Gustav Rau

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Gustav Rau, medical practitioner and art collector: born Stuttgart, Germany 21 January 1922; died Stuttgart 3 January 2002.

Today there are no truly major art collections belonging to a single individual which are not displayed at a chosen museum or eponymous foundation. The fact that Gustav Rau assembled one of the world's great art collections only in the last 30 years and without publicity is exceptional in itself. That he devoted most of his life to active humanitarian intervention, as a practising doctor and philanthropist throughout the poorest parts of the world, makes his case the more unusual.

Only with his death have the extent of the Rau collection and the level of his own work for the cause of global health become simultaneously clear. Rau started buying in the late 1960s but his collection was never exhibited in public before last year. The blockbuster exhibition "From Fra Angelico to Bonnard: masterpieces from the Rau collection" opened at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and was on show until January. More than 300,000 visitors made it a critical and commercial succès fou.

As Rau wrote in the exhibition's bilingual catalogue:

Perhaps this exhibition can contribute, in its way, to pay homage to the millennium just past. It is a great pleasure to see realised today a long-cherished wish: to show the general public the collection I have put together over more than 30 years. This collection that I put together patiently and passionately will, I hope, provide a brief look at five centuries of Western art.

The exhibition did precisely that, for unlike most collectors who concentrate on a single field or specific period Rau decided to collect key works from every stage of occidental art history. The first chronological work in the collection consists of fragments of the high altar of San Domenico in Fiesole painted by Fra Angelico in 1424; the last is a Morandi still-life of bottles and glasses that he finished in 1955. Between come such disparate masterpieces as Guido Reni's David Decapitating Goliath and Cézanne's The Sea at l'Estaque. The Boucher The Flute Player is as important as the El Greco St Dominic in Prayer or Fragonard's famed portrait François-Henri, Duke of Harcourt.

The author of the catalogue essay, Marc Restellini, writes:

There are practically no collections which, in themselves, cover five centuries of art history with such refined taste and such quality. Furthermore, the very rare collections on Dr Rau's level are usually public ones.

Indeed, Rau's only contemporary rival might have been Baron Thyssen. The Cook by Gérard Dou or the triptych by Lucas Cranach the Elder that features Christ Amongst the Doctors are exceptional works but also reveal the sophistication of Rau's eye, which he relied upon above any experts.

Rau was collecting at a time when art cost less, even adjusting for prices, but buying major works from major collections with impeccable provenance, and buying directly from auction houses, was still a massive financial investment for a single buyer to make. Clearly he was not purchasing six Monets and key works by Manet, Degas and Cézanne from his salary as a hard-working field doctor in Africa. Rather, Rau had inherited a family fortune and decided to spend it on art for himself and health for the rest of the world, dividing his time strictly between curing villagers and collecting pictures.

Born in 1922 into a Stuttgart industrial dynasty, Rau was also inheritor through his uncle of the Maggi bouillon-cube fortune. He had gained a doctorate in political science before working with his father in their car-accessory business. He only became a doctor aged 40 and abandoned everything to go and work in Africa.

He practised as a paediatrician in Nigeria and built a hospital in Zaire, in the heart of the Bukavu region and during the war between Tutsi and Hutu. Despite being forced into a wheelchair by partly paralysing hemiplegia, Rau remained an active doctor and traveller, going back to Europe just to buy paintings. Restellini hints at this toughness of character and singular determination:

A man of incredible human resources, his collection is like him: powerful, deeply humanistic, solid and independent, never superficial, always profound.

Rau maintained his Art Foundation, his "little Louvre" at Embrach, ably looked after by Robert Clémentz, administrator of the collection and private secretary to the doctor. And since 1991 the Grahal, a group of academic researchers (Le Groupe de Recherche Art Histoire Architecture et Littérature), had been enlisted to edit and catalogue the entire collection. Two volumes on the paintings edited by Michel Laclotte and a volume on the sculptures edited by Bertrand Jestaz should be published this year.

If Rau was particularly strong on French art of the 18th and 19th centuries, including two major Redons (one of which, Apollo's Chariot, had long been a star turn at the Met), the collection follows conventional taste in being thin on the English. If only Reynolds or Gainsborough represent British visual culture, it is noticeable how many of Rau's paintings were bought in London, from Sotheby's or Christie's – as always, the British being better at selling other people's art than making their own.

Rau's wealth and the vast wealth of his collection, along with the fact he was never married and had no heirs, naturally generated interest among museum directors, politicians and tax inspectors. He kept most of his collection in storage near Zurich and also operated the Rau Foundation out of Switzerland. However he had set up a second organisation, the Crelona Foundation in Liechtenstein, that on his death was supposed to transfer to a Foundation for the Third World based in Zollikon near Zurich.

Following several years of legal battles and the failure of a proposed museum in Marseilles, he finally left his complete collection to Unicef-Germany – on the strict condition that it must be exhibited in its entirety, publicly, in the next 25 years. At a final tally of well over 800 works with a conservatively estimated valuation of some $600m, the Rau collection should be serving humanity, aesthetically and financially, for a few centuries to come.

Adrian Dannatt