A survey of Ten Latin American collectors

Unsurprisingly, most of these collections strongly represent the art of their own country


Argentina: Jorge and Marion Helft

At the age of forty-eight, Argentinian Jorge Helft retired from cereal exportation and from his post as director of a textile company to dedicate himself to art and culture. Today he is the director of the San Telmo Cultural Foundation, from where he administers the largest collection of works by Jorge Luis Borges—his own property—which is consulted by researchers and specialists from all over the world who study the revolutionary writer and poet. He organises important exhibitions, concerts, and many other activities. Mr Helft, now sixty-three, comes from a family devoted to art. His father was a collector, antiquarian, art historian and a world authority on French goldsmiths’ work. Jorge Helft began with stamps and classical records and by the age of thirty-five was collecting twentieth-century art, with lithographs, prints, and a study by Julio Le Parc.

Mr Helft says, “I have to really like a work and feel that I can live with it.” He is particularly attracted by Argentinian art, with two favourites: “Juanito goes to the city” (1963) by Antonio Berni, and “Homage” (1974) by Leopoldo Maler. Although there is no saying what the final destination of his collection will be, he has three children who enjoy art just as much as he does. His ex-wife Marion, with whom he amassed much of the collection, is a prominent patron of the arts who is behind the current expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires.

Dominica: Isaac Rudman

I just cannot understand how there can be people who are not interested in collecting art. They don’t know what they are missing! For me it is such a pleasure it is almost a vice”, says Isaac Rudman, a Cuban-born Dominican. A numismatist all his life, he now dedicates more time to his collection of pre-Colombian art and to paintings. He believes that he owes his motivation for collecting Latin American art to the fact that his wife Betty is Venezuelan; his daughters are Dominican and North American; one son-in-law is from Panama and another from Colombia.

Mr and Mrs Rudman have over 250 oil paintings, several sketches, and various ceramic pieces. Their favourite work is a painting by Rufino Tamayo, which attracted Rudman’s attention because it had the same name as his recently-deceased mother: “Perla.”

Although Rudman and his wife Betty possess many valuable works in which several museums have expressed an interest, they consider the most outstanding to be “Malembo” (1943) and “The crossed hands” (1951), both by Wifredo Lam, along with a morphology by Matta which is one of the first oil paintings of the Chilean artist. Rudman’s profession does not have any connection to art, being the importation of electric domestic goods, yet it requires him to travel extensively, which means that he can buy for his collection from all over the world. This has refined his taste and given him a sharper eye, but he has also learnt to be on the alert after being conned by a gallery owner in New York, for which he had to resort to legal action.

Miami: Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz

Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz are not seeking fame as collectors of Latin American art: “We don’t like it that our artists are categorised according to their nationality, because art should be seen without limits”, says Rosa. Her collection boast names of star artists such as Lam and Tamayo as well as younger artists who are unknown to the general public; yet all of them make Rosa proud to be able to help launch them, often the works that she acquires will go into a museum instead of her home. Both Mr and Mrs de la Cruz, who have just started using a new space in which to display their collection, agree that art cannot be possessed, but should be contemplated and enjoyed for the moment “like something which has its own life.”

Rosa is the director and treasurer of Cruz Companies, of which her husband is president. Their business distributes Budweiser beer in the State of Florida, and bottled Coca Cola to the islands of Puerto Rico and Saint Martin. Both of them were born in Cuba but now have US citizenship, and are very active in their local community in Miami. Rosa is a member of the acquisitions committee for the Miami Art Museum, the exhibitions committee of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and an honorary trustee of the Contemporary Art Museum of North Miami. In 1997 she received the Alexis de Tocqueville Prize for service to the community, and this year she and her husband will be named honorary members of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Mexico: Andres Blastein

Among the many splendid collections in Mexico is that belonging to Andres Blastein. It includes sublime examples of Mexican modern art, in particular from the 1920s to the 1940s, alongside some noteworthy predecessors to cosmopolitan modernism from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Likewise, there are major pieces of contemporary Mexican art—paintings and sculptures—and also neo-hispanic paintings from the eighteenth century.

Blastein studied painting at the Mexican School of Sculpture, but abandoned his studies to take over the family business. The success that this brought about led Blastein back to art, but as a collector instead of a painter. In a relatively short time (fifteen years), he has acquired outstanding works of art, notable more for their quality than their quantity. His collection unites the whole canon of Mexican modern artists, with the sole exception of Siqueiros. Blastein confesses to having two “sins” in his collection, and they are his preferences for the paintings of María Izquierdo and Alfonso Michel, whom he calls “the alpha and the omega” of his collection, for their clear demarcation of two very creative eras of Mexican art. His favourite work of art, however, is an oil painting by Agustín Lazo called “The little butcher.” This work was on show in the exhibition “Andres Blastein: modern Mexican painting”, at the Museum of Pontevedra in Spain last year. It is extremely likely that Mr Blastein’s collection will end up in a museum. For the moment, however, he continues to pursue the museological criteria of a careful and responsible art lover who studies the dates, formats, characteristics of style and themes that best reveal the true nature of an artist.

Argentina: Eduardo Costantini

Argentinian Eduardo Costantini is an economist who handles investment and real estate. His collection of Latin American art from this century (mainly 1920 to 1940) includes some of the best-known painters in the hemisphere. He bought his first painting at the age of twenty-three, and soon caught the collecting bug. Years later he has a collection which today ranks as exceptional and will soon be kept in the Eduardo Costantini Museum that begins construction in Buenos Aires this year. Mr Costantini says that when he wants to incorporate something new into his collection, he insists on the best—for example from the best period of a painter, chosen because it is top quality. This is demonstrated by the following list of seven of his 130 paintings: “Self portrait with monkey and parrot” by Frida Kahlo, “Manifestation” by Antonio Berni, “Candomblé” by Pedro Figari, “Symmetrical composition in black and white” by Joaquín Torres Garcia, “Fiesta de San Juan” by Cándido Portinari, “Couple” by Xul Solar, and “Abaporu” (“Guarani man eating”) by Tarsila do Amaral. He acquired “Abaporu” at an auction two years ago, where its estimate was only available to interested buyers. Mr Costantini fell in love with the painting, and kept on bidding in order to add it to his collection until he obtained it for $1,432,500. The painting’s theme is appropriate: a culture which unites the tranquillity of a hot climate with the advanced technology of the modern world.

Mexico: Marcos Micha

I believe that people begin to collect with a passion motivated by the need that we have to find harmony, rhythm and design in the objects that surround us, which is really the same as saying that humans seek beauty”, says Marcos Micha, a lawyer and professor of history at the National University of Mexico. Professor Micha, a Mexican of Jewish Sephardic origins, began his collection of contemporary Latin American art (dating from 1910 to the 1980s) twenty years ago. His theory about how to acquire a piece is to submit it to rigorous intellectual scrutiny, which should in turn bring sensuous satisfaction. In this way he has created one of the most important collections in Latin America. Museums in Europe and America constantly ask him to lend works for exhibition. He has already received nine such requests for this year, including one from the new Guggenheim in Bilbao, much to his satisfaction. When asked which of his works he considers the most impressive, Micha says it is a work by Marcel Duchamp, whom he considers the most important artist of the twentieth century. But, he adds, the one which most excites him is his Pablo Picasso “Skull of a lamb” (October 1939).

Venezuela: Leonora and Jimmy Belilty

Although Jimmy Belilty is Venezuelan, his family hails from Melilla, a Spanish province of Africa. He and his wife Leonora began to collect pre-Colombian art in 1982, thanks to their fascination with the indigenous cultures of Latin America which, in their opinion, “still have not received the study that they merit.”

This has proved a motivating force for them to contribute to the conservation of works which constitute part of world heritage. Later, thanks to the success of their textile industry which gave them the means to amass their important collections, the Beliltys began to collect Latin American masters, but changed course to devote themselves to international contemporary art by artists working with the human body.

There is a high proportion of women in their collection: among the best represented are Andrea Zittel, Julia Scher, and Marina Abramovich. Other artists include Bárbaro Rivas, Roberto Obregón, Diana López, Gego, José Gabriel Fernández, Guillermo Kuitka, Kcho, Doris Salcedo, and many others.

When about to acquire a new work of art, Jimmy and Leonora Belilty follow their intuition, allowing them to see the artist in each work. “It is very difficult to be a successful art collector, but at the same time, it is so stimulating for those who enjoy a challenge”, says Belilty. One of the most beloved works in his collection is by José Antonio Hernández-Diez: “San Guinefort”, an embalmed dog inside a transparent box. It is, he adds, the cause of many an anecdote, and few people can resist the temptation to make observations such as “Oh, you really must have loved him...!”

Cuba: Ramón Cernuda

During the 80s, various Cuban exiles in Miami denounced Narcys and Ramón Cernuda for violating the law which prohibits the buying of Cuban goods in the US—Narcys is a citizen, while Ramón has remained a resident Cuban, as he did not want to lose his nationality. Such was the outrage that they provoked that the federal authorities confiscated the whole of his beloved art collection. This harsh blow lead them to denounce the government of the United States before a North American tribunal, where they appealed against the verdict and attempted to get their paintings back. Happily, the tribunal decided in their favour and ruled that art is not subject to the laws of trade embargoes.

Consequently their entire collection was returned, and Cuban art is now allowed to enter the US without restrictions. The Cernuda collection, which was begun twenty-three years ago with two watercolours by Andrés Garcia, bought in Madrid, focuses on Cuban art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with more emphasis on modern art from 1925 to 1960. Neither of the Cernudas has a particular favourite, but they do feel a special relationship with the elusive “San Ignacio de Loyola” by Fidelio Ponce, which slipped through their fingers three times before they finally managed to acquire it.

Ecuador: Oswaldo Guayasamín

Proud of his humble, indigenous roots,Oswaldo Guayasamín is also one of the most important Latin American painters, and certainly the most famous in his native country, Ecuador. Besides his artistic talent, Guayasamín is equally interesting as a collector, of significant pieces of his own work and of other Latin American artists, which he keeps in the Quito Foundation.

Mr Guayasamín owns a valuable collection of pre-Colombian art, with artefacts from the Valdivia culture (4000 BC-2000 BC) to the beginnings and apogee of the Inca culture around 1470. He surrounds himself with colonial art including altarpieces, furniture, sculpture, paintings, goldsmiths’ work and so on, from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and also from the first decade of this century from the Quito School and the Cuzco School. He also possesses a fine collection of paintings by Ecuadorian and foreign artists.

Mr Guayasamín tells how he began to collect at the age of fifteen when his father, who was a farmer, gave him a vase that his tractor had uncovered. This means that he has been collecting for sixty years, a passion which has become a spiritual need. “Ecuadorian art, pre-Colombian as well as contemporary, has been the source of my inspiration”, says Mr Guayasamín, who feels lucky as a collector, because, among other things, he owns a pre-Colombian artefact which is possibly the most important in Latin America. A portrait from the Tolita culture, it represents a human figure and is approximately 2,500 years old.

His favourite piece, however, is a marble carving of two Chinese emperors, a man and a woman, on horseback. He adds, “The most wonderful thing about making a collection, even if it is of buttons, is the emotional value which it acquires by living with the works and loving them.”

Venezuela: Gustavo and Patricia Cisneros

When the Venezuelan couple Patricia and Gustavo Cisneros were visiting the Miró exhibition at the New York Guggenheim they discussed, as usual, which painting they would want to take home with them. Their friend, the dealer Thomas Amman who was with them at the time, said, “Well this one is mine, and it is available.” And so the deal was closed. But very rarely is a work of art so readily available.

The Cisneros’ collection is wide and varied, and it consists of works which represent specific Latin American answers to the problems and styles of international art. More importantly, the Cisneros feel a strong commitment to the young artists who make their work as collectors so much fun. They plan to build their own museum in Caracas to house their Latin American masters of the first half of the century alongside masters of modern art, both from Europe and the Americas. Gustavo is also a keen collector of books and antique maps and has formed a collection of Latin American landscape paintings. Both of them are very interested in the Amazon, and they own over a thousand artefacts produced by twelve ethnic groups of the Venezuelan Amazon and the border tribes between Colombia and Brazil.

Apart from collecting, Gustavo works in the global telecommunications sector “creating bridges of communication and understanding between Latin America and the rest of the world”.

Patricia is an indefatigable promoter of culture and, as trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, created the Patricia Cisneros Travel Fund for Latin America, enabling MoMA curators to travel and learn more about the continent and its artists.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Latin America Focus. Ten collectors'