GEORGE ECONOMOU, a self-made shipping tycoon, unveiled part of his picture collection for the first time to the public on February 17th at the new Municipal Gallery in Athens. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the art dealers, auctioneers, artists and museum directors who came to attend the preview at the Greek capital were German or Austrian.
When he started collecting art a decade ago, Mr Economou concentrated on German and Austrian art of the early 20th century. Very simply, he likes the way it looks. He is drawn to colour, figurative painting and female nudes, and the German expressionists handily deliver on all three.
Perhaps the biggest catch so far for the newly minted collector has been the acquisition of about 500 prints by Otto Dix from Florian Karsch, a Berlin-based art dealer and collector. The octogenarian Mr Karsch had intended to donate his Dix collection to the Berlinische Galerie, a state museum of modern art, but the Berlin government took him to court because his donation allegedly violated fiscal laws. So he sold his collection to Mr Economou instead, under the condition that it would remain in Germany for ten years.
These works are now held at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, on loan from Mr Economou. The cache includes Der Krieg (“War”), Dix’s cycle of 51 prints from 1924 about the horrors of the first world war. The artist modelled his cycle on Goya’s devastating Los Desastres de la Guerra (“The Disasters of War”), an account of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish war of independence in the 19th century. Like the Goya series, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching techniques to make a powerful—and unsettling—statement against war, with stark depictions of war cripples, suicide, the raping of a nun by a soldier, a female pimp and a dead soldier.
But the show in Athens ranges beyond early 20th-century German art. Mr Economou’s collection covers most important artistic schools from the 15th to the 20th century. Highlights include a luscious still life with shells and insects by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger, a Flemish artist from the 16th century; a charming and seemingly photographic depiction of a woman in a kitchen by Félix Vallotton (pictured); “The Lying Tiger” by Eugène Delacroix; two watercolours by George Grosz and a portrait of a young family by Emil Nolde (pictured top). Hanging next to the great masters are relatively obscure artists such as Edmund Adler, Johann Sperl and Siegmund Walter Hampel, again mainly from Austria and Germany.
A billionaire who is not yet 60, Mr Economou is buying art at a rate of one picture every two days. The man actually bidding for the art is Dimitri Gravanis, a flamboyant art expert who devotes his time to touring mainly German and Austrian auction houses and dealers. “We are like an old couple,” says Mr Economou.
Though it amounts to some 2,500 pictures, Mr Economou’s collection is still in its infancy. It lacks focus and structure apart from a penchant for Austro-German art. Eventually the indefatigable collector would like to establish a museum, though he has yet to decide where it should be.
In the short term, the collection now on display at the Municipal Gallery is serving as an educational exhibition for school children in Athens. With its examples of old masters, impressionism, the Vienna Secession, fauvism, expressionism, cubism, new objectivity and abstraction, it provides an art-historical journey through the past few centuries. Athens has plenty of museums devoted to antiquity, but few that display more recent European art. His hometown could probably use a fine-art museum. But Mr Economou is keeping his options open.