John Schaeffer in front of ‘The Birth of Eve’
John Schaeffer in front of ‘The Birth of Eve’

The Dutch-born, Australia-based businessman and art collector John Schaeffer has had his share of successes and disasters. He made a fortune in cleaning and security services: at its height his company Tempo had 23,000 employees but it is now sold. He was one of a handful of deep-pocketed collectors who once made the market for Victorian art, building Australia’s top collection in the field. But he hit rock bottom in 2002, with large debts and a painful and expensive divorce. His house went, as did 90 per cent of his art collection.

Today he is bouncing back. He has started buying Victorian art again, has a new business venture and has lent half of his remaining collection, 23 works, to Leighton House Museum in London, the former home and studio of the Victorian artist Sir Frederic Leighton, where it is on view until September 23.

Schaeffer has a particular penchant for Leighton’s work, and has been a loyal supporter of the museum, which he points out is the second most visited private museum in London (after Sir John Soane’s). Loans include some key pieces: the erotic, 10-foot high “Birth of Eve” (c1908) by Solomon J Solomon, as well as John Waterhouse’s masterpiece, the epic “Mariamne leaving the judgement seat of Herod” (1887).

I meet Schaeffer in the cosy surroundings of the Nevill Keating Gallery in London, through which he bought some of his collection of Pre-Raphaelite and 19th-century art in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time he wasn’t the only heavy-hitter in this field: Isabel Goldsmith, Andrew Lloyd Webber and American collectors such as Frederick Koch and Christopher Forbes were also players, and prices reflected this. But at the beginning of this century, for various reasons they scaled back their buying or stopped altogether – in the case of Forbes, the whole collection was sold. Now the field is much less fashionable: indeed it is one of the few sectors of the art market not to be booming.

This doesn’t worry Schaeffer, who retains his deep love of the period, whatever fashion says. “I have traditional tastes, I have a deep interest in symbolist art, and love narrative,” he says. “I like beautiful things, and I don’t like modern or contemporary art.”

Schaeffer did not start out rich: he was a ship’s steward when he emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s. Now, ensconced on a sofa, a well-thumbed book of his collection nearby, Schaeffer has the groomed, neat look of wealth. His initial collecting interest, he explains, was in 19th-century Australian pictures. A seminal moment was when he saw Tate’s 1984 exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites. “It really opened my eyes.”

Now the wheel has come full circle: Tate Britain’s upcoming Pre-Raphaelites exhibition includes William Holman Hunt’s “Il dolce far niente” (1859-66), a loan from Schaeffer himself.

As his company Tempo prospered and expanded, he bought art. By 1989 he had acquired the 45-room Rona, then Sydney’s most expensive house, and filled it with art and Gothic furniture. (The house and contents were sold in 2004.)

“There weren’t many Pre-Raphaelites for sale, so it was easy to drift into Victorian art,” he says. Among early purchases was William Blake Richmond’s “The Song of Miriam”, a huge “processional” piece bought from Angela Nevill. Working with dealers such as Peter Nahum, Nevill, Christopher Wood and Jeremy Maas, he added artists such as Rossetti and Holman Hunt to the collection:

At its peak, his collection numbered some 200 works – “One hundred of them were ‘serious’,” he says. A small but fine piece which remains in his collection, and is on view at Leighton House, is an oil sketch for “Flaming June” (c1895), Leighton’s magnum opus, now in Puerto Rico.

When Schaeffer had to sell, pieces went through auction and through dealers. “The Song of Miriam” was left unsold in his 2003 sale through Christie’s but later disposed of through Nevill. Others went to museums: Tate bought Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “The Archers” (1769) for £2.5m in 2005, and the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a Francis Grant portrait, while The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco snaffled John Spencer Stanhope’s “‘Love and the Maiden” (1877).

Now Schaeffer is active again: “I have been quietly acquiring. Even when I was struggling, I did still buy – for instance at the 2003 Forbes sale, while Christie’s was actually selling my own works!

“If I’d invested in Monets and Picassos, I would be a richer man than I am today; when I sold I approximately got my money back,” he says. Now he hopes that his recent purchase, with partners, of the British Movie­tone historic archive will “be wonderfully successful” – and furnish more cash to spend on art.

‘Pre-Raphaelites: VictorianAvant-garde’, Tate Britain,opens on September 13

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