For George and Ilone Kremer, who have amassed a major trove of Dutch Golden Age paintings, collecting and learning are inseparably linked.
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George Kremer will never forget the day he bought his first Dutch Old Master. He took it back to his wife, Ilone, and she said, “Why ever did you do that?” It was a small, unprepossessing sketch of a bearded man by Govert Flinck, a German-born pupil of Rembrandt. Kremer had agonized over buying it for three hours. “It was serious money.” He added, “I didn’t sleep that night.”
Since those early days, George and Ilone Kremer have become important collectors, primarily of Dutch Old Master paintings from what is called the Golden Age. They have amassed over 60 works in a relatively short period—not quite two decades—buying the art that has become their joint passion. Their collection includes Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Man (circa 1637), Pieter de Hooch’s Man Reading a Letter to a Woman, (1675–76), Michael Sweerts’ Young Maidservant (circa 1660), and works by Leyster, Rombouts, Hanneman, Cuyp and others. The pride of the whole group is Rembrandt’s Bust of an Old Man with Turban (circa 1627–28).
Ilone Kremer recalls that a few weeks after buying the Flinck (it is no longer in their collection) they met the man who would play a pivotal role in their success as collectors. He was Robert Noortman, a Dutch dealer who became their tutor, advisor and close friend. “We went to lunch with him and left with another painting,” says Ilone Kremer. This was another portrait but one with considerably more style and dash: a Spanish grandee by Adriaen Thomasz Key (1560). The handsomely dressed sitter is curly-haired and even-feature, with a mesmerizing look and the merest hint of a moustache and beard. The painting became the first of many purchases from Noortman. Ilone Kremer says, “Robert recognized a serious student in George, and we left with a pile of books three feet high. He taught us how to look at paintings. He would say, ‘Look at a Hals that is for sale and then go look at the same painter in a museum. Memorize it. Wash your eyes.’” As Bernard Berenson used to say, one look was enough, but the concentration had to be absolute. Noortman’s advice on how to buy could also have been echoed by Berenson: “It is better to buy a very good work by a minor artist than a bad painting by a master.” But unlike the venerable expert on Italian Renaissance painting, Noortman also advised his pupils to trust their own judgment: “Don’t let anyone else tell you what you see.”
Noortman, who was based in Maastricht, made headlines in December 2000 when he bought a Rembrandt portrait of a lady (1632) for the record price of $28.6 million. Noortman was gregarious, a risk-taker and a perennial visitor to the Kremers’ palatial villa in Marbella. He himself owned a castle in the Belgian countryside, was married three times and had six children. Kremer says, “He styled himself a little bit on Duveen,” referring to the flamboyant British international art dealer for whom Berenson worked and who sold European masterworks to American millionaires. Noortman died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 60.
Kremer says, “Noortman was a great teacher. He took us on a crash course, and I learned a lot in a very short time. I realized that in order to buy paintings you have to have a very flexible mind. Success in the art business is actually very creative.
“The first thing you have to know about Dutch art is that these paintings are for everyman. There were different ranges, prices and classes, all the way up to thousands of guilders. In that sense, Dutch art was the first democratic art. In Italy, the aristocracy and the church commissioned religious art, but in Holland people wanted scenes from everyday life on their walls: portraits, landscapes, animals, seascapes and mythological scenes, not just biblical subjects. The British were the first to discover 17th-century Dutch art, and they bought in bulk, the great Hobbemas and Cuyps.” The Kremers’ passion for the classical has been helped to some extent by the fact that it is relatively out of fashion, which makes such works more (or less) affordable. Kremer says, “I was so fascinated that you could still buy very good paintings. Even masterpieces! It’s a weird sensation.”
The Kremers hardly fit the model of famous Old Master collectors such as, for instance, the impenetrably secretive Andrew Mellon, who founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, or the short and scrappy Otto H. Kahn, a wealthy banker. Their manner is friendly and relaxed. As is the case with most Dutch, they speak flawless English and French. They divide their time between Amsterdam, Marbella and Dallas. They are both likely to turn up in faultlessly tailored white shirts and blue jeans; Ilone Kramer says, “We are just young at heart.” One morning, her long blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, she was wearing a black sweater with black jeans and a chiffon scarf. The final touch was a pair of pearl and diamond earrings. One of her Facebook friends observed that she resembled Krystle Carrington, the blond second wife of oil tycoon Blake Carrington in the long-running TV soap opera, “Dynasty,” and she was enormously pleased: “When I was young I always wanted to look like Krystle Carrington.”
Curiously enough, George Kremer’s early career was in the oil business and Ilone is his second wife. Also curiously, like Noortman, whose father was a policeman, his family background held no hint of the art that would become so important in his life. His grandfather, born in Lithuania, was a shoemaker with eight children who moved to Cologne when Kremer’s father was five, in 1905. The latter went to work at the age of 12—not particularly early for his generation—and showed a marked talent for business. By this time World War I ended and he was in his 20s, he employed 30 people in the business of marketing cigarettes. After the Nazis came to power, Kremer’s father fled to Nijegen, a Dutch city near the German border. He was on the run but did not go far enough, his son observed ironically. Once the Germans invaded Holland, he had to go into hiding but was picked up by the Dutch police in 1944 after he ventured onto the street to get a haircut. He was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in which almost 70,000 died, including Anne Frank. After he was freed from Auschwitz in 1945, he was so thin and ill that he was hospitalized for six weeks. Several members of George Kremer’s family on both sides died in concentration camps; some of them “with no sign they ever lived.” George Kremer, born after World War II, says, “I have learned to trust very few people. I am on my guard. What they don’t know about you they can’t use against you.”
Money in the Kremer household was in short supply, but he managed to attend the University of Amsterdam, where he majored in econometrics, that is, the application of mathematical and statistical methods to economic data. He never used it. He joined an international company trading in minerals, metals and oil. He explains, “We bought oil being transported on a ship and sold it to a refinery.” He enjoyed the fast pace, and it had the advantage of relatively short contracts. “I made my first money doing this.” He married, had two sons and lived in London for six or seven years before moving to Zug, Switzerland and founding his own trading company. Later, he took up commercial real estate in Dallas.
Ilone met him in Amsterdam 30 years ago when she was 21, at a disco bar in the Hilton hotel. She says, “He was sitting at a bar having a drink and I fell in love with him just like that. He had such sad eyes. I walked up to him and said, ‘Would you like to dance with me?’ and he said, ‘I would, very much.’” They have been together ever since. “It is a very easy relationship. We like the same things. George is quieter than I am. I like to travel and explore. He likes to say that I bring sunshine into his life.” She grew up in small villages around Amsterdam, the youngest in a family of three daughters. She began learning French and English in high school. When they are in Dallas, for three months of every year, they speak English together.
Ilone Kremer feels comfortable enough with her subject matter to give tours of their collection and is a full partner in their decisions. They have made very few mistakes. There was one canvas—Kremer will not say which—that was sold to them as being by a major artist and turned out to be by a lesser figure. That was sold, to be replaced by a superior example. In the early days they bought a small portrait that turned out to be an 18th-century copy. Happily, when they returned it to the dealer, their money was refunded.
The Kremers now do most of their buying at auction. He explains that the dealer always has to be thinking of how to sell something because he has a very expensive investment on his walls. He has to ask for a substantial margin if he is to cover his expenses and make a profit. They, however, just have to do their homework and bid one step above the dealer to get what looks like a bargain.
Sometimes it is hard to see a work about to slip through their fingers. She will say, he claims, “Bid one more.” She counters, “I only did that once.” George adds, “Usually I will say no. You have to know when to stop.” She thinks they have learned more important lessons. They should never seem too interested, should be “a bit mysterious.” She adds, “Art dealers don’t like us because we know too much.” And they never appear in person. “No cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Kremer says, referring to the oblique signals, the cough, the rustling of paper, the nod and all those other ways sharp operators like Duveen used to signal their willingness to raise the stakes. It is all very pedestrian; they bid on the telephone.
Among their cherished works are the Pieter de Hooch, which they bought from Noortman in 1998, a ravishing study by Carstian Luyckx of roosters being attacked by a fox (circa 1660–70) and a quaint family of ducks in a landscape by Adriaen Coorte (circa 1683). Many of their works are from both Dutch artists influenced by Caravaggio’s vivid and emphatic use of chiaroscuro. Among the innovations of that Italian genius was an emphasis on painting actual people in real situations that appealed to his audiences, and also to the Kremers. Another highlight of the collection is the Sweerts Young Maidservant, a girl looking over her shoulder with a gaze as transparent and direct as her contemporary, the more famous painting of a girl with a pearl earring by Vermeer.
But the Rembrandt they own is their favorite, and it came into their hands in an unexpected way. Kremer dates his interest in art to the time, years ago, when he first saw Rembrandt’s painting The Jewish Bride, in which the husband places his hand tenderly against the bosom of the young wife. Kenneth Clark wrote, “Of all Rembrandt’s works it is the most haunting and draws upon emotions from the deepest pools of the mind.” So it seems fitting that one of the first works he bought from Noortman in 1995 was a study of an elderly man wearing a turban. It was then attributed to Jacques des Rousseaux, and obscure student of Rembrandt’s. Modern scholarship has given the study to the great man himself, with evident reason. Like many works in the collection, it was on deposit at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and is now on indefinite loan to the Pinacothèque de Paris, where the Kremer Collection was shown in 2011–12. They will be seen this September in Singapore, where that museum, a privately financed venture on the Place de la Madelaine, is opening a new branch. Eleven paintings from the Kremer Collection will travel to Budapest in October 2014 to join works from the Rijksmuseum and the National Gallery in Stockholm at an important exhibition of works from the Dutch Golden Age. Kremer says, “We now have 10 or 12 paintings that can hang in any museum in the world.”
As might be expected, the Kremers take an active and energetic interest in the way their work are being hung. Ilone Kremer says that to see a painting on a rack is one thing, but to mount it perfectly hung and lit on the walls of a museum is a revelation. It fills them with an exuberant sense, not just of the painting’s beauty, but of “two worlds becoming one.” At the end of the day, when all the paintings are up and the work is over, she lingers in the galleries. Then, in her sneakers and blue jeans, she adjusts her headset, turns up the volume and begins to dance.
By Meryle Secrest
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