They say I raped England," Jack Dick told an acquaintance last year, "and in a way I did. In five years I put together the finest collection of English sporting paintings ever assembled and brought them back to the U.S. before anyone knew what was happening."
Now everyone in the art world knows, for almost single-handedly, by dint of his own notoriety if nothing else, Jack R. Dick of Greenwich, Conn. helped resuscitate and altogether revitalize an entire school of painting. Though Dick's own life was foreshortened five months ago by a heart attack at age 45, the legacy of what he called "my horse paintings" lives, indeed gallops, on.
On June 26 in London, Sotheby & Co. will hold the second of a four-part auction of the Dick collection, 238 select works depicting country life in Britain from 1750 to 1850. When the final art sweepstakes is run off in the fall of 1975 (to avoid overcrowding the field, Sotheby's is spacing the sales at intervals of eight months), Dick's long-shot investment of $2 million made between 1964 and 1969 figures to reap $15 million.
The decision to ship the paintings back to Britain for the auction was not in recompense for Dick's rapacious ways but in shrewd consideration of going where the best prices could be realized. Dick needed every farthing he could fetch. Indicted in September 1971 by a New York grand jury for allegedly using falsified documents to secure loans, he was forced to sell his collection to pay off creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service, for debts totaling close to $5 million. Dick pleaded not guilty to all charges, dismissing them as "an unfortunate case of a government agency deigning to take on a collection matter." The one felicitous result of the litigation was a revival of interest in British sporting art, a unique and evocative chronicle of a nation's landed gentry at leisure.
If anything, the second sale promises to be more spirited—and a lot less spooked—than the first. Held last Halloween night, the initial auction raised trick-or-treat suspicions that touched off what the London Observer called an "unparalleled furore." No one doubted the authenticity of the paintings or even Dick's declaration that "this is one of the most important single art sales ever to take place in England." But given the controversy surrounding the auction, the Society of London Art Dealers called an emergency meeting to discuss rumors that title to some of the paintings was in question and might later be claimed by Dick's creditors. When Dick suggested that these dealers were jealous because they were not asked to handle the sale, some huffily threatened to boycott the proceedings.
On auction night, however, after assurances by the U.S. and British governments that the titles were free of legal entanglements, an overflow crowd of 1,000 queued up at Sotheby's main gallery with giddy anticipation. Inside the high-domed, chandeliered sales room, members of the international art coterie and assorted peers of the realm rubbed tuxedos with jockeys and the inevitable clutch of acquisitive Japanese. The less privileged were shunted off to adjoining rooms equipped with subauctioneers and closed-circuit telecasts of the event. Elsewhere in the hall, telephone operators stood ready to relay offers made over hookups to Zurich and New York.
Lest his presence on the floor inhibit the bidding, Dick and his blonde wife Lynda were ushered into a private office at Sotheby's, where they listened to the auction over a loudspeaker. For the Dicks, the news went from good to grand.
At the opening gavel, Henry Aiken's engaging painting of a mud-splattered old Nimrod relaxing with his steed after a hard day's hunt, a work Dick bought in 1968 for $1,200, was sold for $17,010. James Seymour's quaintly primitive treatment of racehorses exercising on Newmarket Heath, purchased by Dick in 1968 for $14,500, went for $92,340. And John Herring's superb study of four coach horses awaiting a change on the Great North Road, a bargain Dick picked up six years ago for $14,100, brought $170,100.
But what excited a spontaneous round of applause from the audience—and undoubtedly raced a few pulses in the private office—was the price commanded by George Stubbs' exquisite portrait of the aptly named thoroughbred Goldfinder. The dark bay stallion was depicted browsing with mare and foal by a tranquil lake and gazing out with the lordly mien of a Secretariat (who, incidentally, traces his ancestry through 20 generations to Goldfinder). The Stubbs masterpiece, which Dick bought in 1967 for $183,700, was claimed by a dealer representing Sir Charles Clore, a noted financier, for $546,750, the highest price ever paid at auction for an English sporting painting.
In all, the 42 selections offered in the first sale sold for $3,032,000 and set record prices for no fewer than nine artists—a decided contradiction of the art market adage that the more expensive the purchase the longer the time required to hold on to it. Dick, who owned the bulk of his collection for less than seven years, preached a different philosophy: "You never lose and often win quickly when you buy the best."