic painting of the Crucifixion came up for sale at Sotheby's. It dates from around 1395 - a period from which almost no British painting survives - and there were mutterings that it should be "saved for the nation". Berger bid pounds 1,541,500 for it, thus shifting his operations into a whole new financial class.

Since he showed the world that he was capable of paying these prices, he has been showered with offers of expensive paintings and objects of art. While previously more than 80 per cent of his purchases came from auction, he has been buying outside the sale- room over the last six months. He bought a richly illuminated medieval manuscript of c1500 known as the Bute Book of Hours - on offer at last year's Grosvenor House Antiques Fair at pounds 350,000 but Berger may have paid more. He has also bought a 1450-ish Nottingham alabaster frieze and a Sheldon tapestry of c1610.

The Bergers sift through transparencies of the works of art they have been offered, and the ones they particularly like get attached to the sitting-room lampshade. A painting of the interior of a cathedral by David Roberts had just been unclipped - but that was because they had bought it. !