Art Market: Russia's masterpieces reach the west: The former Soviet Union has let a collector pick and choose from its museums. In a unique exchange, its treasures are going on how in Zurich, his in Russia

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GEORGE ORTIZ was born in Paris in 1927, the son of a Bolivian diplomat who collected books and manuscripts, and a tin heiress who collected French 18th-century decorative art (her father was Simon Patino, the 'Tin King' of Bolivia). George, in his turn, has single-mindedly collected antiquities. Greece is his great love; but he has followed the cross-fertilisations of Greek art with that of other civilisations and studied, adored and acquired the resulting artefacts.

Hitherto, Ortiz's collection has been a very private affair, known only to friends and specialists. He keeps it in an underground passage between his 18th-century villa outside Geneva and the stable block he has converted into a suite of reception rooms. The passage can be closed off by massive security doors, like those of a safe, from either end.

Now Ortiz has chosen to abandon his privacy and enter the public arena in the most spectacular fashion. Some 280 pieces from his collection are to go on show for the first time at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on 17 February.

This is the greatest collection of antiquities in private hands - some 1,600 works of art. In gratitude for the chance to show some of these treasures to the Russian people, the authorities have allowed Ortiz to choose an exhibition from the museums of the former Soviet Union to show elsewhere. This second exhibition opened at the Kunsthaus in Zurich last week, and moves to the Kyoto Museum in Japan in June.

It is an exhibition that could only have been put together by a man who was crazy, passionate and very rich. George was wandering around the private view in a daze when I first bumped into him; he had found the pieces, chosen them, fought with the authorities of Russia and the new independent states to obtain the loans but he had never seen them together before. 'When I came into the first room, I was very moved,' he said. 'I think there is a harmony between the pieces. They sing.'

He's right. It is an extraordinary show. Works of antique craftsmanship are usually presented in museums in a didactic manner, mixing the good and the second-rate since both can tell the story of civilisation. But Ortiz has selected his exhibition solely on the basis of aesthetics, gathering only masterpieces.

It is said that an artist who is a genius can unveil the very spirit of creation in his work. George, a mystic, calls it 'the absolute' and says that it resides at the core of every human being. This exhibition feels like the song of creation; the voices of early craftsmen echo softly down the ages, full of humanity. Antique art has never moved me like this before.

In terms of the market, George Ortiz's private collection has served to peg prices for objects that combine rarity and beauty - especially for metalwork. This is the art form he values most, arguing that it was more highly regarded in antiquity than pottery or marble, and that the greatest artistry was, therefore, lavished upon it.

But no private collection could match the treasures to be found in a vast and historic geographic area such as Russia and its former satellite republics. The collection that George Ortiz has brought together from their museum store rooms and display cabinets is possibly his greatest achievement. Such a selection could never have been made by a committee of art historians; it reflects Ortiz's refined eye, not to mention four years of intensive work and battles - he would never take no for an answer.

'When I asked for X, they offered me Y,' he told me. 'Of course, they wanted me to take the second best. But I wouldn't stand for it.'

Until 1917, all the important archaeological finds made in Russia were sent to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. After the revolution, major private collections joined the imperial treasures there. So the Hermitage has provided the greatest number of exhibits yet the great discoveries of the last 70 years have come from local museums. In the teeth of fierce opposition from the Russian authorities, who wanted him to stick to one or two sources, Ortiz has borrowed from 15 separate museums.

Take, for instance, the Sarmatian culture; he has insisted on borrowing

the extraordinary treasures unearthed in the 1980s from graves near Azov and Rostov in the southern republics of the former Soviet Union. The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who arrived from Persia and controlled a large territory from Hungary to the Crimea by the second and third centuries AD the period which saw the greatest flowering of their culture.

'The Azov treasures were kept in the 18th-century town hall,' George Ortiz explained to me. 'I was taken through various tourist offices, then down into the cellars through a succession of heavy iron grilles with massive locks.' And from here he chose jewels in gold, enamel and semi-precious stones originally made to decorate the harnesses of horses. The most spectacular are two three-inch circles of agate, each surrounded by a solid gold frieze of lions set with turquoise and cornelians.

In antiquity, the Scythians were the most important inhabitants in the area around the Black Sea, and Ortiz has borrowed magnificent Scythian metalwork of the second to fourth centuries BC from Peter the Great's Siberian collection men resting with their horses under a tree in gilt bronze, two solid gold sculptures of a lion fighting a horse. Then there are superb pieces made by Greek craftsmen working for the Scythians, and other pieces that must have been imported from ancient Greece. 'It is fascinating how widely treasures travelled,' Ortiz says. 'Objects from the Greek colonies in Sicily have turned up in Russia, for instance.'

While the chief fascination of the show lies in treasures unearthed in Russia or the surrounding republics, the imperial family and its courtiers from the 18th century onwards shared the European fascination with antiquity - and Ortiz has found some dazzling objects brought to Russia by collectors. There are classical engraved gemstones in 18th- century gold mounts, for instance, and a small but superb Egyptian section. A grey-green granite bust of the Pharaoh Amenemhet III (who reigned from 1842-1797 BC), now owned by the Pushkin Museum, is regarded as the most important Egyptian sculpture in Russia.

It could be said that George Ortiz bought the opportunity to mount this show by spending so many millions on his own collection of antique art. He has also spent four adventurous years of his life to bring it about. In Kiev he was required to match the thirst of the Ukraine's director of exhibitions: 'We got through three bottles of vodka, and I don't normally drink. My two minders from the Hermitage and Pushkin museums had to carry me home.'

Ortiz met a delegation from the southern republics by chance at the opening of a Zurich exhibition in 1989, and immediately invited them to fly to Geneva at his expense and spend the night at his villa. They pored over his collection until three o'clock in the morning. As a result, Ortiz snared four spectacular loans, including the world's greatest Achaemenid ivory carving - a lion baring his horrid teeth while he grasps a gentle spotted deer - which normally lives in the Historical Museum in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

The exhibition in Zurich runs until

2 May. Everyone ought to go.-

(Photograph omitted)