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A late, great collector and the new museum of his collection: The legacy of the ever elusive John Hunt

One of Europe’s greatest private collections of medieval material and works of art from antiquity to the twentieth century is now on view in Ireland

London

Through his hands passed some of the most remarkable works of art ever made in Europe. His tall and slender figure was well known to curators of medieval European art of all the leading museums and his judgement and knowledge were highly respected.

The late John Hunt, self-made and self-taught connoisseur, was a leading dealer in medieval art in London before and after World War II. He also amassed a huge personal collection of objects from classical antiquities through to nineteenth-century metalwork and ceramics and twentieth-century paintings.

Now some 2,000 works from this collection are on permanent display in the refurbished eighteenth-century Customs House at County Limerick, Ireland where he was born.

John Hunt and his German wife and business partner Gertrude are remembered with affection as Jack and Putzel. Professionally, Hunt is missed for his formidably discriminating eye and his capacity for making judgements not necessarily based on scholarship but on his ability to recognise quality.

Born in County Limerick in 1900, Hunt was raised in England. His chosen career was medicine but while still a student he gave it up for health reasons and joined a firm of antique furniture dealers.

His break into the big league is recounted by Peter Lasco, ex-director of the Courtauld Institute as he heard it from Hunt himself. Stumbling upon a sale of theatre props, Hunt’s attention was caught by a helmet on sale for a few pounds. He bought it and then identified it as the work of a sixteenth-century Renaissance workshop. It was resold for £250,000.

It was in the early 1930s that Hunt met Gertrude. She was to become his closest advisor and lifetime companion. A formidable connoisseur herself, she grew up on the grounds of the Castle at Mannheim where her grandfather was senior curator.

In 1932 when Hunt was working as a buyer for works of art dealer Acton Surgey he was approached by Scottish collector, William Burrell. From then until the outbreak of the war, Hunt became Burrell’s intimate associate and trusted adviser, mainly on medieval objects.

In view of Hunt’s own love of medieval art, Burrell made a special concession to him and agreed that he could collect for himself as he bought for Burrell. The Hunt Collection, therefore, contains several items which have companions in the Burrell Collection. Other collectors to seek Hunt’s advice included William Randolph Hearst and the Aga Khan.

Hunt’s reputation as a dealer was not entirely flawless although those that knew him point out that he was no more buccaneering than other dealers working at the time. It was the golden age of collecting: European museums were preoccupied with restoring their buildings; American museums had not yet entered the market, and buyer’s commission had not been introduced at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where sales were often catalogued haphazardly.

Some outstanding items made their way into Hunt’s possession in circumstances that are less than clear. The Campion Hall Triptych, an exceptionally rare enamelled fourteenth-century miniature gold triptych, thought to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots is first recorded in the collection of the Wittelsbachs, the ruling house of Bavaria, in an inventory compiled in 1617. It remained there until the 1930s when it passed through the hands of several dealers into the collection of Dutch collector and banker Fritz Mannheimer. By the time of his death and bankruptcy in 1939, the triptych and several other items from his collection had been placed in a London bank vault to escape creditors in Holland.

During the war, the bank was bombed, but the triptych miraculously survived and was looted from the site. It is said to have changed hands over a couple of pints in an Irish pub, then to have been sold to a furniture dealer in Dublin who gave it to his wife. Hunt persuaded the dealer to exchange the triptych for a suite of eighteenth-century furniture. This aroused some animosity, as it was felt that Hunt knew it was stolen. It was eventually returned to its legal owner, Mrs Mannheimer.

Claude Blair, former Keeper of metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, recalls visiting Hunt’s flat in Earl’s Court to discover thirteenth-century stained glass roundels from Canterbury Cathedral. To this day, Mr Blair is not quite sure why they were there. Hunt was sensitive to the romantic power of objects. Richard Marks, former keeper of the Burrell Collection, recalls how Hunt showed him with awe a pomander which he had just bought. The reverence stemmed from his belief that it had belonged to a French king and he himself could scarcely believe that it had come to rest in his hands.

In 1938 the Hunts bought a farm in County Limerick. After the war, they devoted most of their time to the study and collection of Irish antiquities, which a few years before his death in 1976, he presented to the State.

Parts of the Hunt collection have been on display in various places since the Seventies. The Hunt children, John Hunt Jr and Trudy, wanted the collection to remain intact and to be housed in the Limerick region. The establishment of the Hunt Museum, inaugurated by Irish prime minister, John Bruton, is largely the result of their efforts. Refurbishment of the Custom House has cost £2.9 million with partial funding from the European Regional Development Fund. Government assistance is assured for the first few years as the board of trustees works to set up an endowment.

Hunt Museum, The Custom House, Rutland Street, Limerick. Tel+ 353 (0)61 312 833, fax:+ 353 (0)61 312 834.