The investor Jonathan Ruffer reveals why he is spending £15 million to buy 12 great paintings from the C of E – and give them back
‘It’s the pearl of great price,’ says Jonathan Ruffer. Like the merchant in the Gospel, he is selling all that he hath. With the proceeds, he is buying the 12 Zurbaran paintings of Jacob and his Brothers at Auckland Castle, the palace of the Bishop of Durham. And when he has bought them from the Church of England, he will give them back, keeping them in the castle, thus bestowing them upon the people of the north-east in perpetuity. The price is £15 million. He believes in the Big Society and is taking a big punt on it.
Ruffer, who is 59, is a very successful private client fund manager. He is famous for having foreseen the credit crunch, largely by careful study of past crises. ‘I know more about the history of economics than anyone I know,’ he boasts, though, on the subject of his benefaction he is so unboastful as to be almost abject. The credit crunch was the moment when people suddenly stopped trusting their bank deposits. The next big crunch, which he sees as ‘certain’, and which could happen in Britain first, is that trust in the value of the currency will collapse, leading to hyperinflation: ‘It is an airless valley from which there is no escape.’
This fascination with money has been with Ruffer since his twenties, though he started out as an unsuccessful barrister with enough time on his hands to write a book about Edwardian pheasant shoots. But alongside it stands another fascination. He is a serious Christian, a conservative evangelical, with an inclination to the contemplative. He has no mobile phone, and no email at home: ‘I see all the signs of reclusiveness in myself. I try to disguise it.’ This has brought him close to Catholic traditions: ‘Cardinal Newman is my absolute hero.’ Last year, he went on retreat at an Ignatian retreat at St Beuno’s in Wales. There he decided that, within two years, ‘I must be working with the poor. This gave me a galvanic sense.’
Describing himself as ‘completely impractical’, Ruffer says he is useless ‘talking to prostitutes or dealing with needles, but what I am good at is encouraging people. I want to help the helpers,’ such as clergy and charity workers. ‘In a rough society,’ he thinks, ‘the real heroes are those who stay put’ and do not desert the bits of cities where people don’t want to live. Ruffer already supports charities like the Church Urban Fund, aiding the people who are ‘half-cut with tiredness’: ‘I want to find out who the players are and hug them.’
Last November, he heard that the Church, burdened by the expense of keeping Auckland Castle, wanted to sell the Zurburans. He was horrified, and ‘shouted at’ the Church about it, but he suddenly realised that ‘I was the only person in a position to do anything about it. I happened to have £15 million [the price stated]. I wanted to do something for the north-east, where I come from. And I collect such paintings. Four years ago, I bought a Gainsborough copy of one of those Zurburans of a cowled saint. My first thought had been a commercial one – that I could buy them for myself – but then I realised that there was something much more important to do.’
Ruffer, whose father was a Royal Marine ‘who sank the Bismarck singlehandedly’, was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge, but brought up in the North Yorkshire village of Stokesley. His loyalty has always been to the north-east. Now he saw his chance. ‘People underestimate the symbolic power of art,’ he says, ‘Look at the Angel of the North… These paintings are quite monumental.’ His original idea was to give the pictures for permanent exhibition in northern cities, but, thanks to Lord Rothschild (‘a present-day Jacob: I feel the wheel has come full circle’), a more ambitious and imaginative scheme was devised: ‘The battle honours in all of this go to him, not me.’ Ruffer’s money will provide enough for the Church to let the pictures stay in Auckland Castle and the Bishop maintain a foothold there. With help from £1 million of Rothschild money, the castle will be looked after by a partnership, perhaps (the details are still not fully settled) of the National Trust and Durham City Council. Ruffer will continue to chair his London firm, but he and his wife Jane, a palliative care doctor (‘I’m elliptical. She’s as straight as a die’), will spend time at the castle most weeks, turning it into the place where all those who want to help the north-east will meet and rest and talk and plan. The whole thing is visionary, and has moved incredibly fast by Anglican standards.
What does Ruffer, the connoisseur collector, think of the pictures? ‘I’ve never seen them,’ he says, amazingly, and he has never yet been to Auckland Castle – he is going for the first time this week. ‘It sounds funny, but I’m just very busy.’
But Ruffer is certainly enjoying himself. He sets out the Ruffer theory of money: ‘There are only three things you can do with it – spend it, save it or give it away. For the rich, saving is much more dangerous than spending, because you can see how empty spending is, but it’s harder to see that saving also is. What a lot of money does is poison you. It’s like the digestive system. It’s meant to flow through you, not to stop flowing.’ He has thought about his own wealth, and he sees it as neither good nor bad in itself: ‘I earn in a week just about the annual median wage. I don’t see this as a disgrace. I see it as an absurdity. The disgrace comes when you see it as your own.’ He thinks that hated bankers would feel happier if they thought this way: ‘They shouldn’t feel guilty or stash it away. They should just recycle it.’ The text he tries to live by is ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in Heaven.’ This is the justification for giving big and giving publicly.
Jonathan Ruffer returns to the idea of the pearl, relating it to his love of art. ‘The word “baroque” means a deformed pearl. The poor are the deformed pearl. There is hope in brokenness. Brokenness is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ And now he himself feels free: ‘The distraction of this job is being constantly fingered for money. It’s just terrific to say that there isn’t any.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 2, 2011