Magazine article The Spectator

'I Shall Go on Collecting until I Die'

Magazine article The Spectator

'I Shall Go on Collecting until I Die'

Article excerpt

The charitable giving of Sir Paul Getty always had a deliciously quirky element to it - one thinks of the elegant replacement of the hideous old Mound Stand at Lord's, the funding of the National Film Archive's work in housing and restoring their immense collection of historic films, the saving of the Mappa Mundi and Canova's `Three Graces' for the nation, and so on. These apparently random choices, in fact, reflected some of the most passionate interests of the man himself - he was a cricket fanatic (he owned Wisden), a dedicated collector of old films, and, as his father before him, a connoisseur of the fine arts. These are just a few examples of his better-known benefactions.

What has never been written about is another of the ruling passions of his life, his collection of historic 78 rpm recordings of classical singers, instrumentalists and actors. This all began when he was 16 in San Francisco. `At that time, I had absolutely no interest in opera or in opera singers,' Getty told me, `but one day, when I was entering the house of my current girlfriend, I heard the sound of an absolutely glorious voice coming from the drawing room. "What on earth is that?" I asked her. "Oh, it's just my father playing one of his old records.'" This turned out to be the voice of Enrico Caruso singing Canio's tragic lament `Vesti la giubba' from Pagliacci. 'I was hooked literally -- for life.' Probably not for the last time in his life, the sexual imperative was overwhelmed by his passion for records. His fellow collectors certainly understand and deeply sympathise with his predicament.

His mother bought him Dorothy Caruso's life of the great tenor, which he quickly devoured. But what interested him even more was a section at the back of the book devoted to a discography, compiled by an English cleric, Canon Harold Drummond, of all the recordings Caruso was known to have made. Having inherited his father's collecting instincts, he immediately set about acquiring the whole lot. Almost all the records were found effortlessly, and at very little cost, largely from a store in downtown San Francisco run by a dealer in second-hand records known simply as `The Fat Man'. He soon learned that about 11 of the records were, to all intents and purposes, impossible to find. In particular, the seven records that the tenor had made in 1902 for the Disco Zonofono company in Milan were regarded as so rare that they were virtually unobtainable, particularly in perfect condition.

So the net had to be widened, and Getty soon found himself in contact with dealers right across the United States and in faraway England. He set about the task in earnest, but, even so, it took some 15 years before he managed to acquire a complete set of the Zonofonos from the leading British Caruso collector. Eventually he owned two complete sets of the Zonofonos --just for safety's sake.

Though his love of Caruso never diminished and he always regarded him as numher one in the Pantheon of tenors, Getty's interests and ambitions as a collector naturally widened. One of the greatest fascinations about the whole business of collecting 78s is that the period is a closed one -- roughly from 1895, when the first were issued, until 1956 when the LP finished them off. But, to this day, there are an amazing number of major discoveries still to be made among the thousands of singers who made records (often for obscure companies in odd parts of the world) by any listener who has ears to hear, and which are totally unknown to the rest of the collecting fraternity. These singers may not have achieved international fame for a variety of reasons, but an experienced collector can tell from the first few phrases that he is listening to the voice of an artist of the first rank - even in some cases a completely unknown musical genius. The charm of experiencing this several times a year is what keeps the dedicated collector, in Getty's phrase, `hooked for life'.

In 1949 Getty came to England for the first time with his family. …

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