Last of the Dutch Masters: mail order magnate's collection finally to be sold

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When Enrico Fattorini announced in 1912 that he was setting up a rival to his family's mail order business, his relatives had good reason to be concerned about future profits.

The 34-year-old grandson of an Italian immigrant came from a distinguished line of Yorkshire-based retailers who had made fortunes by selling cheap paraphernalia from opera glasses to tandem bicycles by mail order.

Fattorini followed the example of his ancestors and his venture, Grattan Warehouses, rapidly expanded. Today Grattan plc is Britain's third-largest home shopping company and a major competitor with the Empire catalogue group started by his grandfather, Antonio.

But few in the Fattorini dynasty, who took their wayward relative to court in 1912 to stop him trading with the family name, would have foreseen his financial success in a more refined field - buying art.

On Wednesday, the last three paintings in one of the greatest collections of Dutch Old Masters accumulated in Britain will be sold at auction with a combined estimate of between £3.7m and £5.1m.

The sale of the paintings will finalise the dispersal of the collection of the Bradford mail order magnate, who excelled at shrewd purchases and at the height of his acquisitions forced such wealthy names as the Rothschilds to sell their art to him at bargain prices.

The entrepreneur, whose company continues to be based in Bradford, realised his fortune and artistic interests in 1936 when Grattan was floated on the London stock market. The floatation ended the day-to-day involvement of the Fattorini clan in the Grattan catalogue business but allowed its patriarch to indulge his new passion.

In contrast with the bulk-buying economies that made his company a success, Fattorini was cautiously restrained when it came to his hobby. A spokesman for Sotheby's, which will auction the three Dutch works at its annual showpiece Old Masters sale, said: "He found himself an extremely wealthy man with the means to indulge his passion. He resisted the temptation to buy in quantity."

The three 17th-century works - a scene of peasants drinking outside an inn by Adriaen van Ostade (£2m to £3m); a view of two water mills by Jacob van Ruisdael (£800,000 to £1.2m), and a comical interior scene by Jan Steen (£700,000 to £900,000) - are being sold following the death of Margaret Naylor, the youngest of Enrico's four children, who each received a quarter share of their father's collection.

When she died in 2002, Mrs Naylor, who lived in Harrogate, left an estate of £8m, including the three pictures. The sale has been ordered by her trustees, none of whom was available to comment yesterday. But it is likely that Mrs Naylor's descendants will join those who have benefited from her father's artistic acumen with a handsome financial return.

The Steen and Ruisdael pictures - A Comical Figure Greeting a Young Woman and Two Undershot Water Mills With Men Opening A Sluice - were bought in 1946 for £9,870, equivalent to less than £500,000 today compared with their auction estimate of up to £2.1m. The rest of the collection has been sold by Fattorini's descendants over the past decade with similar success.

In 1996, a seascape by the Dutch artist Willem van de Velde the Younger which the entrepreneur bought in 1944 for £3,000 was sold for £1.25m - four times the estimate. Other sales from the collection have made a total of £14.2m.

Fattorini's eye for a bargain allowed him to build up the core of his collection in one fell swoop when he negotiated a deal with the Rothschild banking dynasty in 1942.

Edmund de Rothschild, who inherited a large collection of pictures, porcelain and furniture, parted with several Dutch works, including Van Ostade's Peasants Carousing and Dancing Outside an Inn, to avoid death duties.

Fattorini, who died in 1949, had modest beginnings. His grandfather, Antonio, left Lombardy penniless in 1815, vowing to travel to Waterloo to fight against Napoleon.

But Antonio arrived in Belgium too late to join the battle and instead travelled onwards to Britain, setting himself up as a travelling jewellery salesman and eventually opening the shop in Harrogate that laid the foundation for Empire Stores.

The company was lauded for extending "the purchasing power of the working classes, giving them the chance to purchase sound and desirable goods" at bargain prices.

It was perhaps with this spirit in mind that Enrico ventured into business. But now it seems his legacy will be that of a bargain collector whose collection outlived him by barely 50 years.