Forty-seven works from NZ Secretary of Defence Helene Quilter’s famous art collection go under the hammer next week. She tells Linda Herrick how she came to be a collector and why she is letting go

The Quilter Collection started in Wellington in the early 1990s, when one of the most prolific and prominent collectors of contemporary visual art was the current Secretary of Defence, Helene Quilter.

Over a decade, she acquired one of the most important collections of 1990s art in New Zealand. It includes a large number of works by L. Budd, Bill Hammond, Seraphine Pick and Tony de Lautour, to name a few. Her collection of L. Budd et al works has been described as the most significant in the country.

Quilter was known as a brave collector. As a result she has some of the most important works by many artists, with a huge L. Budd wall hanging and a 3m multi-part Hammond work.

All that night by L Budd.

Then the story shifts to New Plymouth, with Greg Burke taking over the Govett-Brewster Gallery as director and his vision to turn the gallery into a serious centre of contemporary art practice. His genius was to convince some of the leading private collectors at the time to lend their collections to the Govett-Brewster. In 1998, his vision came together when he secured the Quilter Collection, plus those of Wellington art dealer Hamish McKay and theatre and film couple Miranda Harcourt and Stuart Mackenzie. The Quilter Collection has energised the Govett-Brewster for 15 years, but now Quilter has decided to sell it to help her pursue a new collecting focus.


I understand you have worked in the state sector for about 37 years. A keen collector of contemporary New Zealand art does not exactly fit the stereotype of the fusty government bureaucrat. Tell us about how you came to start collecting art. What was the first significant piece you bought?

I came to collecting as soon as I started working and receiving an income. I can't remember a time when I haven't had art around me. Even at school I had prints. The first significant pieces that established the collection were works by Ralph Hotere, Jeffrey Harris and Gretchen Albrecht. From there I moved to Tony Fomison. I first saw Fomison's work at a friend's place and thought it was amazing. For a period after that I only bought Fomisons.

That was Perfect by Ronnie van Hout.

Did you experience art much as a child/school pupil? For instance, was art taught at your high school?

Yes, at school. I went to Baradene College and there was a fabulous art teacher there who was passionate about the New Zealand art scene and artists like McCahon and Woollaston. She used to take her students to Auckland Art Gallery and so I got used to going to galleries and looking at art as a regular practice.

Your collection, which began in the early 90s, has been described as "brave"; what do you think of that perception?

Brave isn't a word I relate to. I was just looking at, thinking about and buying contemporary work. If the word is to be used, it better describes the practice of the artists and their dealers at that time. They were the brave ones.

Following on from that, I'd have to say the word suits a lot of the works; some of them - like the works of L. Budd and Michael Stevenson - are pretty challenging in terms of a domestic context. Why did those works appeal and did you have them in your home?

Yes, I had all these works in my home. L. Budd and Michael Stevenson are both really important New Zealand artists and I loved having their works around me. The only exceptions were the L. Budd Figures 1-12 work and the Bill Hammond Flight Recorder work because they were too big to fit into my apartment. I've only ever seen these hung in galleries.

Looking Like Someone Else by Seraphine Pick.

When you were buying works like the L. Budd series, did you have anyone at home saying, "Oh no. I can't live with that." Or were you getting support? You must have had a strong sense of conviction that these were right for you.

I've never experienced any challenge about any of the works I was buying. It's been the reverse. I was buying L. Budd because she was a seriously important New Zealand artist and I thought her works were profound and beautiful.

When did you start to realise you were a serious collector? And were you committing a good proportion of your salary to the buying?

I've always been a serious collector and the home has always been a showcase for the art.

And yes, it does mean a real and ongoing financial commitment. This came home to me early on when I was setting up a home when, after the mortgage, the choice was art or furnishings and appliances. I chose art.

Were you buying these works because you liked them or because you thought they would make a good investment? Or both?You have to like the work. If you are buying contemporary art in real time, you can't rely on your choices becoming good investments over time. I buy art because I like it and believe in it.

And then New Plymouth and Greg Burke come into the story: what prompted you to lend such a substantial amount of work to the Govett-Brewster? That is a long period to have them out of your home. Did you miss them?

I'd run out of space at home and couldn't house the collection. I knew Greg Burke from Wellington City Gallery days and knew the Govett-Brewster Gallery as a premier supporter of contemporary art. When I heard Greg was going to the Govett-Brewster, it seemed an obvious choice. I didn't want the collection tucked away somewhere; I wanted people to be able to see the works and wanted to continue to support the artists I had collected by lending their works to other public exhibitions and retrospectives. The Govett-Brewster managed all that for me.

I've had the collection on long-term loan to the Govett-Brewster for the good part of two decades and it's been a fantastic association. As an art institution, I think the Govett-Brewster is a national treasure. I'd miss some of the works from time to time. But, you know, collectors go on collecting and so you tend to think about what you're currently acquiring, or wanting to.

Now you have decided to sell them "to help pursue your new collecting focus"; could you tell us about that new focus?

While I've retained about 30 works from the contemporary collection, I'm focusing on two interests. The first is religious art from the 17th and 18th centuries, and the second is a New Zealand artist I've got really interested in. I'd been collecting religious art as a parallel collection for the past 17-18 years, both paintings and sculpture, and I love it. I started with the purchase of a statue of a French 18th century Madonna from a Wellington dealer, then a couple of 16th century French icons, then got hooked.

My second interest is an Auckland artist, Louise Greig. I met Louise as a kindred collector of religious art several years ago when the Spanish art dealer we shared introduced us online. A couple of years ago I discovered she'd started painting and I've been collecting her work ever since. She's passionate about 17th century painting and practice and her work is influenced by the iconography and sense of presence of the art of that time.

Her painting is very focused, beautiful and intense. As a collector, it's very difficult for me to see past what she's doing. Not that I want to.

There are truly "iconic" works in the auction: Tony de Lautour, Bill Hammond's Flight Recorder, Gavin Hipkins, the Seraphine Pick series. Would you hope that some of these would be picked up by a public institution?

All of these artists are important and it would be great to have their work recognised in this way. The artist whose works I'd most love to see purchased by a major institution is L. Budd because I think she hasn't yet assumed her place in the collective consciousness as one of the truly great New Zealand artists of our time.

I'd love to see her get that recognition.



The Quilter Collection, in Webb's Important Paintings and Contemporary Auction

Where and when

: Webb's, 18 Manukau Rd, Epsom, Thursday at 6.30pm; viewings today, 11am-3pm; Mon-Tues, 9am-5.30pm