I have always been an obsessive collector,” admits Jorge Ortiz, 51, heir to Bolivia’s Patiño tin fortune. He began with toy cars at 4 and stamps at 9, turning to art at 21. Over three decades, starting with a Congolese wood sculpture he picked up in a Paris flea market, Ortiz amassed one of the world’s finest private collections of African and Oceanic art.
Last month, however, he had to auction it. In October his daughter Graziella (just now 6) was kidnapped outside the family’s rented Swiss mansion and held for $2 million ransom. (“They were very well informed of the maximum that was possible,” he observes drily.) Ortiz got her back after 11 days and sleepless nights of negotiations, but only on delivering personally the money in $100 U.S. bills. Later one kidnapper was found murdered, another was arrested; just $33,900 was recovered.
Subsequently Ortiz found himself short of cash. He had been spending enormous sums meticulously restoring a sprawling 18th-century estate outside of Geneva as a home for his wife, Catherine, and their four children. The solution was the auction of his beloved primitives at Sotheby’s in London. The 234 items fetched $2.9 million. Heartsick during the auction, Ortiz several times was on the verge of bidding in his treasures, only to be restrained by his wife.
“I have a need for beauty, for the absolute,” he says, explaining his acquisition of art. He insists he never bought as an investment. His emotions were his guide. Someday, he realized, his heirs might have to sell the collection to meet inheritance taxes anyway, but Ortiz could not bear the prospect in his own lifetime.
Tormenting as the auction was, a greater trauma now haunts the Ortiz home. Graziella still believes the kidnappers’ threat that her parents’ lives depend on her continued silence. When her father gently broached the matter, she hugged her mother and pleaded, “Daddy must not try to find out—they will kill him.” “It’s monstrous; she can’t even get relief by talking,” fumes Ortiz, adding that the kidnappers also taught the child about smoking and the intricacies of revolvers. “My daughter’s innocence has been replaced by the look of one who knows blackmail, hatred, money and arms. We hope it will wear off with time, but nobody knows what the final consequences may be.”
A Patiño descendant on his mother’s side, Ortiz has spent only seven months in Bolivia, slightly longer at Harvard and the rest of his life on the Continent. He once had the reputation of a playboy and sportsman, but the latter ended when he broke his back four years ago (he fell 20 feet out of an oak tree he was pruning).
For all his recent tragedies, Ortiz tries to be philosophical—especially about his latest loss. “It’s good to enable museums and other people to have these works,” he sighs. “Art Should live.”