Fire brings art collector his '15 minutes'

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 25/01/2014
Only ashes and roofing iron remain after a fire destroyed John and Lynda Matthews’ Omata home

TOTAL DESTRUCTION: Only ashes and roofing iron remain after a fire destroyed John and Lynda Matthews’ Omata home and multimillion- dollar art collection on Tuesday.

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As a naked John Matthews battled the flames destroying artworks he spent a lifetime collecting, it was Andy Warhol at the forefront of his mind.

"He said everybody is famous for 15 minutes once in their lives.

"I was standing out there completely naked trying to protect these artworks and I was thinking: well Andy Warhol, here I come, Matthews said.

His efforts against the midnight fire were in vain and in minutes the Omata house he had lived in most of his life and shared with his wife, Lynda, for more than 20 years was gone.

Also gone were between 200 and 300 pieces of art in what is being described as the single biggest loss of significant New Zealand contemporary art ever. Gone in the flames were works by Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Tony Fomison, and Taranaki's Don Driver and Michael Smither.

Also lost were sculptural works by Barry Brickell, Len Castle and Max Gimblett.

The couple escaped with almost nothing except their lives, an old dressing-gown the one thing Lynda Matthews was able to grab.

"What was frightening was I didn't know where John was.

"When the firefighters arrived I thought he was inside.

"So that was a pretty anxious time waiting until I found out where he was," she said.

Inside, everything was burning with such ferocity that windows exploded, steel framing melted, and a car in the garage was left gutted as though by a bomb. Of the house, a brick chimney and twisted roofing iron remain.

"Look at the shapes and colours of it. It's just amazing really," John Matthews said of the collapsed roof. "The fire sounded like a train. This rush of noise. Then, of course, the explosions that went on and on and on. That was the ceramic works and the fire extinguishers and the windows."

Five days after the fire the couple are still grieving for the home they have lost and the art that can never be replaced.

More than anything, they felt they had let the artists down as guardians of their work, John Matthews said. "And the people interested in art. The people that wanted to see it," he said.

Since the fire the couple have received a huge amount of support from friends, artists and even strangers. The loss, they said, was more than just theirs and people's reaction to the fire had been particularly humbling.

They also know the fire could have easily claimed more than their home.

"John and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the smoke detectors.

"I have no doubt we would have been overcome," Lynda Matthews said.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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