Last November a de Kooning sold at auction in New York for $137.5 million. A few days earlier, a Jackson Pollock had sold for $140 million. As we watch in thrilled horror while auction prices for fashionable works of art spiral ever upwards, it is salutary to listen to the words of Lord McAlpine, former treasurer of the Conservative party, confidant of Margaret Thatcher, and inveterate art collector. ‘If you train your eye, you can go to Hyde Park and pick up a leaf or a pebble that will be every bit as beautiful to you as any number of works by famous artists which sell for tens of millions of pounds. The things we need around us are the things we love, the things that move us. Our decisions should be detached from questions of who has owned it, where was it made, how much will it be worth next year. And anyway, do you really want £70 million hanging on your wall? It seems an awfully foolish place to put £70 million.’
Ever since he was a small boy, McAlpine has collected things he likes the look of. In the early days it was what he describes as ‘childish things’: swords, guns, and at one point 900 police truncheons, which lay strewn across his bedroom floor. ‘They were 18th- and 19th-century turned truncheons, each one painted with a town crest. They were rather beautiful things to hold, but even so, my mother did think it was a bit odd. So I sold all that stuff and was able to buy a Renoir which I gave to her. After all she had rather financed my activities.’ He sits back with a twinkly smile and pats a luridly coloured silk tie (one of his collection of 6,000 ties) which lies draped over a capacious stomach.
Over the years, he moved on to collecting, among other things, armour, American rag dolls, porcelain, shells, minerals, beads, first editions, Soviet manifestos, 19th-century French literary manuscripts, Aboriginal art, rare chickens (75 different breeds), old-fashioned roses (450 varieties), snowdrop species, photography, Hockney prints and cacti.
When he was about 18 he began his collection of ethnic textiles. Picking them up from London dealers, he bought African flags and banners, Waziri shawls from Pakistan, Indian embroidered hangings, beautiful woven veils, saris and other pieces in silks, wools and cottons, dyed with gorgeous deep colours: indigo, vermilion, kermes red. Half of his collection — some 200 pieces — was sold last June and now, on 30 May, the remaining half is up for sale at Sotheby’s Olympia.
‘I love the colours and the designs. Some of the colour combinations are wonderful. They remind me of Rothko. There’s something very unselfconscious about the beauty of these things. They are functional as well as symbolic. But they just get me every time.’ McAlpine is in the grip of an obsession with things of beauty. But, unlike some passionate collectors, he is genuinely independent in the way he assesses things, and not in a pretentious way.
‘There has never been any social advantage in my collections. I remember in the mid-Sixties, my dining-room was the least fashionable place on earth. I had a Rothko and a Morris Lewis on the wall, a Philip King sculpture in the corner and three cabinets full of Picasso pottery. People used to come in and say, quite openly, ‘This is simply ghastly. What hideous colours. And what’s that distorted corkscrew thing doing in the corner?’ I was definitely out of fashion, but actually I rather liked the idea that people didn’t like what I was doing. And, having been told for much of my life that I was a complete idiot, I get an enormous buzz out of seeing that works by Rothko which I bought for £2,000 around then have now started selling for £14 million.’
Collecting art is like a disease of passion, and McAlpine is hooked. With the itching fingers of a true collector, he cannot stop acquiring, but he finds he can also sell — or give to public collections — without pangs. ‘In some ways it’s nice to get something out of my system so I can move on. I’ve always done that in life, with jobs and wives, with most things,’ he says with a chuckle. McAlpine used to own a large warehouse in London where he stored many of his collections. He used to go in every day, and often have lunch in there among his treasures; but now he lives in Puglia and is able to display many of his favourite pieces in the converted 14th-century convent where he lives with his Greek wife. ‘It’s a gene, or perhaps it’s an instinct,’ he muses. ‘If I see something I love, I will do almost anything to have it, to hold it and touch it. Definitely don’t buy something just because your head tells you it will be worth more next year. If it doesn’t get you in the gut, just don’t buy it.’
Sale of Textiles from the collection of Alistair McAlpine, Part two
30 May, 10.30 a.m. at Sotheby’s Olympia (Hammersmith). Tel. 0207 293 5555.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2007