Collector interview: Alvaro Saieh, fascinated by Old Masters

Inspired by a talk at Christie’s, the collector has amassed 150 works from the 13th to 16th centuries, as well as Modern and contemporary pieces

An extraordinary field of flowers sprang up in the courtyard of Somerset House in London this spring: 10,000 hand-made clay daffodils bloomed on a carpet of lush grass, an installation by the London-based, Chilean-born artist Fernando Casasempere. This month, the work, Out of Sync, 2012, a £600,000 co-production by the CorpArtes foundation and the mining company Antofagasta, goes on show outside the Presidential Palace of La Moneda in Chile’s capital, Santiago (until 31 October). It will then be given a permanent, public home in the deserts near the city of Antofagasta, in the north of the country.

Meanwhile, the wealthy banking family behind the CorpArtes foundation is busy working on plans for an arts centre with a 2,000 sq. m temporary exhibition space and a 900-seat ­theatre to open in Santiago de Chile in 2013. Designed by the Chilean architect Renzo Zecchetto (who also built the Broad Stage theatre in Los Angeles), the centre will be built near the CorpGroup headquarters. The programme is still under wraps, but one thing is certain: the arts centre, to be known as the Centro Cultural CorpBanca, will not bear the Saieh family name. “That would limit it,” says Catalina Saieh. “We just want to fill a gap in Chile, and we want the best people and companies to mount and support the best possible exhibitions and performances.” The exhibition space and theatre, however, will take the family name—the first time it has been attached to any of their institutions.

The head of the family is Alvaro Saieh, 62, an economist and self-made businessman who studied engineering at the University of Chile, followed by a master’s degree and doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago (of which he is also a trustee). One of the so-called “Chicago Boys” (most of whom studied free-market economics under Milton Friedman in the 1970s), he was part of a wave of economists and businesspeople who revolutionised the Chilean economy during the Pinochet years—which, some argue, eventually led to the transition towards democratic government in 1988 (Saieh declares himself “uninterested” in a career in politics).

He started his career working as an academic and adviser in the public sector, including as an adviser to the ministry of housing and public works and to the Chilean Central Bank, while studying and investing (successfully) in the stock market. In 1995, Saieh led the takeover of the Banco de Concepcion, and from this base began expanding his interests: first into the wider banking sector and gradually building an empire that includes media, property, retail businesses and hotels (including the Hyatt brand in Chile). Bloomberg recently estimated that his fortune is worth $2.1bn.

Together with his wife and children, Saieh has also built up collections of Renaissance, Modern and contemporary art, and the family has become a supporter of museums and exhibitions both in Chile and abroad. In 2011, the CorpArtes foundation and the Corpbanca bank co-organised and sponsored an exhibition of Degas sculptures at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago de Chile, and were major lenders to a show celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roberto Matta. In March this year, they sponsored a show of Fernando Botero’s controversial Abu Ghraib paintings at the Museo de la Memoria and a touring exhibition of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s books. The CorpArtes foundation also runs a sculpture garden in Santiago, which features works from the family’s collection that have been donated to the foundation, by artists including Rodin, Dalí, Soto and Matta. “I’d like [to organise] two more ‘dream projects’ in Chile: an exhibition on Henry Moore and another of Renaissance art,” Saieh says.

Alvaro Saieh’s daughter, Catalina, says that the Degas exhibition was the first time she had seen queues outside a museum in Chile. “There is a new cultural fizz in Chile at the moment; people are yearning for art. If you give people the chance to see it, they respond.” She is the director of the International Film Festival in Chile, and is also the vice-president of the CorpArtes foundation, which the family created to fund social projects and art programmes in Chile and abroad. Catelina’s sister Soledad launched Chile’s first contemporary art fair, Ch.ACO (2012 edition, 27 September-1 October), three years ago, helping to develop an art market in the region.

Alvaro Saieh divides his time between Chile and New York, but says he still finds time to spend on his collection. As well as studying art history, he regularly attends art fairs (particularly Tefaf Maastricht) and major exhibitions in London, Paris and New York. “Being in front of a Leonardo for 20 minutes, listening to the comments of one of the best scholars, is paradise for me. It’s one of the enormous privileges you get by being a collector.” He says he tries to take an academic approach to building his collection. “I want to create a picture of what Italian Renaissance art was and what it means today to our cultures.” He says he is currently reading the first volume of 16th-century Italian paintings produced by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Few people, however, are aware of him personally as a collector or patron in Latin America: he avoids public events and rarely gives interviews. “We have chosen to keep a very low profile,” Saieh says, though he is well known in the small circle of wealthy European and American collectors.

He says he was interested in art as a child, but his interest really developed in the mid-1970s, when, aged 24, he was sent by his upper-middle-class family to Washington to improve his English. “I spent almost four months in the National Gallery, looking and studying, painting by painting,” he recalls. “It was a revelatory trip. I didn’t learn much English, but I started to learn a lot about art.”

Saieh soon returned to the US, this time to study at the University of Chicago. On his return to Chile, he started to collect, first buying works by Chilean artists including Correa, Matta and Claudio Bravo, and later, as his fortune grew, works by Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse. “At first, I mainly bought at auction. In time, you start to get offers from dealers and other collectors,” he says.

In 1996, he went to a talk at Christie’s in New York on Old Master paintings. “That captivated me,” he says. “I was buying art mainly on instinct, but I realised it was not the ideal way to collect.

“I thought back to the intensity of the way I studied at university. And I understood that to have the best collection, I needed the best expert as a guide.” He became friends with the late Miklós Boskovits, an eminent art historian of Hungarian origin and a leading expert in Florentine late Medieval and early Renaissance painting (Boskovits died in December last year).

“Together we became a strong team,” Saieh says. “After the first emotional impact of a work, I would send photos and information to Miklós, and he would choose on the basis of historical artistic importance or rarity. Then the work would go to a conservator in Italy, to look at the condition but also for an opinion outside the trade.”

Saieh says he assembled the collection following a historical pattern, from the late 13th to the late 16th centuries, following a thread of masters, their pupils and their apprentices. “I have masterpieces by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli and Fra Angelico and Fra Bartolomeo, Bellini, Andrea del Sarto…” he says. “But instead of owning 60 pieces by the masters, I’ve got 150, including the best works of their pupils. It provides the collection with a broader and more interesting view.”

He says he is a firm believer in “trading up”. “When I buy a painting, I sell another one. It is a question of getting better and better,” he says. “For example, I would like to acquire an Annunciation by Fra Angelico; one with more intensity than the one I have. One with a vertical format. I think the vertical ones, where the angel is painted separately from the Virgin, [have] more tension.”

Saieh opens his collection to scholars and regularly lends to museums. Until May this year, he had four works by Gentile da Fabriano on loan to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and will lend three paintings—The Nativity, 1310-20, by the Master of the Spinola Annunciation, a pupil of Giotto; Triptych with the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and the Ascension of Christ, 1310-15, by Pacino di Buonaguida; and Annunciation and the Nativity, Crucifixion, 1330-35, by Taddeo Gaddi—to its “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance” exhibition (13 November-10 February 2013). Other works, by Puccinelli and Borghese di Piero, are on loan to the Musée d’Avignon, and a work by Masaccio to the Uffizi. He is currently discussing further loans to the Florence museum and to the National Gallery in Washington.

Saieh says that what he is most proud of “is the coherence my collection has achieved. I am fascinated by the Renaissance, the explosion of knowledge that took place. A lot of what we see today and what we admire in the 19th and 20th centuries started then.”

Does he feel he is following in the footsteps of another great banker, Cosimo de’ Medici, using his wealth to set a new standard for the patronage of the arts? “I understand the comparison, but for me, art is not about power, or self-aggrandisement. It can be, but I don’t collect to become more loved or more famous,” he says, adding that his interest in showing the collection is in the spirit of public service.

“Business is a fascinating world, and it is true that it can give you access to art,” he says. “But art transports me to a different dimension and makes me forget about daily endeavours and problems. Paradoxically, art allows my mind to be fresh for business. After a weekend of art, I arrive at meetings with incredible new ideas.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Fascinated by Old Masters'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 238 September 2012