Collector profile: Gustav Rau, Schweitzer redivivus

A doctor in a remote village in the Congo, part of Dr Rau's thousand-strong collection is on display now in Paris.


Dr Gustav Rau must rank among the most unusual collectors of our time. For decades he made his home in a remote village in the Congo, working as a doctor. An almost Albert Schweitzer-type figure, he has lived simply and spent much of his personal fortune setting up a hospital. But there has been another, very different side to Dr Rau’s life. Two or three times a year he would briefly leave Africa, to fly to London, New York or Paris to attend the major art auctions. There he bought prodigiously, eventually acquiring nearly a thousand paintings and sculptures, including works by Crivelli, Canaletto, El Greco, Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro and Monet. It would have been foolish to bring these treasures back to the Congo, so Dr Rau barely saw his acquisitions, leaving them in store in Zurich.

Now seventy-eight, Dr Rau has reluctantly emerged from obscurity, and his collection has just gone on show at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris (until 4 January), attracting large crowds. Luxembourg director Marc Restellini has compared the Rau works to the Thyssen, Frick and Wallace collections, saying that it is “the only one of this quality which has not been on show to the public.” He also emphasises that it is now very unusual for a collector to amass works encompassing the entire history of European painting, from all the major schools. The Luxembourg exhibition ranges from a pair of Fra Angelico saints of c.1424-25 to a Morandi still life of c.1945-55 (curiously, the cataloguers have found it much more difficult to date the most recent work than the earliest).

Dr Rau is a very private person, and, unusually for a single-owner exhibition, the Luxembourg catalogue includes no biography of the lender. He began to collect in the late 1960s, beginning with sculpture, and then moved on to paintings. Of the hundred most important works, half came from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, where Dr Rau would always attend the sales and personally bid, and the remainder were from dealers and other auctioneers. The most recent acquisition in the Luxembourg show is Pissarro’s “Le Tribunal de Pontoise”, bought at Christie’s New York on 11 May 1995 ($530,000). Although none of them are in the exhibition, three years ago he returned from a buying spree in America with five Pissarros, three Sisleys, two Boudins and a Marquet. “I have not really stopped buying,” Dr Rau explained.

The collection now comprises 240 Old Masters, 160 nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings and 220 sculptures. Dr Rau’s favourite is a Fragonard portrait of the duc d’Harcourt, as well as Renoir’s enchanting “Femme à la rose”, which was looted by the Nazis and seized by Göring for his personal collection (it was restituted after the war to Paris dealer Paul Rosenberg, who sold it at Christie’s in 1973). Another star is Degas’s last self-portrait, bought at Christie’s in 1972, and lent to the 1996-97 exhibition in London and Chicago. Dr Rau is also particularly interested in female artists, and these are represented by Judith Leyster, Elisabetta Sirani, Elizabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Mary Cassatt and Marie Laurencin. Cassatt’s pastel of “Louise suckling her baby” cost him £900,000 at Sotheby’s in 1986, then a record price for the artist. Dr Rau’s personal tastes are eclectic, and he collects everything except post-1950 works, explaining that he “doesn’t understand” contemporary art.

Inevitably some of the attributions in his collection have changed, with Dr Rau winning some and losing others. An anonymous “David decapitating Goliath” bought from the Lodi collection was recognised after the purchase as a Guido Reni, while a Saint Veronica attributed to Van der Weyden from an Oxfordshire collector turned out to be by Colyn de Coter, cutting its value by ninety per cent.

In financial terms, the most valuable works in the collection include Cézanne’s “La Mer à l’Estaque” and the six Monets (“Sous-bois, “Le Pont de bois”, “Vue d’Amsterdam”, “Inondation”, “Les pyramides de Port-Coton” and “Maisons dans la neige en Norvège”, Wildenstein catalogue numbers W58, 195, 303, 642, 1087 and 1395). Dr Rau claims the secret of his success in building up the collection is to “sell the less good to buy the better.” During the 1980s Dr Rau considered leaving his collection to Marseille, a city he held in particular esteem because it was from there that he had first set out for Africa. The plan was that he would not only donate his paintings and sculptures, but also finance the construction of a museum building.

However, while private discussions were underway, the security situation in the Congo deteriorated and there was a massive influx of refugees from neighbouring Rwanda. Dr Rau therefore decided that he should devote his financial resources to his hospital. He quietly disposed of nearly a hundred paintings, including major works. These included Klimt’s “Schloss Kammer am Attersee II”, which he sold at Sotheby’s in 1987 for £3 million, then a record for the artist. The Marseille museum building went ahead, but instead of housing the Rau donation it became the Galeries Contemporaines de Marseille (MAC), which opened in 1994.

The Luxembourg exhibition is largely the result of the enthusiasm of Marc Restellini, who took over as director of the Musée du Luxembourg in July. It was nine years ago, following the breakdown of the Marseille venture, that he first approached Dr Rau with the idea of an exhibition. After initially rejecting the proposal, Dr Rau eventually agreed and the show is the first to take place at the newly reorganised Musée du Luxembourg. The museum is now run by the French Senate, which has taken over responsibility from the Ministry of Culture. Of the 106 paintings on show, eleven are owned by the La Fondation d’Art du docteur Rau, based at Embrach (outside Zurich), and the remainder are his personal property.

After the exhibition closes in Paris, it is likely to go to the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and then possibly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Discussions are also underway to tour the collection to the Museu de Arte in São Paolo, Brazil. Another venture is the publication next year of a three-volume catalogue raisonné of the full Rau collection, with Michel Laclotte responsible for the paintings and Bertrand Jestaz for the sculptures.

Last month an exhibition curator, who has borrowed Rau works for several shows, described him as “a remarkable person: very focussed, highly intelligent, and with a great passion for his collection.” Once one had gained his confidence, he is a very generous lender, and is keen for his pictures to be enjoyed. Despite the fact that he himself has only rarely seen his paintings, these short opportunities have given him “intense pleasure”. There were two very different aspects to his life, Africa and art. As to the long-term future, Dr Rau is to bequeath his entire collection to UNICEF. Lesser works may be sold to raise money for helping children in Africa, but the bulk of the pictures and sculptures are to go on long-term loan to the Musée du Luxembourg. The plan is to have a rotating selection of around a hundred works in a special gallery, possibly a new extension. The remainder of the collection will be stored and available for loan, putting the Luxembourg in a strong position to borrow paintings for special exhibitions through “exchange” arrangements with other museums.

Meanwhile, Dr Rau is now retired. Eight years ago he was forced to flee his hospital in the remote village of Ciriri, because of civil war in the Congo and ethnic tensions in neighbouring Rwanda made the area very dangerous. The Order of Malta maintained a minimal presence at the Ciriri hospital and the Archbishop of Bakavu had hoped to reopen the facilities, but he was murdered. The situation has since become even more anarchic, and Ciriri is now in the hands of Congolese rebels and under Rwandan influence. Ethnic tensions are high, and killings are common.

Dr Rau initially returned to Zurich, but he has now moved back to Stuttgart, his birthplace. There he has been patiently waiting for news of his hospital, fearing the worst. For six months this year he heard nothing, but last month he finally received a message that the hospital still stands and remains partially open with minimal staff.

“De Fra Angelico à Bonnard: chefs-d’oeuvre de la Collection Rau”, Skira, ISBN 88-8118-772-8 and 88-8118-800-7.

Gustav Rau was born in 1922 in Stuttgart. He began studying political science in 1941, but was conscripted the following year. In 1944 he fled Germany and joined the British army. After the war he resumed his studies, graduating in 1950. Dr Rau then helped run his father’s company, which manufactured car accessories. At the age of forty, he began training as a doctor, later specialising in Belgium in tropical medicine, paediatrics and gynaecology. In 1970, after the death of his father, he sold the family company, as well as his deceased uncle’s textile factory, and moved to Nigeria, to practice as a doctor. Seven years later he moved on to Bukavu in the Congo (Zaire) and then to Ciriri, a mountain village twelve kilometres away, near the Rwandan border. There he funded and built a 300-bed hospital, which treated 2,000 patients a year, distributed vegetables to 9,000 people a day and offered preventive medical care in the surrounding area. The Ciriri centre also paid for schooling for 30,000 children a year. Ever since its opening, the Ciriri hospital has been in of one of Africa’s most dangerous flashpoints, near the borders of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Schweitzer redivivus'