Antiques and Collecting: Art of Cool Collecting

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Byline: Richard Edmonds

Single-owner, millionaire collections have for many years been a significant part of Sotheby's history.

These columns have carried in the past details of many celebrity collectors including Andy Warhol, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Elton John and more.

And all of them had one thing in common with you and me - they all loved beautiful things and bought them as and when they had money to spend - not always going for the wildly expensive.

This month, it's the turn of the late Bill Blass to come under the hammer and his collections to be dispersed for new owners to purchase and admire.

Blass was the American couturier who provided for his clients the same austere fashion elegance once created for the monied classes by Balenciaga and Mainbocher, whose influence he always acknowledged.

Sotheby's New York have been selling the Blass estate this week to hugely crowded sale rooms and I would like to have known Blass, having already admired the things he collected.

He served in the Second World War - enjoyed his time with the army - and came into great wealth with a certain canny business sense as his work as a dress designer took him into the financial stratosphere. But Blass was no soft touch for dealers in the antiques trade.

He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth and when the money poured in he utilised his capital in order to buy cool, beautiful things which any collector today would cherish. How different he was from the loud-mouthed, overpaid brassy footballing community whose vulgarities we hear about so much these days.

My father always used to say that spending money was an art in itself. It is a point of view Blass would doubtless have endorsed given the huge return Sotheby's will no doubt raise on his original financial outlay.

The Bill Blass sale catalogue has already disappeared from Sotheby's shelves. By the time you read this column it will have become a collectors' item and one day, no doubt, will go through these columns as a desirable object in its own right.

But in page after page of some of the most seductive and evocative photographs you could wish to see, the catalogue, in its puritanical brown and white cover, takes you through all aspects of Blass's collecting life, showing the variety of things which turned him on and setting them in the quiet rather simple rooms where he entertained his friends.

Looking at random among these beautiful pictures I noticed a pair of fine Swedish neo-classical chairs with leather seats the colour of pale coffee. But these things were no more beautiful than the many bronzes in which Blass obviously took great delight.

A pair of late 18th century Italian bronze busts caught my eye and these led on to a third century Roman bronze arm - all that remains of a huge statue. But Blass was also buying busts of Haitian subjects in cockaded hats, as well as numerous copies of classical Greek subjects along with bronze paperweights.

The fine paintings range from huge works by Picasso to original drawings by Rodin and David Hockney, as well as many from the French 19th century schools.

The catalogue also shows that Blass was fascinated by superb glass, from table glass to decorative items. One of the pieces, a large Victorian silver-mounted glass ice pail, was made in Birmingham by Heath and Middleton in 1882. …