The Dr. Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection: A Collector's Story
“I consider the collector as a temporary guardian of artworks. You live with the artwork for awhile, you preserve it, then you pass it on. It doesn’t belong to you forever.”— Dr. Ulrich Fritzsche (interview at Seattle Art Museum, 12 November 2019)
In an interview (Fritzsche 2019) and in his Collector’s Notes (Fritzsche 2018), Dr. Fritzsche recalls that he had no background in porcelain and knew nothing about it before he started collecting. “I had no education in art history. I was involved in medicine.” It all happened by accident in 1974 when he happened upon an antique store in Seattle:
“It was a fluke. We went to Jay Steensma’s antique store on Greenwood Avenue. Jay Steensma was a well known local artist, very eccentric. He had some porcelain pieces in his shop. Among them was a small petit déjeuner with scattered Meissen flowers. It included a cup and saucer and a milk jug. That kind of started it.” Although that set is not represented in this digital collection of slides, that was the beginning of Dr. Fritzsche’s twenty-year odyssey as a collector.
Dr. Fritzsche emphasized that he credits Steensma for inspiring him to become a collector. “It was Jay Steensma who tipped me off….That’s how collecting starts, by getting to know artists.” Stella Fritzsche added, “Jay was very important.”
Later Steensma called on the phone and said: “Dr. Fritzsche, I have a wonderful book on Sèvres porcelain for you.” That turned out to be Svend Eriksen’s Sèvres Porcelain: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor (1968), which Dr. Fritzsche refers to as a “magnificent, scholarly, beautifully illustrated” work that inspired and “set the stage” for Dr. Fritzsche’s serious collecting and research.
From then on, Fritzsche aimed not just to assemble a significant collection of porcelain, but also to learn as much as he could about the subject, and collect a reference library in relation to his pieces: “Assembling a highly specialized and comprehensive library on French soft porcelain — at the end probably one of the largest one of its kind in private hands — now ran parallel to our collecting activities.” Over the years he forged close connections with prominent dealers, collectors, and scholarly experts, such as Winifred Williams, Bernard Dragesco, Rosalind Savill, and Kate Foster (Lady Davson).
In 1984, Kate Foster (Lady Davson) founded the French Porcelain Society, whose website credits Dr. Fritzsche for inspiring its creation: “Inspired by the collector Ulrich Fritzche of Seattle, who organized a first informal dinner, our founder’s goal was to bring together collectors, museum curators, dealers, auction specialists and enthusiasts so they could enjoy each other’s company, share their passion for French porcelain, and promote its study” (French Porcelain Society 2021).
Dr. Fritzsche’s favorite part of collecting was the “hunt” and the “research.” He especially loved “chasing a piece down, owning it for awhile, and finding out everything about it that I could…. Whenever a new piece was acquired I made copious notes, searched for comparable examples in other museum and private collections, and looked for their possible prior appearances in old French, English and American auction catalogues.” Stella Fritzsche added: “Every stone had to be unturned.”
For Stella Fritzsche herself, learning the history of porcelain was the most appealing aspect of collecting: “I loved the history behind everything.” She felt that, of all the different art they collected, “the porcelain was the most fascinating and fun” because it allowed them to meet a variety of interesting people who knew so much about the works. As an example, she remembered their wonderful opportunity to visit the Wallace Collection where they were able to “hear Ros [Dame Rosalind Savill] talk about each piece.” And now when she watches historical movies, she “can actually pick out the Sèvres porcelain pieces in the background in some of the homes” because she learned so much about porcelain when they were collecting.
The Litron Cup (gobelet litron, 1784, slides 58a–c), painted by Charles-Nicolas Dodin, was the first significant piece of Sèvres porcelain that Dr. Fritzsche acquired. As he tells the story:
“My very first piece of important Sèvres porcelain, bought in 1974 for $750 from Joe Watkins Antiques, Vancouver, B.C.; he had acquired it from Mr. Wardlaw, an eccentric Englishman, then living in Vancouver. I had driven up several times to look at the cup and saucer before buying it. I just couldn’t make up my mind about buying such an expensive piece of porcelain (for me anyway at the time). I never regretted it! Subsequently I visited Mr. Wardlaw in his apartment to look at potential further pieces. He was visibly disappointed when I left having bought only the small tea caddy (slide 38)” (Fritzsche 2018).
Read more details about the litron cup style on this page of the exhibit.
The “Three-Legged Teapot (théière à trois pieds, ca. 1750–51, slide 4), now in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM Online Object Collection, no. 99.71), was originally in the collection of Madame Polles, “a well-known Parisian dealer in continental porcelains” with “an extensive private collection of teapots.” As Dr. Fritzsche recounts: “This little Vincennes teapot with gilded flowers is the only one of its kind in its existence. I bought it from Madame Polles in Paris. She was known for her collection of teapots. When I told her I wanted to buy it, she didn’t want to part with it: ‘Oh no, I don’t want to sell it; it’s one of my choice pieces.’ ” After some negotiation, she agreed to give it to him only if he paid in cash. “So I went to the American Express Office to get cash and paid her that way” (Fritzsche 2018; Fritzsche 2019).
Other objects the Fritzsches purchased from Madame Polles include the “Pitcher” (broc ordinaire, n.d., slide 30) and the “Square Openwork Tea Service with Tray and Cup" (déjeuner carré à jour, 1761, slide 27).
This “Sugar Spoon” (cuillière à sucre, 1752–54, slide 2), now in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM Online Object Collection, no. 2005.177), was one of Stella Fritzsche’s favorite pieces. Such spoons were rarely produced, presumably because the handles were deemed fragile; “it could not be anticipated that a thin handle would have a very long life” (Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 275).
This plate from the Prince de Rohan service (assiette, 1771, slide 43) was one of Dr. Fritzsche’s favorite pieces. At the center of the well is the gilded monogram LPR, for Prince Louis de Rohan. Fritzsche recalls that collecting elements from the famous services was one of his primary goals as a collector:
“Initially I wanted to have a piece from every famous porcelain service. I got pretty close to having a plate from most big services, such as the Rohan Service, Asturias Service, Catherine the Great Service, Louis XV…” (Fritzsche 2019).
The “Half Wine Bottle Cooler” (seau à demi-bouteille, n.d., slides 11a, 11b) exemplifies the collector’s challenge: knowing what to buy, when to sell. “Originally, my Seau [wine bottle cooler] had been one of a pair of mismatched Seaux [wine coolers] — judging by their quite different type of decoration — when I bought them around 1974/5 at Sotheby’s, New York. Their different decor might have been one of the reasons, plus my inexperience at the time as a brand new collector, and not knowing what I really had, that not too long afterwards I hand-carried the piece to London and re-sold it at Christie’s. I do recall Hugo Morley Fletcher commenting about its rarity when I brought it in! When I mentioned that I once owned it Didier C. [Cramoisan] was more than astonished that I ever re-sold it in the first place" (Fritzsche 2018). Read more details about types and sizes of wine coolers on this page of the exhibit.
Early on, the Fritzsches chose to document their porcelain pieces by having them photographed by Seattle photographer and actor Ted D’Arms. It is those digitized slides that comprise the Fritzsche Porcelain Collection.
The Fritzsches began selling their collection in the 1990s, and in 2005 they donated their entire library on porcelain (Fritzsche Library on Decorative Arts) to the Seattle Art Museum Bullitt Library. When asked why they began selling the collection, Dr. Fritzsche noted that he considered it a kind of obligation, an essential aspect of the collector's role: “I consider the collector as a temporary guardian of artworks. You live with the artwork for awhile, you preserve it, then you pass it on. It doesn’t belong to you forever.”
References: Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 275; French Porcelain Society 2020; Fritzsche 2018; Fritzsche 2019.