By Terry Ingram, on 02-Apr-2020

In 1980 New York antiquities dealer, Leonardo Patterson arrived in Australia with a portfolio of an estimated $2 million of pre-Columbian antiquities. At the time there were generous tax concessions for donation from private individuals to state galleries. He was able to persuade a number of business people to purchase the collection and donate it the NGV. The most desirable piece in the collection was the large stone Mayan Chacmool sculpture with an imputed value of $750,000.

My invitation to Mexico was not entirely without self interest, as Leonardo, the colourful art dealer, artist and film maker, was well aware of rumours being spread around New York about the nature of his operations. The trip reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here is our guide and tent man preparing the boat. Leonardo says we have to move. He has spotted guerrillas - or is it gorillas?

Leonardo Patterson feels uncomfortable in the art-dealing jungle of New York City.

He spends as much time as he can in the real jungle of Mexico and Central America where he finds the banditti, snakes and deadly insects are more friendly.

Leonardo is an American who brought a collection, lately valued at around $3 million, to Australia and sold it to an anonymous group of Australian businessmen who gave it to the National Gallery of Victoria under the taxation incentives scheme. He probably feels more at home in the jungle where he was born.

Patterson, 38, comes from Costa Rica. He maintains an apartment in New York's precious Olympic Towers and operates from a semi- permanent suite in Mexico City's expensive Camino Real Hotel.

Patterson spent nearly two years in hotel suites in the Sydney Hilton and Noahs Melbourne trying to organise the sale of the big collection of Mexican pre-Hispanic art, the first consignments of which began to appear in Australia in 1977 at an exhibition at David Jones' Art Gallery.

The deal raised immediate questions. Why sell in Australia when the centre of the market in pre-Columbian art is New York? How was Mr Patterson able to put together such a collection and offer it when the export of pre-Hispanic art from Mexico is broadly prohibited?

The collection included a number of outstanding pieces, the most desirable being the large stone Mayan Chacmool sculpture valued at about $750,000.

The pre-Columbian market, moreover, while buoyant, lags behind other markets because of concern over the United Nations agreement on the trade in antiquities.

A Spanish language newspaper in Mexico applauded Melbourne's acquisition of the Patterson collection. The Mexican authorities also checked it out to ensure that the national heritage had not been violated.

Mr Patterson insists that he does not take pre-Columbian art out of Mexico. He is offered pieces in New York which have left the country legally and buys them there. But a remarkable amount of energy is lavished on the spot in Mexico to ensure that anything which does leave the country goes in his direction.

If ever a book is written on international art dealers, Mr Patterson may rate a chapter as long as that devoted to Duveen. New York dealers hate his drive and unorthodoxy, are astonished by his success and admit that he may rate even more than a chapter - a whole book in fact.

Patterson recently offered the Financial Review an exclusive insight into his operation partly based on the enthusiasm shown when his first Australian exhibition appeared, out of the blue in 1977 at David Jones' Art Gallery.

He appeared to enjoy speaking to someone with an open mind (indeed a mind that was void as far as knowledge and understanding of pre-Columbian art was concerned).

Despite the inevitably tentative nature of the subsequent review, Mr Patterson was thrilled and an offer of hospitality in Mexico was forthcoming.

My invitation to Mexico was not entirely without self interest, as Leonardo, the colourful art dealer, artist and film maker, was well aware of rumours being spread around New York about the nature of his operations.

"Why, I even heard that I had been credited with a role in the disappearance of Old Master paintings from the San Carlos Museum in Mexico City, even after the paintings had been recovered from an artist who had confessed to taking them," he said. Such is the New York are dealing jungle.

Patterson's trips into his own jungle are seldom taken without compatible company - people who are potentially valuable in terms of influence and, necessarily, physically fit.

In a country noted for manana, he manages to get things done. His good connections range from the porters at hotels and smaller airports whom he tips generously, to museum curators and directors who have come along in his baggage.

One of his aides said that if Leonardo Patterson wanted to see a movie and there was a long queue, he would go up to the first person in the queue and offer to buy him a ticket if that person would let him go ahead.

When obtaining a seat on a flight is ruled off as impossible, Patterson and troupe are not only on the flight, but in the first row, so that they can get off without waiting.

Generally, by the time the flight has landed, he has established his credentials with half the cabin, hiving in, like a hunter, on people who by some mysterious jungle instinct he establishes can provide a mutually valuable association or simply are people of interest.

Patterson himself is a hunter - on the first night of his recent jungle trip, he was out in the early hours with cross-bow but returned (he is never dejected) without any game.

The occasion was the preparation of ground for the filming by an Australian crew of a documentary on the ancient Mayans. Tins of caviar accompanied the most obvious necessities of food and drink which were dropped by the light plane which landed us in a cowfield on a ranch on the Guatemala River, in the corner of Mexico's Chiapas province, the heart of Mayan country.

Patterson's visits are greeted with great enthusiasm by the owners of and workers on the ranch, which is accessible by light plane or through dense jungle mountain track, for he has brought them electricity (a generator) and a pump.

From this base, trips down the river in an inflatable dinghy take us into a land reminiscent of the film Deliverance. The waters are equally treacherous and filled with man-eating fish. One side is Guatemala, the other is Mexico, but there is no immigration control.

From the dense jungle growth on the steep banks of the river a 1,000-metre climb will lead to tombs that have never been opened.

 And perhaps they never will be, for archeologists will never brave this terrain. Nor are official funds ever likely to be forthcoming for excavation.

Time is pressing, and Patterson's pursuit of the ancient Mayan results in a 12-hour trek through the jungle at midnight.  A horse is a luxury, provided for soft-living journalists. Patterson's team of Mayan retainers and a few mules carry the bags.

Patterson rues that he is cheating when he sets up a city-made, snake-proof tent. The Mayans can make shelters from jungle growth in 15 minutes.

The night becomes an exercise in endurance, and I pondered over what was written that had really offended Mr Patterson. The mule train widens and, before long, there is no one behind and no one ahead. I feel lost with a dumb mule that knows its rider has never sat on a horse before and takes all the time in the world.

Crystal mountain streams are at the end of the next 12 hours of a saddle-sore butt. Patterson rings in more locations for his film at a farm which has the luxury of a Jeep capable of taking us on to the point where a light plane will pick up the party, comprising Patterson, his wife, also coincidentally called Terry, who will write the script, myself, and Patterson's 17-year-old son, Mike.

In the middle of the night, after reaching what even by Australian outback standards might only euphemistically be described as a runway, a huge downpour tests out the buoyancy of the inflatable mattresses. But by now Patterson has discovered the perfect old man Mayan for his film, an elder of unknown age, but with a face as expressive as an early piece of Mayan sculpture.

Patterson will be back, he tells the elder, who has the extraordinary name of Nabor Panchovita, the surname being that borne by one of Mexico's greatest hero bandits.

The small, overloaded Cessna swoops high and low on to the not always easily accessible Mayan monuments of Chiapas, and the Yucatan. The pilot is always on time. Patterson has made it worthwhile.

Back in Mexico City, on a regular scheduled flight, Patterson's vivacious and efficient secretary, Kathy Reid has been holding the fort, before flying to New York, on urgent business for Patterson.

He pays well for loyalty and efficiency, and Kathy is there on the ball all the time with a smile, making fast illegal u-turns with great precision to get to the airport on time The Patterson party is always running late.

And it's off to one of the artists whom Patterson idolises, Leonardo Nierman, one of whose sculptures Patterson has donated to the National Gallery of Victoria. There is still time, at 10 pm, to make the three-hour journey to Guernavaca to look at a private collection of pre-Columbian pieces.

Leonardo purrs over the pieces. The purr is infectious, and it is easy to see how Leonardo has charmed many of his customers, people like the Crebbins and the Shaws.

Back to Mexico City in the Waggonair, with its stereo beating out a constant disco beat, Independence Holiday or not, with half of Mexico City leaving for Los Angeles, there's is no problem getting a seat on a flight out the following day.

Patterson tips the porters as if he has no conception of the value of money.

But Patterson has the jungle instinct for survival. It is all thought out ahead. If only a day ahead.

He hopes to bring another exhibition to Australia, exclusively Mayan art this time, and better pieces than last.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Leonardo Patterson

Leonardo Patterson, the NGV and the Moon Goddess, The Australian, 10 February 2018. ABC personality, antiquities collector and former adman, Phillip Adams writes of the occasion in late 1970's  when he was asked by Leonardo Petterson to value his collection of "Pre-Columbian” pieces. (Subscription may be required.)

Infamous Antiquities Dealer Convicted of Smuggling and Forgery, Artnet News, 9 December 2015



About The Author

Terry Ingram inaugurated the weekly Saleroom column for the Australian Financial Review in 1969 and continued writing it for nearly 40 years, contributing over 7,000 articles. His scoops include the Whitlam Government's purchase of Blue Poles in 1973 and repeated fake scandals (from contemporary art to antique silver) and auction finds. He has closely followed the international art, collectors and antique markets to this day. Terry has also written two books on the subjects