It was my privilege and good fortune to contribute to the creation of the magnificent art collection of John C. Whitehead. It all started on a rainy day in June 1981, when an American visitor entered my London gallery. We talked about a painting by Georges Braque, Tête de femme II, 1930, another by Pierre Bonnard, and a few other works that were on my walls. When he was ready to leave, it was still raining and I offered him an umbrella. He thanked me and left his name in the guest book. That evening, a friend who happened to be in finance phoned to ask how the gallery was doing. “Today was a good day,” I replied. “A nice man visited, who liked a Braque painting I have. His name is John C. Whitehead." My friend laughed: "You don't know who that is? Only the most important investment banker in the world!” The following week I had a cable from Goldman Sachs in New York, confirming that Mr. Whitehead wanted to purchase the Braque. I boarded a plane a few days later and brought the painting to him myself.
In New York we talked more about art. “Achim,” he said, “I would like to form a collection. I know what I like, but I know little about art. I need someone I can trust. Would you help me?” And so began an exceptional friendship. Over more than three decades I saw his knowledge and love of art grow, his collector’s passion flourish, his pride in contributing to the collections of our greatest museums, his pleasure in being surrounded in his home by works he cherished. We traveled together through French art with works by Daumier and Gauguin, Seurat, Modigliani, Degas, and Rodin. I arranged them in his town house overlooking the East River, in his Manhattan office, and, when he was serving as Deputy Secretary of State from 1985 to 1989, in Washington at the State Department. He liked to remember how a Washington colleague was surprised to see French masters rather than American art at the State Department. John, who would have wanted to avoid any semblance of impropriety, made discreet inquiries and was reassured that all was well, as long as the art was of top quality. Indeed, quality was always our aim.
I never tried to “sell” a work to John. Instead, I looked for what he might like and what would be right for his collection. Often what I insisted he not buy was as important as what I suggested he should.
As the years went by quite a few works were lent to museums, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, not to mention a special exhibition at his alma mater, Haverford College.
For my part, I will always be grateful for that rainy day.