A portrait of the businessman as a collector

By Deborah Gimelson

The first time I met Gerald Guterman, he had recently purchased the Stanhope Hotel and, he informed me, everything was being changed.  Laid out on a 19th-century English dining table in his mahogany and sea-green Park Avenue office were several different place settings intended for the hotel which he showed off with great delight.  Pointing to a particularly lovely breakfast arrangement, ivory with a simple gold border, he said, “I don’t think anyone should have to look at anything too busy in the morning.”  But the next time I visted Guterman at work, several weeks later, yet another group of place settings was spread across the table.  I asked why.  “We didn’t get it the way I wanted the first time,” he answered as he ran for the phone, “and we’ll keep doing it until we get it right.”  This philosophy pervades Gerald Guterman’s life, right down to his private collection of Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings which experts call one of the very best in America.

Brooklyn-born and bred, Guterman started a career in real estate at 18 as a night porter for Fred (Donald’s father) Trump.  “I was still in school then, and falling asleep in classes,” he said.  But he must have done something right – Trump still calls on birthdays and to chat and now, at 43, Guterman himself is president of Hanover Companies Incorporated, and one of New York’s major real estate investors.  Hanover owns, among other things, the Stanhope and Adams hotels, a controlling interest in Roosevelt Island (“all the apartments that face Manhattan,” says Guterman), provides mortgage banking and sales brokerage services, and markets, the only magnetic monorail system in the U.S. – but is best known for its apartment sales and conversion program in Manhattan and Queens.  Guterman, it seems, learned early not to do anything by halves.  “I had a Jewish mother,” he laughs, “who always wanted me to have a bigger office, a larger house.  She also worried when I didn’t become a teacher to have something to fall back on.  But now real estate is the only way I know how to make a living, and I’ve got to do it to keep up my hobby.”  He’s talking about his paintings.

Guterman and his wife, Linda, began collecting art together several years ago, mostly Impressionists (Mrs. Guterman, who calls her husband by the nickname “Gutsy,” has a small, fine cache of Renoir paintings of children and also works by Rouault and Bonnard).  But it was when Guterman walked into the William Doyle Galleries a little more than seven years back when he was bitten by the Dutch bug.  “It was a Barent Fabritius, signed and dated 1660, a flute player wearing a tassled hat,” he says reverently, “and it was so beautiful, so sinister I had to have that face.”  Since then the collection has become – after his wife and children – Guterman’s most all-consuming passion.  He now owns between 70 and 80 paintings, does some of his own research while eagerly soliciting the help of well-known professionals, and employs a conservator, Nancy Krieg.  “I call my paintings my babies,” he told me, “I say good morning to them, I say good night.”  He is also up by 4:30 every day, reads art for an hour, then just looks.  “I’ll take a painting off the wall, put it on the floor, and get down next to it,” he said.  “I’m always seeing something new.”

With an introduction like that, it was difficult to know what to expect at Guterman’s country home where he was busy adding on a gallery created in the image of Manhattan’s famous Frick Collection.  Having forgotten that autumn was happening outside the city, I absolutely became more and more delighted as the surroundings grew more rural.  I knew I had arrived at the Guterman’s when I saw a line of cars outside a sprawling, hilltop estate – not to mention 40 workmen and several others carrying electronic equipment – in short, a lot of security.  I was not surprised, as Guterman is a man who shuns publicity – “You caught me at a weak moment,” he joked about his agreeing to be interviewed.  One man armed with a walkie-talkie phones Guterman from the end of the driveway, and he came and retrieved me dressed in a blue jogging outfit.  A sign saying “Happy Halloween” which had half collapsed hung over the front portico, and a pair of giant pumpkins flanked the entranceway.  People clipped hedges, moved stones, cleaned gutters and trimmed grass with great energy and Guterman knew everyone by name and had a work for each.  “Excuse the chaos,” he said to me over the thrum of construction and gardening work.  “The kids celebrated Halloween last night and we’re trying to get the addition finished as soon as possible.  But come see the paintings.”

I was no sooner in the door than I had my coat put away, a cut of coffee placed in my hand and, after some pleasant informalities on the white wicker and peach enclosed porch, was taken into the adjoining room for my first look at the collection.  At the entrance there was a Hendrick Avercamp, dated 1609, oil on a wood panel – a winter scene with finely detailed ice skaters and architecture, with other people as is typical of the Dutch, going about their daily business.  The painting was once in the collection of the father of the present Baron Thyssen.  “Do you know what Avercamp used for varnish?” Guterman asked.  I paled, guessed everything from whiskey to tree sap.  “Egg yolk,” said Guterman, allaying my worst fears.  “Can you imagine?  And just look at the detail in this, they really knew what they were doing.”  In the dining room were some of the most beautiful still-lifes I have ever seen – including an elaborate painting by Jan Davidsz. De Heem (see cover) in which details of food and drink are so rich, so varied, one could look at the picture for a lifetime and not see everything; and what some experts call the most beautifully perfect Dutch monochrome still-life in existence, by Jan den Uyl, of a candlestick turned over and olives glistening in a bowl.  The paintings complemented a table seating at least 14 and some fabulous Robert Garrard silver candlesticks.

“You never see one of these scenes before the food has been touched,” says Guterman, referring to the Bacchanalian disarray of the de Heem, the reflection of a bright red lobster in a shiny, bird-necked pitcher.  There was also, at the end of the room, a panel by Lucas van Valkenborck of a gathering, once the interior of a clavichord.  It occurred to me suddenly why Guterman is so drawn to this kind of painting – not only was time required to complete such a work to perfection, but the mundane aspect of life is of paramount importance.  Gerald Guterman, is by and large, a regular guy who enjoys living on a day-to-day basis with what he has put together.  On the way out of the dining room, we passed two portraits by Hendrick Terbrugghen, of a lute player and a violinist.  “What faces,” Guterman sighs.  “Artists today don’t produce this quality of work.  They simple do not take the time.”

The Guterman house is divided into several section connected by long, palace-like hallways – perfect for hanging paintings.  As we moved towards the study, we stopped at a portrait of a rabbi by Govaert Flinck, considered to be perhaps the best example of thi artist’s work.  “When I bought this, the man was wearing a turban,” said Guterman.  “We suspected an overpainting and when we cleaned it this one appeared.  It seems that during World War II, the family that had the painting decided to disguise the fact that it was a rabbi – and kept the Germans from confiscating it.”  In the same hall hangs a Frans Hals portrait of a man (“You can almost feel the lace on the colar,” said Guterman, “and did you know he was a master of black?  He used at least 26 different shades”), and Jan Lievens’ rendering of Rembrandt’s mother (Lievens and Rembrandt were studio mates and their early work is often confused).  At the hall’s end, in a small, chapel-like alcove, is an absolute gem of a Gerald Dou entitled The Astronomer by Candlelight, in which one feels the quiet awe experienced by a man alone exploring the mysteries of the universe; and a David Vinckboons, Flemish and dated 1609, which seemed to foreshadow the fabulous, funny figures of Jan Steen (although Guterman, rightly, says Brueghel) – along with several other small, perfect cabinet paintings.  And then, we arrived at the study, which I had been warned about back in his Manhattan office.

I hope people understand when I say I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor with Gerald Guterman – it was all in the name of art.  There was, at this point, no room left in the house to hang paintings, and while the gallery was being completed many were stacked against the study walls and the bookcased overloaded with art books, against the coffee tables and desk which were covered with art magazines and gallery or auction catalogues.  You could only see the paintings from the floor.  “People don’t know a lot about Dutch paintings,” Guterman began, apologizingfor but obviously accustomed to the situation.  “For instance, to see them properly, they must be well lit.”  He lifted a portrait of a young girl, Maria Stricke van Scharlaken, dressed in a shepherdess outfit, by Jacob Cuyp, and moved it into the sunlight where we got down on our knees for a closer look.  “Cuyp’s son, Aelbert, became a great history painter.  But look at the sensitivity in this portrait, the little shepherdess outfit, the sheep, the magic forest in the background!”

Then, he pulls out a Philips Wouwerman.  “This came from the collection of Catherine the Great, was once in the Hermitage.”  He also has an Aelbert Cuyp, of the conversion of St. Paul, and one of Salmon von Ruysdael’s great masterpieces, Nijmegen, a rever view of a small, Dutch town.  Not to mention the Meindert Hobbema landscape of a farm between two roads, the Jan van Goyen beach scene, a superior example of that artist’s work, a David Teniers the Younger of an alchemist’s lab with an iguana hanging from the ceiling, and a lovely, almost unearthly Philips Konick landscape.  “Sir John (meaning Sir John Pope-Hennessey, consultive chairman of the department of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum) likes to hang this one next to the Met’s,” says Guterman, a frequent lender to that institution.

Overwhelmed by all this, I started wondering what it means.  Walter Liedtke, curator of Dutch and Flemish painting at the Metropolitan, and a person whose opinion Guterman respects, recently helped put the collection in perspective.  “Guterman never buys a painting for the name alone,” he began, “and he’ll never buy anything he doesn’t feel comfortable hanging in his house.”  Apparently, there had been a painting that frightened the children – it went.  Liedtke walked me into the Met’s galleries and stopped in front a painting by Daniel Thievaert entitled The Laborer of Gibea offering Hospitality to the Levite and his Wife – one of Guterman’s.  “Guterman always wants the best he can find of a painter’s work, and there are only three or four other known Thievaerts.  We also have on loan a painting of his by Jan Victors, of Ruth and Naomi.” But what’s so special about these paintings?  “It’s highly unusual for a private collector to own history paintings – most people think of Dutch art as landscape and portraiture.  Scholars look high and low for the history material as a corrective measure to how Dutch and Flemish art is viewed.  The Thievaert was turned down by London’s National Gallery – they couldn’t see the signature at the time, and probably didn’t know what they had.”

And how does Guterman’s collection stand in relation to other collection of its kind?  “Saul Steinberg’s paintings are different from what Guterman has,” continued Liedtke.  “Steinberg’s taste is wonderful – large, colorful figurative – he likes those Caravaggesque things and has a strong Flemish bent.  But Guterman’s collection, mostly Dutch with some Flemish, has a broader depth and vision.”  And Edward Carter in Los Angeles?  “Carter also has a fine collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings, but he’s buying according to what the Los Angeles County Museum needs.  Guterman on the other hand, purchases fine paintings even if the artist’s name is somewhat obscure, simply because they are find paintings and appeal to him.  Carter’s collection is more restricted, again, to landscape andf portraiture.”

I thought about this as Guterman and I moved from the study down a long hall towards the addition to his house created, as stated earlier, in the image of the baronial Frick.  The first view of the space, even in an unfinished state, is breath-taking – an upper gallery wraps around the entire room, which is dominated by a long, curved center skylight and floor-to-ceiling windows.  The larger paintings can be accommodated sownstairs and the smaller paintings above.  There’s a feeling of classical harmony – repeating arches, columns, doorways – almost like a Renaissance church.  “I built this for us (meaning his family) and for no other reason,” says Guterman.  During the day, the lighting is all natural; an at night, a computerized lighting system (which the lighting consultants used by the National Gallery in Washington helped devise) takes over – even in the skylight.  Humidity control is also computerized.

The building was designed by the Hanover Design Group (Guterman’s company) under the direction of Shelley Azapian.  Guterman has the same sense of detail and perfection here tht he has when talking business or about his paintings.  “Look at the windows,” he said, as we walked up a wide staircase to a landing just below the upper gallery.”  All this work was done by a small company in Connecticut called Strobel,” he continued, pointing to the fine metal, wood and glass work.  “He did the doors too, which are all flashed so there will never be a problem with water.”  The first floor is 14 feet high, and the molding on the upper level is designed to be in harmony with the smaller paintings.  “We have 150 lights in this room, and the windows are inset so drapery can hand unencumbered,” said Guterman, “and you can see our grounds from all sides.”  There are also details in Carrara marble, and the walls have been made so there is no need of visible support for the paintings.  The gallery also has a number of carved wooded columns (“Creative woodworking,” says Guterman) and a full-size industrial kitchen below – just in case dinners are held there.  “My wife thought our other kitchen was too far away,” he explained.

After this, we lunched on the enclosed porch overlooking the house’s 15 acres and the gardening crew putting in a row of bushes.  Over endive and tuna salad, I found out that this man is also active in charitable causes such as the New York City Opera (I’m one of Bev’s Boys,” he smiled) and is a member of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a group of American businessmen and religious leaders committed to the idea of religious freedom throughout the world.  At the time we were talking, the foundation was involved in the formulation of an agreement of understanding between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  But back to the paintings.  What does Guterman look for first?  “This collection must be above reproach when it comes to condition,” he says.  “I don’t want anyone saying, ‘the Guterman collection is good, but…’ “ 

Who does he buy from, trust the most?  “In terms of dealers, I think Martin Zimet of French & Company has an innate, incredible ability to find quality work in pristine condition.  My de Hooch came from Clyde Newhouse, and I’ve done business with Otto Naumann and John Hoogsteder – who I think are gracious world-class dealers.  I also think Richard Feigen is right up there in his ability to secure top-flight paintings.  I’ve seen things here at Colnaghi, but I haven’t bought anything yet.”  But are there others?  “In London, I deal with Harari & Johns, and Peter Mitchell, but have really done a lot of business with Johnny Van Haeften” (Guterman and his wife are personal friends of Van Haeften and his wife, Sarah).  His latest purchase from Van Haeften was a Willem van Mieris.  Other people Guterman deals with are Evert Douwes and his son, Evert, Jr., Sam Nystad, Karol and Victor Waterman, Charles Roeloffs and Peter DeBoer in Amsterdam and The Hague; David Koester in Zurich; and a small dealer in Munich named Norbert Pokuta.  “Pokuta’s shop is very small, but he finds great paintings.  My Bercham comes from there.”  Among the “up and comers,” Guterman cites Bob Haboldt, and Christophe Janet – from whom he bought his pair of Terbrugghen musicians.  As for auctions, he has spent a lot of time (and money) at Sotheby’s over the last few years.  “ But this year I have only bought one or two paintings at auction, and most of the others in Europe.  It just depends on where the material shows up.”  He has nothing but good words for George Wachter and Ian Kennedy, the Old-Master experts at Sotheby’s and Christie’s respectively.

What kind of advice would Guterman offer people interested in this kind of painting?  “People don’t spend enough time in museums to get a sense of what’s good,” he says.  “They gravitate first to what is mose easily pleasant, soft and warm.  The first painting we ever bought was a Raphael Soyer and we still have it.”  He continues, “A good rule of thumb is to look for what you can best afford in the best condition and make sure it is properly authenticated.  Find dealers you can trust who have a good eye and are honest – all of them stand behind what they sell.”  Anything else?  “Travel a lot.  Some of my best adventures have been with other private collectors.  And don’t look for bargains – there are none.”  So what is the future of a collection like this, where will it end up?  Guterman shudders at the question.  “Love knows no bounds,” he smiles.  You don’t give away your babies.”

The last time I talked to Gerald Guterman he was at home.  “How are you,” I asked.  “Not so great,” came the reply, “they stained the floor of the gallery today and they did it in the wrong color.  Now I’ve got to find another company to do it again.”  And you can bet, knowing Gerald Guterman, they’ll do it until they get it right.