photographs by jp moreiras/fauna & flora international
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One morning in 1988, a Wall Street banker named Jorge Luis Gamarci found himself in Midtown with an hour to kill between appointments. An art lover, he decided to stop by the Frick Museum, on Fifth Avenue, whose collection of pre-twentiethth-century masterworks he particularly admired. Gamarci walked among Whistlers and Constables, Goyas, Velazquezes and El Grecos. He studied the strange soft light that fell across Vermeer’s women and blazed in their pearl necklaces. He stared for a long moment into the face of George Romney’s “Lady Hamilton as Nature,” a lovely, naughty face that used to hang opposite the bed of Henry Clay Frick himself.
Gamarci then sat down on a bench to think it all over. He was fast becoming a wealthy man; how should he invest his new millions? “I was imagining how nice it would be to own these paintings and sculptures, these carefully selected pieces of art,” he recalls at his backcountry home, as a painted Andean condor rode a thermal above his shoulder. “Then my thought process went to the next stage: Well, if I owned a collection like this, I would have to spend a considerable amount of money and time and worry protecting it. Insurance, guards. And still I couldn’t be sure, because of fire and other dangers. What a headache it could be! So that day I came to the conclusion that it would be better for me to invest in masterpieces of nature, if I could find them.”
Gamarci traveled widely on business, and everywhere he went he considered the real estate prospects. “I’ve seen not all, but most of the world,” he says. “There are very few places left where you have these masterpieces of nature that exist in a pristine state.” His thoughts kept returning to Argentine Patagonia, as if he had secretly known (not unlike the early collectors of Cézanne or van Gogh) that the world had somehow failed to really notice the wild, wind-scoured beauty of the land near the tip of the inhabited world. Gamarci had been to Patagonia only once, as a young man, and then only to its more settled northern reaches. But by 1989 his imagination was drawing him deeper and deeper into the territory. One day in Buenos Aires, while leafing through a local newspaper, he chanced upon an advertisement for an estancia, or huge ranch, in the remote wilderness of Santa Cruz Province in southern Patagonia. The estancia stood way out in no-man’s-land, not terribly far from the Magellan Strait and Tierra del Fuego, the continental horn.
Gamarci flew there immediately. “The place matched exactly what I had in my imagination,” he says, “which is strange, because I really knew very little about it. You must realize this land was very, very, very remote, especially in those years.” He promptly bought the estancia, and for three or four years, continued its sheep-farming operation, lustily taking part in the shearing and bailing of wool when not engaged in international banking. (Late nineteenth-century Welsh immigrants made sheep farming the signature Patagonian industry.) Meanwhile Gamarci’s awareness of his estancia’s extraordinary natural features steadily grew and caused him to rethink his sheep-farming role. His conclusion: He would henceforth be the steward of a vast nature preserve. He sold the 16,000 head of sheep to better allow the wildlife and its habitat to flourish.
Since then, Gamarci has bought and converted two more estancias, bringing his total land holdings to more than 200,000 acres, collectively known as La Querencia, roughly meaning homestead or “spot to which the bull returns.” (Now that the three former sheep farms are wilderness, La Querencia’s handful of employees live on a single centrally located ranch, powered by a Mercedes Benz generator.) It’s not really quantity that matters to Gamarci. As with the artworks at the Frick, he is interested in those qualities that defy easy explanation and awe the spirit. His estancias, front on Lago Argentino, the biggest lake in the country, though so isolated that white people didn’t stumble upon it until 1873. They also sit in the shadow of the Andes mountain range, from which volcanoes rise and glaciers creep down, shedding icebergs that drift past the windows of Gamarci’s lakefront ranch house.
“I remember the first time I went down there, in the eighties, when I was still in high school,” says Jorge’s son, George Lee Gamarci. “I was wondering what on earth my father had got himself into — this land was really at the end of the Earth. We arrived at night, and I couldn’t see much. But the next morning I woke up and saw the gorgeous mountains and the intense blue lake, and I thought, My God, this is paradise. And all of my concerns about my father’s sanity in buying this land went away. Now it’s such a special place for us. We’ve seen just in our lifetime how fast these unspoiled regions are disappearing.”