George Ortiz is the owner of the finest collection of antiquities in private hands. He's been collecting for nearly 50 years, but when talking about one of his pieces he behaves like a small boy with a new toy, bouncing up and down with excitement. Standing in front of a marble head of a boy, in the same breath that he tells you its date and origin (Constantinople, around AD 375), enthuses about the finely chiselled features and assesses the boy's character. "He's a spoilt brat . . . In the Imperial court, he gets away with anything. He's not a pleasant person," he says with such certainty, he must have known him. Describing one of the most striking pieces in his collection, a bronze image of Ajax dating from around the 1st century BC, he says "he is vibrating, pulsating, a miracle . . ."
Ortiz's collection spans 30 cultures and virtually the entire history of art in the ancient world, from the Neolithic age to the late Byzantine period. Some 300 treasures from his 1,000-strong collection are on loan to the Royal Academy from tomorrow, following their display in Russia last year.
Most collectors, having lent their treasures to public exhibitions, do little more than turn up to the opening-night reception. Not Ortiz. Ortiz the Collector becomes Ortiz the Curator: for the past fortnight, working late into the night, the Royal Academy of Arts in London has become a home from his Geneva home. Staff at the RA are more or less leaving him to it. Ortiz's knowledge of his subject is almost unrivalled. His eye for spotting museum-quality objects is legendary. It was not until Ortiz acquired his collection of Egyptian bronzes that their importance was recognised: as Eleni Vassilika, keeper of antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, recalls, "Scholars were unaware that there were Middle Kingdom bronzes on this scale before Ortiz bought them."
Watching Ortiz at work, you realise that the exhibition's title, "In Pursuit of the Absolute", says as much about the collector as the craftsmanship within the collection. In the months before the show, he made himself a scale plan of the RA galleries, and mapped out exactly where everything would go. The model - the size of a 12-seater dining-table - came with him to London where it looks like a war game, and Ortiz its general. A design team was employed, but everything in this show has the Ortiz touch. Not only did he write the catalogue, but he designed everything from the display-cases to the packing-cases. He's almost as proud of them as their contents. He insisted that the display-cases be made according to the height of the objects to be placed inside them and not to some uniform height - something that frustrates him about other shows. To light the pieces he flew over Rusty Culp, senior designer from the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. As the RA could not afford state-of-the art lighting, he bought them some.
GEORGE ORTIZ was born in Paris in 1927 into the Bolivian Patino tin-mining family. His father, Jorge Ortiz-Linares, a Bolivian diplomat of aristocratic Spanish descent, was listed as one of the world's richest men in the Forties. …