Dealers talk about collectors

“A bit mad, but in a nice way”—Jean-Claude Binoche



An interesting exhibition currently at the Musée moderne de la Ville de Paris (see p.20) focuses on France’s private collectors. Wary of publicity (mainly because of the long-held fear of the tax man), they rarely appear in the glossy magazines, unlike their US counterparts. Le Journal des Arts, The Art Newspaper’s sister paper, spoke to some of the dealers and auctioneers who work with them.

Where modern paintings are concerned Manuel Schmit of the Galerie Schmit in Paris says there are “a handful” of collectors. According to the Paris auctioneer François Briest there are “perhaps between 500 and 1,000” people buying contemporary art and following the market and major exhibitions closely within France.

“It’s the collectors that make my profession appealing,” says the Paris auctioneer, Jean-Claude Binoche, a collector of contemporary art himself. “Collecting is their hobby. They’re a bit mad, but in a nice way, and they’re very pleasant to be with”.

According to those in the trade, French collectors (with notable exceptions like Claude Berri, a great lover of American art) also tend to prefer the art of their native land. However, they are increasingly turning more towards foreign artists, a fact which is causing concern to quite a few gallery-owners. Uninterested in other fields, their single-minded passion for contemporary art is very rarely accompanied by an interest in furniture or works of art, for example Marc Blondeau, an advisor and consultant on contemporary art based in Paris, thinks there are three kinds of French collector: those who discover the avant-garde; those who buy almost nothing but French art; and “a handful who are of international level”.

“France is not like the United States, you don’t find any group dynamics there; the collector is very much an individualist and doesn’t stick to one dealer”, he complains, “whereas Germans and Americans are loyal to a gallery, or a group of artists. The Italians are the most interesting collectors in Europe-very imaginative, and receptive to new ideas”.

Mr Blondeau deplores the lack of curiosity in the French. “You always have to lure clients into visiting galleries. They don’t have the curiosity of the Americans, or their spontaneity”.

Even if buyers have been reappearing on the market for about the last two years, a lot of them are still deterred by having had their fingers burnt in the speculation of the Eighties and the 1990 crisis. Getting them to buy, or “unobtrusively leading them into discovering what they would like to have”, as Patrick Bongers, director of the Galerie Louis Carré elegantly phrases it, is very much a matter of personal relations.

In France there are few Saatchis. Paris gallery-owner Michel Durand-Dessert points out that French collections are generally more limited than foreign ones, but often of a high aesthetic quality. And they are eclectic: German private collections in comparison often concentrate on a single artist or a single theme.

“In the United States building up an important collection has a dimension relating to social recognition, or even social commitment”, Michel Durand-Dessert believes. “The underlying psychology is different in France. It has nothing to do with public commitment. The collector is discreet”.

In the opinion of François Briest, “The French collector is someone who goes to earth, often for tax reasons. So you have to dig him out-through major exhibitions, at sales, or through being a buyer and collector yourself”.

According to Andrew Strauss, expert in modern art with Sotheby’s, the great French tradition of collecting has even been lost since the 1960s, while Emmanuel Clavé, a specialist in modern art with Christie’s, believes that there has been “real suspicion of contemporary art” in France since about 1900. According to Mr Clavé there is a small number of exceptional collectors in every generation who want to participate through their interest and financial support in the creativity and intellectual adventure of their time. But most buyers prefer to wait until an artist has gained recognition before investing.

Almost everyone working in the market recognizes the positive role played in France by the former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, in encouraging the creation of contemporary art (through the setting up of the Fonds Regionaux de l’art contemporain, or FRACS as they are known, see p.20) and its purchase. But nowadays those involved are asking for more, especially when it comes to promoting French art abroad. Patrick Bongers complains that, “It cannot be said that the institutions provide any great support for French creative output. The government has to let people know that French creativity exists. Then they should promote it abroad”.

François Tajan strikes the same note. “Most foreign collectors buy very little French art. Attempts to promote it outside France have been somewhat half-hearted”.