In 1941, Victor and Sally Ganz bought a Picasso - and didn't stop. Their extraordinary collection of art is now up for sale.
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The Independent Culture
"I Never told anyone that my parents owned Picassos." Kate Ganz was looking back to her school years, trying to recall what it meant to grow up with the pictures her parents hung on the walls. "I think I both noticed them and didn't notice them, in the best possible way. I was aware of how wonderful they were but I didn't gasp every time I went by."

Her parents were Victor and Sally Ganz and their pictures are so wonderful that Christie's expects to get over pounds 75m for them at a series of New York auctions in November. The sale is set to become the art-market sensation of the year and, possibly, the decade. There are 12 paintings by Picasso, seven by Jasper Johns, four by Robert Rauschenberg, seven by Frank Stella - 115 works in all, including drawings and prints. And that is by no means the whole collection. "We're keeping a lot of drawing, sculpture and prints," Kate told me. "And I'm keeping one great Picasso painting."

The star turn of the sale is Picasso's portrait of his mistress Marie- Therese Walter, The Dream. Her head is thrown back and the shadow of a smile plays on her lips, suggesting a dream of sensuous delight. No one can tell how much it's worth. It is one of the great masterpieces of 20th- century art and any number of wealthy individuals or institutions may turn up at the auction to fight for possession. The highest price on record for a Picasso painting is pounds 33m for a Blue Period harlequin.

I talked to Kate Ganz, petite and dressed all in black, in her large sitting room in London's Notting Hill, surrounded by Baroque art and bibelots. She is one of the capital's leading dealers in Old Master drawings and, like her parents before her, combines a modest and unpretentious manner with an obsessive passion for art. She has two sisters and a brother but as the art professional of the family, she is the one most involved with the auctions.

"The pictures come off the walls of my parents' New York apartment tomorrow," she told me. "I've already said goodbye to them. My daughter Lily stayed there on her way back to Yale. She rang me to say that she'd got up at six in the morning and spent two hours saying goodbye to the pictures."

The story of the Ganz collection is a very personal affair. Victor and Sally Ganz lived with their art - a Johns over the bed, Picasso engravings in the bathroom, a black Stella looming over the dining-room table, not to mention a room lined with five of Picasso's Women of Algiers. But they didn't live grandly - a bourgeois family life eddied around the art. "I wasn't allowed to play ball in the sitting room, but I was in the hall," says Kate. The collection is an extraordinary demonstration of what uncompromising intellectuals can do with a comparatively modest amount of money.

Victor Ganz was born on New York's Upper West Side in 1913. His German- Jewish family had moved to America in the 1850s, where his grandfather and great-uncle started a costume jewellery business, D Lisner & Co. Victor worked for it from 1934 until his retirement. "He was an ordinary businessman," according to Kate. "He went to the office every morning carrying a briefcase."

But his spare time was spent very differently. At 16 he was queuing for standing room at the Metropolitan Opera to hear Wagner. He had a passion for Proust. His wife Sally, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin and worked in Macy's department store before their marriage, had a deep interest in Russian literature. This made them many friends among professors of Russian at the small colleges that litter the Eastern seaboard.

It is not surprising that they should have immersed themselves in the great Picasso retrospective mounted at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1941. And it was one Saturday in August 1941 - Victor always devoted Saturdays to visiting galleries - that they saw The Dream in the Rosenberg Gallery. They tracked down its owner, who had just escaped from war-torn France, and bought the painting for $7,000. For the next 20 years they bought nothing but Picasso. They bought 24 paintings, 10 drawings, five sculptures and several hundred prints. In 1956 they bought all 15 of Picasso's Women of Algiers series from Kahnweiler in Paris, sold 10 and kept the five they liked best. This financial undertaking could have bustedACOaaaaaceeeeiiinoouuupounds Oo... --""'' Victor if he hadn't found the right buyers.

The Ganzes didn't buy to decorate their apartment. They bought out of love, took the works home and hung them up. The art had to rub shoulders with photographs of the children, vases of flowers, books and bibelots.

It was Picasso who their children grew up with. In 1961, however, a new era began. On 28 February Victor spent $1,545 on a Jasper Johns drawing, Flag, and became deeply involved with the artist and his work. The influence of Picasso on Johns's work reflects the many hours and days he spent in the Ganzes' apartment. From Johns, Victor moved on to the artist's friend Robert Rauschenberg - who also became an intimate of the family. The retrospectives of Rauschenberg's and Johns's work organised by the Jewish Museum in 1963 and 1964 respectively allowed the Ganzes an opportunity to study and evaluate each artist's work. Ten days after the Rauschenberg retrospective closed Victor bought Winter Pool, one of the most complex Combines - as his inventive mixed-media works are known - in the show.

For the rest of his life Victor focused on contemporary American painting. He was highly selective and thought carefully about each purchase; the artists all became his friends. He is credited particularly with creating the reputation of the short-lived sculptor Eva Hesse - at one time he owned all her important sculptures.

Their first encounter was in characteristic Ganz style. It was a Saturday in November 1968 and Sally and Victor had set themselves eight galleries to visit. Her feet gave out at number six, so Victor went on alone - first to a Francis Bacon show at the Marlborough Gallery. In an interview in 1987, he recalled that it was "filled with wealthy collectors, chatting away like a giant cocktail party. I was so turned off that I ducked out after 15 minutes. Then I went to this oasis which was the Fischbach Gallery, where practically nobody was ... I suddenly saw this array of art which I felt was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and the most fascinating."

It was Hesse's first and only one-person show. Victor bought a pail that had a tube coming out of it, a stack of what looked like plastic pancakes, a latex floor sculpture and three wash drawings. Then he met Hesse herself; she was 32 at the time."She looked considerably younger than I later found out her age to be, and she reminded me of my daughter Kate. She was very enthusiastic, and very cute, and very bright, and I fell for her immediately."

By the time Hesse died of a brain tumour in 1970 the Ganzes had become a sort of surrogate family for her. After her death they bought 11 of her most important sculptures, a purchase which was the launch pad for her reputation.

Victor died in 1987; Sally earlier this year. The children knew they couldn't keep the art. Almost the whole family fortune was tied up in it and estate taxes had to be paid. Moreover, as Kate points out, they are modest people who don't want to take on the social and financial responsibility of hanging great art in their homes. The very best of the collection, 58 lots of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, will be auctioned in a gala evening sale on 10 November at Christie's in Park Avenue. Another 57 lots will be in lesser sales.

The intimate relationship of two passionate collectors and their family with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century is now being transformed into a legend. As well as publishing an auction catalogue the size of a telephone directory, Christie's is issuing a book of memoirs by their art historian friends. No one will forget them in a hurry.

! 'A Life of Collecting: Victor and Sally Ganz' (pounds 60) is available from Christie's Publications (0171 389 2845).

Ganz glory: above, the red room, with Picasso's 'Women of Algiers'(1954- 55). Below, 'Decoy' by Jasper Johns (1971) in the living room. Picasso's influence on his work reflects the time he spent with the Ganzes. Bottom, the dining room with Picasso's 'Nu couche' (1942)