Collectors France

In the drawing room

Louis-Antoine Prat on how he has amassed the greatest collection of French drawings, soon to go on show in Australia

Louis-Antoine Prat at home: "I would willingly give up my entire collection to be able to write a few paragraphs as fine as those produced by Proust"

Louis-Antoine Prat, the greatest collector of French drawings, is to unveil all of his 19th-century works in a major exhibition that is set to open in Sydney this month. “David to Cézanne: Drawings from the Prat Collection” will be on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 22 September to 5 December. Selections from Prat’s collection were exhibited in 1990-91 (the National Academy of Design, New York, the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), 1995 (the Louvre), 2004-05 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina) and 2007 (Caixaforum, Barcelona), but the Sydney show will be the first to include all of his 19th-century drawings. Altogether 101 drawings, with insurance values ranging from €10,000 to €3m, are going to Australia.

Before the drawings left France, the novelist-turned-art historian invited us to his Parisian apartment, its walls lined with hundreds of framed works, to talk about his collection and his future plans.

Prat is still actively buying. His most recent major acquisition is Corot’s View of Albano, 1826-27 which he purchased with the help of a friend, the New York dealer/collector John Herring. He started in 1974, when he received a share in the estate of his grandfather, who had owned a villa on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Prat and his wife Véronique discussed “buying a country house”, but instead decided to acquire drawings. A few years earlier the couple had enrolled at the École du Louvre, to take a course in graphic art, focusing on Dürer and German masters, and from then on drawings had become a passion.

Eventually Prat decided to focus on French drawings from the period 1600 to 1900, and to sell off his others. In 1995 he sold all his 20th-century works to buy a single masterpiece, Poussin’s Pluto Abducting Proserpine, dating to the early 1640s. He sold more pieces at Christie’s in 1998, whittling down a collection of 1,000 drawings to 202.

His drawings are all framed and fill almost every space in his long sitting room, a staircase and a smaller upper room. “One of the greatest pleasures of a private art lover is to be able to hang works in harmonious groupings so they can create a dialogue between each other,” Prat said. Much of the rest of the furniture comprises bookshelves, which are filled with monographs on the artists represented.

Prat, who also inherited considerable wealth from his businessman father who died when the collector was six, published five novels between 1965 and 1988, but gave up fiction to devote himself to art history. “Working like a monk,” as he put it, he shut himself away in the Louvre’s print room, eventually compiling, with Pierre Rosenberg, multi-volume catalogues raisonnés on the drawings of Poussin (1994), Watteau (1996) and David (2002).

“I like drawings that tell stories,” Prat says, and often these relate to provenance. For instance, one of his Millets, The Wool Carder, around 1885, belonged to Henry Moore, who had bought it in 1975. It hung in Hoglands, Moore’s home in Perry Green, north of London. Prat suggests that the Millet appealed to Moore because of the figure’s form, with the woman’s dress echoing that of his sculptures. Prat acquired the Millet in 1995 after the sculptor’s daughter, Mary Moore Danowski, sold works through Wildenstein. Prat is also delighted to have a Delacroix once owned by Degas, Bucking Horse, around 1826.

Among Prat’s five Cézannes is Head of Madame Cézanne, 1877-80, which belonged to art historian Kenneth Clark. In 2003 at Christie’s he bought another work once owned by Swiss Cézanne specialist Adrien Chappuis, Bather Going into the Water, 1886-89. Prat’s finest work by the artist is a watercolour of The Large Trees, 1890-1900, which relates to a painting at the National Galleries of Scotland. The watercolour had been clumsily mounted on cardboard, with the discoloured glue making the paper appear darkened. Prat’s conservator successfully removed the glue, restoring the Cézanne to something closer to its original appearance.

Prat buys at auctions and from dealers, and occasionally from flea markets (his wife Véronique likes the drawings hanging at home, but is uninterested in the chase and the process of acquisition). Although it might be assumed that he would be constantly approached by the trade, he says this never happens: “Dealers see me as a bit of a connoisseur, and think I might be a difficult customer. Most of my competitors are much richer, so they get offered things first.” His major rivals for French drawings are the Americans, Leon Black and Ronald Lauder, who are not only extremely wealthy but also collect a very much wider range of art.

When it comes to potential acquisitions, Prat admits that gaps remain, particularly in the late 19th century. He has no Gauguins, Rodins or Toulouse-Lautrecs. He has also missed out on Van Gogh, who in Paris tends to be regarded as part of the “French school”. Prat nearly bought Corner of a Garden in the Place Lamartine, 1888, which ended up going to the private collection of London dealer Thomas Gibson.

Although Prat abandoned fiction for art history, he perhaps still hankers after being a creative writer, rather than being involved in the minutiae of catalogues raisonnés. Prat insists that he would “willingly give up my entire collection to be able to write a few paragraphs as fine as those produced by Proust”.

And what is the long-term future of the collection? Prat, who is 65 and has no children, says that there are only two solutions. The first is the one accepted by Edmond de Goncourt, who wrote in 1897 that he wanted his works of art auctioned off “so that the pleasure I enjoyed in buying each one of them can be inherited by someone who shares my tastes”. The other approach, which is Prat’s, is to eventually give everything away. The recipient will be the Louvre, for the earlier works, and the Musée d’Orsay, for works dating post-1848 (the Orsay does not yet have a print room, so its collection is stored at the Louvre). At the Louvre, the drawings will be filed by artist, so the only thing that will keep Prat’s works “together” will be his collector mark, a small P (see above). In 1995 Prat donated 12 drawings to the Louvre, in which he retains a lifetime interest.

Prat is chargé de mission (scientific advisor) of the Louvre’s department of graphic arts. He teaches one day a week at the École du Louvre, and is vice president of the Société des Amis du Louvre and was until 2008 general secretary of its equivalent at the Musée d’Orsay. Prat is also curating two exhibitions next year: Watteau drawings at the Royal Academy in London (opening March 2011) and “David, Delacroix and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre” at the Morgan Library in New York (September 2011). His wife Véronique is cultural editor of the Le Figaro magazine.

Although many owners like to see their collection rise in value, this in itself means that it becomes increasingly difficult to add items of quality. He has slowed down, and whereas he used to buy a drawing a week, it is now perhaps two a year. As Prat puts it: “The most beautiful things I cannot now afford. But I try to be happy with what I have.”

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's "Fortuna" 1799-1800
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