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He Took the British for a Ride

June 03, 1974
June 03, 1974

Table of Contents
June 3, 1974

Attack
Gold To Ivory
Montreal
Film-Flam
Baseball
Hockey
Box Lacrosse
For A Ride
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

He Took the British for a Ride

An American wheeler-dealer named Jack Dick raided England of her riches in sporting paintings, artfully amassing a collection that is expected to fetch $15 million

They say I raped England," Jack Dick told an acquaintance last year, "and in a way I did. In five years I put together the finest collection of English sporting paintings ever assembled and brought them back to the U.S. before anyone knew what was happening."

This is an article from the June 3, 1974 issue Original Layout

Now everyone in the art world knows, for almost single-handedly, by dint of his own notoriety if nothing else, Jack R. Dick of Greenwich, Conn. helped resuscitate and altogether revitalize an entire school of painting. Though Dick's own life was foreshortened five months ago by a heart attack at age 45, the legacy of what he called "my horse paintings" lives, indeed gallops, on.

On June 26 in London, Sotheby & Co. will hold the second of a four-part auction of the Dick collection, 238 select works depicting country life in Britain from 1750 to 1850. When the final art sweepstakes is run off in the fall of 1975 (to avoid overcrowding the field, Sotheby's is spacing the sales at intervals of eight months), Dick's long-shot investment of $2 million made between 1964 and 1969 figures to reap $15 million.

The decision to ship the paintings back to Britain for the auction was not in recompense for Dick's rapacious ways but in shrewd consideration of going where the best prices could be realized. Dick needed every farthing he could fetch. Indicted in September 1971 by a New York grand jury for allegedly using falsified documents to secure loans, he was forced to sell his collection to pay off creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service, for debts totaling close to $5 million. Dick pleaded not guilty to all charges, dismissing them as "an unfortunate case of a government agency deigning to take on a collection matter." The one felicitous result of the litigation was a revival of interest in British sporting art, a unique and evocative chronicle of a nation's landed gentry at leisure.

If anything, the second sale promises to be more spirited—and a lot less spooked—than the first. Held last Halloween night, the initial auction raised trick-or-treat suspicions that touched off what the London Observer called an "unparalleled furore." No one doubted the authenticity of the paintings or even Dick's declaration that "this is one of the most important single art sales ever to take place in England." But given the controversy surrounding the auction, the Society of London Art Dealers called an emergency meeting to discuss rumors that title to some of the paintings was in question and might later be claimed by Dick's creditors. When Dick suggested that these dealers were jealous because they were not asked to handle the sale, some huffily threatened to boycott the proceedings.

On auction night, however, after assurances by the U.S. and British governments that the titles were free of legal entanglements, an overflow crowd of 1,000 queued up at Sotheby's main gallery with giddy anticipation. Inside the high-domed, chandeliered sales room, members of the international art coterie and assorted peers of the realm rubbed tuxedos with jockeys and the inevitable clutch of acquisitive Japanese. The less privileged were shunted off to adjoining rooms equipped with subauctioneers and closed-circuit telecasts of the event. Elsewhere in the hall, telephone operators stood ready to relay offers made over hookups to Zurich and New York.

Lest his presence on the floor inhibit the bidding, Dick and his blonde wife Lynda were ushered into a private office at Sotheby's, where they listened to the auction over a loudspeaker. For the Dicks, the news went from good to grand.

At the opening gavel, Henry Aiken's engaging painting of a mud-splattered old Nimrod relaxing with his steed after a hard day's hunt, a work Dick bought in 1968 for $1,200, was sold for $17,010. James Seymour's quaintly primitive treatment of racehorses exercising on Newmarket Heath, purchased by Dick in 1968 for $14,500, went for $92,340. And John Herring's superb study of four coach horses awaiting a change on the Great North Road, a bargain Dick picked up six years ago for $14,100, brought $170,100.

But what excited a spontaneous round of applause from the audience—and undoubtedly raced a few pulses in the private office—was the price commanded by George Stubbs' exquisite portrait of the aptly named thoroughbred Goldfinder. The dark bay stallion was depicted browsing with mare and foal by a tranquil lake and gazing out with the lordly mien of a Secretariat (who, incidentally, traces his ancestry through 20 generations to Goldfinder). The Stubbs masterpiece, which Dick bought in 1967 for $183,700, was claimed by a dealer representing Sir Charles Clore, a noted financier, for $546,750, the highest price ever paid at auction for an English sporting painting.

In all, the 42 selections offered in the first sale sold for $3,032,000 and set record prices for no fewer than nine artists—a decided contradiction of the art market adage that the more expensive the purchase the longer the time required to hold on to it. Dick, who owned the bulk of his collection for less than seven years, preached a different philosophy: "You never lose and often win quickly when you buy the best."

Certainly no one in the staid world of British art would have taken odds that one man's collection of paintings, particularly of a specialized genre that had been all but ignored for more than a century, would arouse such excitement. Partly, the assorted furores were a chauvinistic reaction to regaining spoils (an estimated 90% of the Dick paintings sold in the first sale were purchased by Britons) that had been pirated away by a marauding Yankee. But mainly it was a situation in which the English, suddenly faced with losing much of the rich heritage of their sporting art, belatedly came to appreciate its true worth.

That never would have been a problem in the rustic England of two centuries ago. No nation cherished its equine sports more and no school of painters was more devoted to its subject. Ben Marshall (1768-1835), one of the noted artists of the era, explained his reason for moving to the horse-racing center of Newmarket: "The second animal in creation is a fine horse, and at Newmarket I can study him in the greatest grandeur, beauty and variety."

Not to mention comfort. Like other painters of the sporting scene, Marshall prospered on handsome commissions from wealthy patrons and he was shrewdly aware of where their affections lay. Leaving landscape and formal family portraits to the Gainsboroughs, Constables and Turners, he went to the races because "I have discovered many a man who thinks 10 guineas too much for painting his wife will pay 50 guineas for painting his horse."

With the new practice of thoroughbred breeding all the rage, the lords of the land demanded faithful and minutely accurate portrayals of their prized bloodstock. Marshall, who moonlighted as a horse trader and a racecourse columnist, obliged with an insider's expertise, depicting every detail of bit and bridle, every glint in the shimmering coat, with striking fidelity. Renowned for his ability to capture the individual riding styles of famous jockeys as well as the muscular elegance peculiar to each of their mounts, Marshall achieved in his paintings a distinctive chiseled look that became his hallmark.

Another habitué of racecourses, John F. Herring Sr. (1795-1865), followed in the same tradition. Unfortunately, because photographic studies of galloping thoroughbreds were still a thing of the future, Herring's representations of the front-runners heading down the stretch look like so many rocking horses frozen in space. His busy, sprawling paintings of major races, with a cast of thousands cheering madly from behind the rail, are valued less as models of style and composition than as vivid documentaries of a perished way of life.

A trainer of colts and a stickler for proper riding technique, Henry Aiken Sr. (1785-1851), joined the fun by wryly portraying some of the hazards that could befall the inept horseman. His hunting canvases, always brimming with action, are short on elegance and long on satire; he shows riders to hounds being unceremoniously dumped over walls, dashed into streams and chasing after their runaway mounts.

Aiken's flair for caricature also led him to illustrate another phenomenon of the times, the English sporting eccentric. Aiken's favorite was a roustabout sot by the name of John Mytton Esq. who, among other celebrated exploits, is pictured shooting wild duck in the snow while half-naked, and riding a bear into his dining room in full hunting regalia.

But whatever the subject, the recognized master of English sporting art was George Stubbs (1724-1806). Like Leonardo da Vinci, he was a painter-scientist with an absorbing interest in comparative anatomy. As a young man, Stubbs not only delivered lectures to medical students but in the dead of night had bodies brought to his garret for dissection. One specimen, a woman who died in childbirth, became the basis for his revelatory illustrations in a book on midwifery.

Stubbs, a self-taught artisan, later embarked on a venture that was to consume the better part of 10 years. Held in "vile reknown" by neighbors for his wee-hour cutups, he moved to a remote farm in Lincolnshire where, immersed in the stench of putrefying flesh, he hoisted horse after dead horse onto an elaborate hanging contraption that allowed him to painstakingly dissect and study the beasts in a variety of walking and running positions.

The result was The Anatomy of the Horse, an epic pictorial treatise that was to become a primary reference work in colleges of veterinary medicine. Along with fame and lucrative commissions, the book provided Stubbs with a rudimentary grounding that helped him revolutionize equine art.

Before Stubbs' pioneering work, horses were painted in fiat and primitive fashion, with little comprehension of underlying muscle and bone. Stubbs changed that, and though successors dutifully followed his lead, none since has matched the soft sculptured touch, the sense of grace and mobility that infused his paintings with a separate life all their own.

Indeed, dogs were forever yapping and trying to take nips out of Stubbs' animal paintings, and while he was completing what is perhaps the single greatest horse portrait ever painted, his famous subject, Hambletonian, caught a glimpse of his life-size likeness and instinctively reared up and delivered a menacing kick that came within inches of destroying the canvas.

George Stubbs was a hero to Jack Dick. "There is one thing that always comes through with Stubbs," Dick once explained. "You can see that he loved those horses."

How did a man from the concrete plains of Brooklyn become a fancier of the bucolic sporting art of Olde England? Like one of Aiken's hapless hunters, Jack R. Dick pursued a circuitous route filled with jolting ups and downs. His aim, however, was unswerving. "Making money is my game," he would say. "It's my way of having fun. It's my sport."

Like any child of the city, Dick dreamed of faraway places, in his case a white farmhouse surrounded by green grass and rolling hills. That at least is the reason he always gave for running away from home at 15 to work on a small farm in Connecticut, mucking out stables, shearing sheep and cleaning eggs for $25 a month. The idyll ended after one year, when an aunt with show-biz connections induced Walter Winchell to run a missing person's picture of young Jack in his newspaper column.

Found out by his employer, Dick returned to Brooklyn, where he played fullback on his high school football team and was named Most Likely to Succeed in his yearbook—a bestowal not hindered by the fact that he was yearbook editor.

At Syracuse University Dick was class treasurer and the most likely to succeed at hustling up a few odd dollars. Among other sidelines, he ran a mail-order business specializing in military-surplus goods in general and glassware in particular. Anything the chemistry department boys could blow, the saying went, Jack the Peddler could sell.

And anything unsuspecting students cared to wager on a friendly game of bridge he was quick to cover. "Bridge was my most remunerative enterprise," he liked to say. "My partner and I were very successful at spreading the wealth around, taking from those who were getting more money from home and dividing it up among the less fortunate, namely ourselves. Those were my only Marxist tendencies."

A kind of two-legged Goldfinder in his own right, Dick not only worked his way through college but graduated with a $15,000 profit and a hankering for more. He got it when he joined his father as copartner in a Bayonne, N.J. kitchenware manufacturing business that prospered during the postwar building boom.

But after seven years Dick became restless and he quit the company in 1958 to take a fling in the stock market. Beginning with $25,000, he ran up a paper fortune of $12 million within a year. Then, just as he was on the verge of buying a steel corporation, his foolscap empire collapsed.

Dick always steadfastly held that disreputable moneylenders undermined his collateral by surreptitiously selling his stock to cover their losses. The Securities and Exchange Commission, however, had a different version. It accused Dick of "kiting," ordering stock that he had no intention of paying for, in the hope that he could sell the shares at a profit if they rose in price before the four-day deadline for payment.

Dick, then 33 and, according to the SEC, living in a duplex apartment "complete with butler" but having "no assets and no job" and beset with "credit difficulties," was also accused of illegally ordering stock in the name of one of his former employees. The upshot was that in 1960 the SEC permanently enjoined Dick from various sorts of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sued by brokerage firms for restitution of losses, Dick resorted to an emergency maneuver that was a preview of things to come. An inveterate collector of coins, jade, silver, ivory, coral, porcelain, china, first editions, rare book bindings and antique English furniture, he helped pay off his debts by auctioning his prized collection of postal stamps, issued between 1845 and 1855, for $750,000.

Chastened, Dick spent the next six months straightening out his affairs and, according to one friend, "walking off a nervous breakdown." On one occasion Dick trudged the five miles from his elegant uptown Manhattan apartment to the office of his Wall Street lawyer because he did not have the price of a subway token.

Fearing for Dick's future, his attorney demanded, "For God's sake. Jack, what arc you going to do with your life?" Dick's immediate reaction was to summon up the old vision of the white farmhouse. Though the thought struck him as utterly impractical at first, he soon became consumed with devising a way to reconcile his drive for financial success with his desire for the life of a gentleman farmer.

After a cram course in agroeconomics, Dick decided that he could satisfy all his needs by breeding Aberdeen Angus cattle, a field he once characterized as "a Ma and Pa operation devoid of promotion or modern business methods." Borrowing a concept from real-estate syndicates that were popular at the time, Dick set out to convince investors that by putting their money in Angus they could take advantage of healthy tax write-offs and make fat profits from the sale of the cows' offspring. He found, in short, a new game to play.

Though broke and admittedly peddling only hopes, options and projections, Dick managed to raise enough money in two months of hard selling to buy a 650-acre farm in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. from Everett Crosby, Bing's older brother, for $350,000. Christened Black Watch Farms and attracting such notable investors as the late Peter Revson, E. G. Marshall, Sieve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, the venture catapulted from $40,000 in sales in 1962 to $30 million in 1968.

Living his dream at last, Dick played the role of gentleman farmer with rare style. All the Mas and Pas who liked to say that Farmer Jack's place was the only farm they had ever seen with marble floors inside and a Jaguar out back were even more flabbergasted by the little bit of Las Vegas he had created right there in Wappingers Falls.

The occasion was Black Watch's annual Masterpiece Sale, a kind of barnyard spectacular for 800 guests who wended their way down carpeted paths lined with flaming braziers to gather in four huge candy-striped tents. The long weekend began with a candlelight supper of beef tenderloin and Mouton-Cadet '61 and ended several hangovers later with Bloody Marys ladled out of water troughs.

Lest anyone forget the motive behind the merrymaking, Dick surrounded the Plexiglas sides of the tents with floodlit stalls and then trotted out his cattle, their toenails trimmed, eyelashes brushed and tails teased with hairspray, to impassively watch the guests watching them between bites of beef tenderloin. Accused of spending money irrationally, Dick's reply was, "If spending $50,000 on a party one day and selling $300,000 worth of cattle for $1 million the next is irrational, then I plead guilty."

Irrepressible was the word for Dick when, at the 1963 spring sale of Aberdeen Angus stock in Perth, Scotland, he bought a bull named Lindertis Evulse for a record $176,400. He hired Johnny Carson's public relations man to handle the welcoming ceremonies, and when the enormous black beast arrived in New York on a B.O.A.C. flight he was greeted with an explosion of flashbulbs, led across a red-carpeted rampway and then whisked off in an armored Brinks truck with motorcycle escort.

Trouble was, the critter proved sterile. But Jack was quick to make the most out of his, so to speak, laughing stock. Covered by a fertility insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, Dick got his $176,400 purchase price back and then turned around and offered to buy the bull from Lloyd's for $1, with the idea of having an operation performed. The insurance company agreed.

Promotional wheels churning, Dick then put through a telephone call to Alabama Governor George Wallace and gingerly offered him a rare opportunity to "do something beneficial for the blacks"—quickly adding that in this case the black happened to be a bull.

In no time at all Lindertis Evulse was shipped to Alabama to undergo an operation by a 17-member team of surgeons and assistants at Auburn University Medical School. For the titillation of the international press corps covering the event, Dick bought four Angus heifers and had them penned outside the operating room as a kind of bovine harem-in-waiting.

But, alas, the operation was a failure and Lindy the Latent Lover, the cover boy on several magazines and recipient of honorable mention in the 1964 Britannica Book of the Year, ended up as dog food. "The fate of Lindertis was regrettable," Dick later recalled, "but I couldn't have bought that kind of promotion for $2 million.""

Dick did buy English sporting paintings for that kind of money, a passion that began with his collecting paintings of cattle but soon switched to horses because hardly anyone but himself found cow portraits terribly romantic. He pursued his avocation with what Sotheby Vice-President C. Hugh Hildesley calls "a deep knowledge, a good eye and a real nose for a bargain." Once while on a searching expedition in the English countryside, Dick made inquiries in a pub and was told that a retired brigadier general who lived 10 kilometers down the road had a "horse picture." Minutes later, Dick was ushered into the brigadier's three-story billiard room, and after climbing a ladder to inspect the grime-covered painting he offered to buy it.

"Is it worth as much as 100 or 200 pounds to you?" the brigadier asked. Dick shuffled and muttered a few well, maybes. Then, eyes narrowing, the old warrior said, "Well, then it must be worth 1,000 pounds." Dick, feigning just the right amount of reluctance, forked over the 1,000 pounds and then fled with one of John Herring's finest works. At the June 26 auction, Dick's $2,400 steal easily should go for more than $100,000. As Dick often said of his avocation, "It's all in the knowing." And, apparently, in the maneuvering. Late in the 1960s, alarmed by the number of sporting paintings being spirited off to the U.S. by collectors like Dick, philanthropist Paul Mellon and Movie Director Mike Nichols, British museum directors began to invoke the National Treasures Act, which permits them to claim any painting bought by a foreigner simply by paying him the price of his purchase.

At the time Dick had his eye on what he called the Big Painting, a magnificent study by Stubbs of the Duke of Grafton's gray stallion with mares and foals. He sidestepped the Tate Museum by buying four other paintings he knew it would claim and thereby succeeded in exhausting its purchasing funds. Then he plunked down a record $490,000 for the Big Painting and escaped unmolested.

Now the centerpiece of the Dick collection, the Big Painting is expected to command somewhere between $750,000 and $l million, the highest price ever paid for a work by an English artist.

The apparent moral is seller beware, buyer be knowledgeable. It was Dick's contention that there are so many forgeries that the unwary art speculator would do well to realize that "of the 2,000 known paintings by Corot in the world, 6,000 are hanging in Texas. In other words, the art market is murderers' row."

So, too, Dick eventually discovered, was the cattle business. Soon Black Watch Farms was managing 30,000 head of cattle on 63 sites in 20 states, had private aircraft and fleets of cars, and Dick realized that he had created some kind of monster on the hoof.

It was not the nature of the work that bothered Dick but the ever-increasing volume that took the fun out of gentlemanly farming. Heifers that he once knew by sight and name became inventory numbers. His office was in his home, but for all the time he spent with his wife and two children he could just as well have been in Mozambique.

One of the nation's largest breeders of Arabian horses, with 150 head, Dick was also denied the chance to unwind with an early morning gallop around his spread. Increasingly aware that his desk chair had become his saddle, he finally decided to go down another long, winding trail.

So in 1968 Dick sold his interest in Black Watch Farms for $21.4 million to the Berman Leasing Co., a truck firm looking to diversify, taking most of the sale price in stock. Then, after buying a 40-room mansion on 26 acres in Greenwich and spending $1 million to turn it into a museum for his paintings, Jack R. Dick retired at age 40.

It was not a peaceful retreat. Within three years, Berman (now known as Bermec Corp.) stock fell from a high of 90 to 20. In April 1971 Black Watch went bankrupt and shortly thereafter Bermec announced it was in dire straits because of tight money, changes in the tax laws and misrepresentation by Dick of Black Watch's financial condition. Bermec sued Dick, who countered with his own lawsuit charging the corporation with "gross mismanagement."

In the middle of the flurry of suits and countersuits, Dick was hit with the grand jury indictment. Specifically, he was charged with using falsified financial statements, forged art gallery invoices and securities that did not belong to him as collateral to gain an 5840,000 loan from a New York moneylending firm.

As the case plodded through the courts for more than two years, Dick remained confident of acquittal. "I never borrowed or received 10 cents improperly," he protested, "and I defy anyone to prove that I did."

Meanwhile, back at the mansion that once was the home of New York Yankee Owner Dan Topping, Dick grew restless. He strolled the vaulted marble halls like some latter-day Citizen Kane, his eyes never lingering on the acres of blank walls that once held his paintings.

That is perhaps one reason he put his home, or as the real estate brochure describes it, his "Jacobean estate of rare splendor" with its "newly constructed Chateau wine cellar for 5,000 bottles," its "oak-paneled library with 17th century carved stone mantel" and its "walled courtyard with 75-foot Carrara marble reflecting pool and two-dish fountain" up for sale. The asking price was $4 million furnished, $2.5 million unfurnished. It is still on the market.

As 1974 approached, Dick fussed over the details of the auction of his paintings with the keen attention of a bereft expert turned willing tipster. "If you're going to invest in horses," he said one day, sitting in his study under, sadly, a print of the Big Painting, "you're better off doing it on canvas because those animals don't eat, they don't get sick and they don't fade in the stretch. If you buy a racehorse the odds are something like 1,000 to 1 against ever making any real money from your investment. With a good horse painting, the odds are 99 out of 100 that you will make money.

"Even so," he continued, "you can get taken if you don't know what you're doing. You have to know, for instance, subtle little things, like the way an artist treats a horse in the flank. You have to know the basic rules of style and composition that are peculiar to sporting art, like the fact that a painting of a jockey astride his horse is more valuable than one with him standing with his mount. The same holds true for paintings of hunters wearing red coats vs. those in green. More than patience, it takes a certain passion to acquire that expertise."

Dick himself had no patience for his legal and financial problems. "It's just another page in my life," he said, "and I don't reread pages." Instead, admitting to "an itch to reactivate myself," he began formalizing an innovative franchise venture in the art field that would, he was certain, bring him roaring out of retirement. Sitting at his massive desk, surrounded by stacks of art manuals and firing off telephone calls like a captain on the bridge of his ship, he was the Jack Dick of old.

"Money is round," he mused one late December afternoon. "It rolls in. It rolls out. It rolls back again." Though associates like Sotheby's Hildesley disagreed with his characterization of the art field as "virgin," a kind of Ma and Pa business in formal dress, Dick was irrepressibly on the make.

"Today I feel like a stock on the up tick," he said. "I have bottomed out and I'm on the way up. I'm heading for a peak. I've been known to have the Midas touch. I have walked in the rain without getting wet and there is no reason why I can't do it again. You know why I make money? Because I decide to make money. And right now I have decided on a new goal. I made $1 million by the time I was 20, $20 million at 30, $50 million at 40. Well, now I am going to shoot for $100 million, no, make that $100 million to $200 million, by the time I'm 50. People say with luck I might be able to make it. I know I will!"

Then, leaning back in his chair, basking in the reverie of his anticipated triumphs, Dick added: "If I'm a man with an incredible past, I'm also a man with an incredible future."

On Jan. 6, 1974, while lingering over a second brandy at a private club in Manhattan, Dick complained of a headache and took two Bufferin. While en route home with his wife in their chauffeured limousine, he suddenly grasped his chest and gasped, "Oh, that hurts." Several frantic minutes later Jack R. Dick was pronounced dead on arrival at Greenwich Hospital.

Shortly before his death, while characteristically looking ahead to his "incredible future," Dick paused momentarily—and only momentarily, for regret was not in his makeup—to reflect on the loss of his collection of English sporting paintings. "It was," he confessed, "the greatest achievement of my life."

PHOTOJOHN F. HERRING SR.For sale next month: "The Marquis of Westminster's Launcelot and Maroon in the 1840 St. Leger," by John F. Herring Sr.PHOTOIt was anticipated Ben Marshall's "Alexandre le Pelletier de Molimide" will bring $160,000 when auctioned in the fall of 1975.TWO PHOTOSThe Big Painting of the collection—"The Duke of Grafton's Stallion, Mares and Foals" by George Stubbs—will be the star of the third sale. Its value: $750,000. The same artist's "Huntsman in a Green Coat" (below) is a $250,000 item in the final lot.PHOTOJack Dick, an old master at moneymaking.