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Sydney Morning Herald

Collectors a portrait of philanthropy.

Sydney Morning Herald

June 17, 2004

Collectors a portrait of philanthropy. - James Agapitos & Ray Wilson

Photograph: Logic will prevail ... collectors Ray Wilson, left, and James Agapitos with some of their works. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

A significant collection of Australian surrealist art is about to find a home, writes Steve Meacham.

James Agapitos tells a delicious story against himself. When he began collecting, he was about to buy a Donald Friend work. Then "an acquaintance", an enthusiastic amateur, offered to paint a copy for a fraction of the price.

Being a hard-nosed businessman, Agapitos, agreed. As a result, he says, he deprived himself "of the pleasure of owning an original Donald Friend", and ended up "with a worthless pastiche of no artistic merit".

It was a lesson, the diminutive Agapitos, now 76, never forgot. Which is a great blessing for his adopted country because Agapitos - born in Egypt of Greek parents - is preparing, with Ray Wilson, his partner of 37 years, to donate their collection to the Australian people.

The Agapitos/Wilson Collection of Australian surrealism is worth about $5 million. But in terms of Australian art history, it's invaluable. It includes artists of the stature of Jeffrey Smart, Friend, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Robert Klippel, plus the shy, studious man regarded as our greatest surrealist, James Gleeson - once described by art critic Bruce James as "Dali with dignity".

For the past year, many of the 300-odd works in the Agapitos/Wilson have been touring Australia. But on Saturday they return to Sydney, for an exhibition at the National Trust's SH Ervin Gallery at Observatory Hill (with an invitation-only opening by the Premier, Bob Carr, on Tuesday).

It's a proud moment for a couple who have devoted 15 years turning a private passion into public philanthropy. But now the collection is back "home", they face perhaps their hardest decision. Over drinks and canapes, the ghouls in designer clothes will be pressing them to declare which gallery they will bequeath their collection to.

At their home in Bellevue Hill, Agapitos - a spritely, dapper man - bounds down the steps to open the security gate. Their house a spacious, modern, practical dwelling designed by the minimalist architect Alex Popov. The immediate impression is one of orderliness, fastidiousness. In this temple of the surreal, nothing is out of place.

Their walls are heavy with some of their greatest purchases. Gleeson's stunning self-portrait, Portrait of the Artist as an Evolving Landscape, and his biblically inspired The Sign. Two rare surrealist ceramic sculptures by Boyd. Works by Max Ebert and the South Australian Dusan Marek. Plus a dual portrait of themselves by Salvatore Zofrea, on loan from the Art Gallery of New England.

Did they design their home as a private art gallery? "Of course," says Agapitos, leaving the silver-haired Wilson to fill in the details. "We used to live in a big house in Dover Heights," says the younger man. "It had lots of rooms which we never went into, and lovely views. But what we wanted was an inward-looking house, an open house where we could look at and enjoy the art that became more and more an important part of our ordinary life."

Agapitos, who arrived in Australia in 1952, had begun buying paintings before he met the 20-year-old Wilson in 1967. But, in Wilson's phrase, what they purchased was mere "decor without knowledge". This was rammed home most painfully when they invited Lou Klepac, of the SH Ervin Gallery, to inspect their earlier acquisitions. Agapitos recalls asking Klepac: "So what do you think of my collection?" Klepac replied: "Well, you have the beginnings of a collection."

At first, Agapitos was affronted by Klepac's apparent rudeness, but the dismissive phrase made him ponder on the essential difference between a group of unrelated paintings and a collection. He and Wilson began talking about what sort of collection they should amass. They considered neglected women artists "but most neglected women artists are not that great". Then they thought about collecting artists from the Charm school.

But the direction was sealed in 1990 when they bought "our first real painting" - Gleeson's seminal The Attitude of Lightning Towards a Lady-Mountain (1939). It "was totally different from anything we had seen before". By 1993 - when the National Gallery of Australia mounted Surrealism: Revolution by Night - they were convinced Australian surrealism was a rich, but neglected, stream which required passionate advocates.

By that time, they had become friends with Gleeson. They knew he was a scholarly, reserved man, not given to self-promotion. Nevertheless, they asked him to paint their double portrait, hoping to convince him to enter the Archibald Prize. Gleeson declined, but decided to paint a self-portrait. Agapitos and Wilson went to Gleeson's home in Northbridge to see the work in progress. "It was just a blank canvas with a charcoal outline," Wilson recalls. Yet they thought it so extraordinary they bought it on the spot.

Despite the artist's reluctance, they pressured Gleeson into entering Portrait of the Artist as an Evolving Landscape for the 1994 Archibald. To their chagrin, it didn't win. They felt they'd let Gleeson down. "It was a great disappointment for a man of his age," says Wilson. But, adds Agapitos, future generations will have a chance to decide whether the judges erred: "We're planning to donate it to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. That is where it belongs."

Gleeson, they acknowledge, is one of the twin pillars of their collection, along with Nolan. They own about 100 of Gleeson's works on paper, and "about 30 paintings, the biggest collection of Gleeson oils in the country". He is the only artist whose modern works they collect: the limit of their collection is 1925 to 1955.

So how have they made the money to fund their philanthropy? Agapitos is the financial brain, though he arrived in Australia as a 24-year-old with nothing except "an HSC certificate in Greek which was hardly of any use in Australia, especially in the 1950s". He worked in a factory, bought a grocery shop, then a newsagency, and finally a printing business which allowed him to build a property portfolio.

Their collection, they say, is one of the most important in Australia. "We cannot compare, value-wise, with the collection John Schaeffer put together, or with James Fairfax," admits Agapitos. Nor, for that matter, with the indigenous collection of Janet Holmes a Court. "But it is the uniqueness of our collection which makes it important."

Not that the collection is complete. Agapitos says he was very disappointed when a key surrealist work - Objects in a Landscape (1936) by James Cant - ended up in the National Gallery due to a misunderstanding with a London dealer. And there are a handful of other works which the owners won't sell, despite his pleas to "name your price". They remain convinced key works by Australian surrealists are lying forgotten in attics.

And so we come to that question. Which gallery will inherit their collection? "That decision hasn't been taken yet," says Agapitos. But there are three contenders: Adelaide, because so many surrealists were from South Australia; The National Gallery of Victoria, because "it's the foremost art institution in Australia"; and the Art Gallery of NSW, "because we're Sydney people".

And the winner will be? "I'm sure logic will prevail," says Agapitos, with an enigmatic smile.

Australian Surrealism: The Agapitos/Wilson Collection ran at the SH Ervin Gallery from June 19 to August 8, 2004.

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