George Ortiz: Collector whose inherited fortune allowed him to assemble an array of hundreds of the finest pieces of their kinds


George Ortiz was one of the great contemporary collectors. He came to public attention in 1994, when the Royal Academy showed his breathtaking collection of antiquities. Not all were impressed: Lord Renfrew criticised the show, talking of “the large-scale looting which is the ultimate source of so much of what he is able to exhibit.” This stung, because Ortiz’s collecting was guided by the concept of André Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire, where objects could be viewed without the preconceptions that grouped them by country and period – contrary to the traditional practice of curators and art historians.

Ortiz campaigned on principle against the 1970 Unesco and 1995 Unidroit conventions, which sought to restrict the export of cultural objects. However, when Ortiz had first begun collecting, the large network of looters, smugglers and complacent dealers and auctioneers had indeed contaminated some of his purchases. In 1961 he was one of those accused of receiving stolen property, and after legal struggles lasting 15 years was given a short suspended sentence.

As a collector he was drawn to moments in cultural history that exemplified what his son (also named George) called “art on the cusp”, when the artistic practice of one tradition crossed with another. For example, the RA show, “In Pursuit of the Absolute”, contained a stunning, large Gandahar marble sculpted head of Prince Siddhartha, dating from the 2nd century AD. While the features of the prince who became the first Buddha, especially the sensual mouth, were a bit like Indian sculpture, the masses of curly hair made it obviously resemble depictions of the Greek god Apollo. As I stood transfixed by it, Ortiz (who loved to mingle with and instruct viewers) explained to me that the piece was thought to have come from the Peshawar region, at a time when the Hellenic world was colliding with Asia.

Ortiz inherited the fortune that allowed him to collect on this scale (of 1,500 pieces, at least 300 are the finest known to exist) mostly from his maternal grandfather, Simon Patiño, the Bolivian “Tin King”. His father, Jorge Ortiz Linares, was the Bolivian ambassador in Paris, where he was born in 1927. His mother Graziella filled the house on Avenue Foch with French decorative arts, especially silver. Educated in France and England, he lost his religious faith and studied philosophy at Harvard with the great Jewish scholar Harry Wolfson (who taught him Aristotle’s Metaphysics), but “became a Marxist. I was looking for God, for the truth and for the absolute”.

In 1949 he spent two months at the Uffizi, “trying to understand what it was about, I went to Greece and I found my answer. I hoped that by acquiring Ancient Greek objects I would acquire the spirit behind them”. His Marxism faded away, and he returned to Paris and then based himself, from 1968, in Geneva, from where ran the family business, and bought an 18th century manor house, which he restored.

His collecting expanded to African and other non-European objects thanks to two clever dealers, Charles Ratton in Paris and John Hewett in London. In one oft-told story, in 1967, Hewitt invited him to dinner, placed on the table a Benin bronze head, which Ortiz fell in love with, despite its then-astronomical price of £20,000. He called it “Bulgy Eyes,” and used to say it was the strongest piece he owned, “an image of naked power”.

In 1977 his five-year-old daughter, Graziella, was kidnapped in Geneva. He borrowed the $2m ransom money from his mother and, as instructed, paid it himself 11 days later on an autoroute. (The kidnappers were later caught.) Ortiz, however, had to sell some of his tribal pieces at auction in December 1978 to pay back the money. Sotheby’s chairman, Peter Wilson, took the sale himself, and both were delighted when they realised that the sale had gone so well that Ortiz could afford to buy back some of the later lots for himself.

Small of stature, Ortiz was called “Mighty Mouse” by his friend Bruce Chatwin. In 1968 Bruce arranged an “official” tour of the Soviet Union, to visit museums and meet Soviet archaeologists. He smuggled in Ortiz, disguised as “Dr Ortiz of the Basel Museum”. But on the last day, at the Hermitage, Ortiz blew his cover when he got over-excited and startled the museum officials by saying, “This is the greatest museum in the world, right? I am the greatest collector of ancient art in the world. If I give you my collection, will you appoint me director of this museum?” Ortiz returned to Russia in 1993, when his collection was actually shown at the Hermitage, followed by an exhibition at the Pushkin, the RA, and the Altes museum in Berlin.

Ortiz was a perfectionist about the display of his collection, a trait he acquired at his mother’s knee in the Avenue Foch. He was almost obsessive about the lighting and positioning of his treasures, and equally about the relationships among them – each had to be seen in the right company. He knew exactly what reaction he wanted to evoke in the mind of the viewer. His hand and eye are even apparent in the website devoted to his collection, For all his wealth and talent, Ortiz was easy to meet, to know and to appreciate. His eye was profound, as was his intellect, and he was open and generous with his time to anyone who met his demanding standards.

George Ortiz Patiño, antiquities collector: born Paris 10 May 1927; married firstly Dagmar de Betancourt (one son), 1964 Catherine Haus (three sons, one daughter); died Geneva 8 October 2013.