Collectors Eye: Christen Sveaas

The Norwegian collector tells us what he has bought and why

Christen Sveaas. Photo: Ørn Borgen

Christen Sveaas. Photo: Ørn Borgen

Deep in the Norwegian forests, 80 miles north of Oslo, flows the Randselva river. Connecting its banks is a glistening silver structure which could be lifted from a science-fiction film.

The Twist, as Christen Sveaas calls it, is both a bridge and an exhibition space, clad in glass, aluminium and treated pine. From the outside, it looks like a beautiful alien spacecraft; within, it is home to some of the Norwegian businessman’s personal collection of more than 1,700 works—from Edvard Munch to Howard Hodgkin to Keith Haring to Yayoi Kusama.

The Twist is the centrepiece of the Kistefos Museum, the sculpture park Sveaas originally founded in 1996—a 17.6-hectare Scandinavian oasis of pine and birch dotted with sculptures by artists including Ilya Kabakov, Anish Kapoor and Tony Cragg.

Sveaas began collecting stamps at the age of ten. By his teens, he was selling antique Norwegian coins to small-time collectors across Europe. Today, his company, Kistefos AS, invests in ventures across new technologies, shipping, telecoms, real estate and consumer credit, with turnover in recent years exceeding €1bn.

But you need not travel into the Norwegian forests to see Sveaas’s collection. In August of this year, The Whitechapel Gallery opened a curated exhibition of Sveass’s 19th- and 20th-century Norwegian paintings called This is the Night Mail, which runs until January 2022. This is the first of four exhibitions The Whitechapel Gallery will show from the collection.

The Art Newspaper:What was the first work you bought?

Christen Sveaas: A small oil painting by the Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg, Sittpå, Maridalen, from 1925.

What is your most recent buy?

I recently bought a six-panel folding screen by the American artist Hernan Bas. His expressionist and figurative paintings have been a great discovery.

Where do you keep your works?

They are installed in my home, at my hunting lodge, in our Oslo offices, at the Kistefos Museum and in various institutions around the world through an active loan policy.

If your house was on fire, which work would you save?

I would save Martin Kippenberger’s Ohne Titel (Hälfte Skelett) from 1988, a self-portrait as half human, half skeleton which has been with me for a long time.

If money were no object, what would be your dream purchase?

A fabulous bronze sculpture by Brancusi.

What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?

I have exhibited works at my grandfather’s wood-pulp mill from 1889, at Kistefos, and at my two-star Michelin Oslo restaurant, Bagatelle, where all the walls are filled with art, much to the joy of customers.

Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Yayoi Kusama, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, Howard Hodgkin, Martin Kippenberger, Amedeo Modigliani, Carol Bove, Marina Abramovic, Ida Ekblad and Tony Cragg.

What’s the best collecting advice you have been given?

What I have learned is to trust my instinct, soul and eyes—but not my ears. Identify one or two galleries and absorb what you learn from them. My advice to young collectors would be to buy something that brings you pleasure and mystery to look at.

Which work do you regret not buying when you had the chance?

Oh, there are so many I regret not buying. But, unfortunately, funds are not unlimited.

If you could take one work from your collection into quarantine for company, what would you choose?

I never get tired of looking at Harald Sohlberg’s Andante from 1908, nor Edvard Munch’s Night in Saint Cloud (1893). I wouldn’t mind being in quarantine with some of Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, like Interior Grosvenor Square from 1971-74.

What have you missed most during lockdown?

I have missed experiencing art in real life, and meeting with artists, gallerists and the art society.