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Interview with collector François Pinault: “With art, emotion is vital, while in business it is generally considered suspect”

The billionaire collector granted us a rare audience at his new gallery in Venice

François Pinault is sitting drinking coffee in the café of his new gallery at Punta della Dogana in Venice. Nobody really notices him. He is a small, dapper, unassuming man of 72. He likes it that way, preferring to be a comparative unknown—at least to the wider world. Sipping his drink and interrupted occasionally by his mobile, Pinault, who has been collecting art for more than 40 years, starts to explain his philosophy. He says he owns at least 2,000 works. “That’s double what it was a decade ago,” he says. “Mind you, it’s quality not quantity that is important.”

Pinault prides himself that his passion for art is not fleeting and not driven by voguish fad. “I may like an old master, like Canaletto, who of course painted in Venice, but it is the present and the future which really interest me. We can’t influence the past, so I can’t have conversations with artists from the past. That’s why I like buying contemporary art. It means I can talk to and have a relationship with those artists.”

He collects eclectically—whether Koons, Murakami, Fischli and Weiss, Richter, or Brits such as Hirst, the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread and Richard Hughes, the last a comparative unknown. All are in his new museum at the Punta della Dogana.

The Hughes purchases—he has just bought 10 works—is a typical Pinault approach. “I bought several simply because I liked them.” Though the 35-year old British artist, who works with illusionary sculptures, was a Beck’s Futures Prize nominee and has a few items in the Tate, he is still not widely recognised.

Pinault will take advantage of his business empire, which runs from the auction house Christie’s to Yves St Laurent, and from Vail ski resort in the United States to Château Latour wines, to travel the world to look at art and then buy. “I never consider the artist’s passport. I purchase from all around the world. I was in China recently and South America. I’m interested too in what is coming out of Iran and Iraq though I’ve yet to visit those two countries.”

His main home is in Paris, but about once a fortnight he comes to London, usually on business concerning Christie’s, which he bought 12 years ago. His spare time in the English capital is spent wandering the galleries.

But not the obvious ones around Cork Street; more usually those in the city’s less glamorous, eastern neighbourhoods of Bethnal Green and Hoxton.

The gallery staff there would not even know who he was. “I like to be anonymous,” he says. “Just to wander around. I don’t have spies, as I like to see for myself.”

Pinault began to collect art at about the same time as he was starting his business empire—initially a Breton timber firm that he took over from his father. His early purchases were from the Pont Aven school, such as Paul Sérusier, a friend of Gauguin, and then a Mondrian, which was his first major work.

He sees himself very much as a buyer and not a dealer. When I said that Charles Saatchi is often criticised for being primarily a dealer, who is always buying and selling, rather than being a long-term collector, Pinault, diplomatically, refused to be drawn. “I don’t want to judge Charles Saatchi.”

In fact Pinault, whose son François-Henri, is now the day-to-day chief executive of their main holding company, PPR, very rarely sells. “I did let go of one Mondrian quite recently. A bit sad, but, look, I can’t print money, so I have to sell occasionally. There is a finite pot. But I never sell contemporary art.”

It is contemporary art that enthuses Pinault, and the relationships with those artists that excite him. He cites Koons, Rudolf Stingel, Kristin Baker, the 34 year-old New York pop artist, as well as Fischli and Weiss, as particular friends with whom he likes to chat.

“Occasionally I will commission some works too, but I’m mainly buying.” Of course, Pinault knows full well that if he buys a comparative unknown, their reputation and value will rise.

He was amused that during June when his new Venice gallery opened, some enterprising “unknown” hung a banner opposite the Dogana stating: “Please buy my work Mr Pinault.”

It amused him because it showed enterprise. “In the life of an entrepreneur, taking risks are omnipresent,” he explains. “Except that in the case of art, emotion is vital while in business it is generally considered suspect. An art collector also decides things freely for himself.”

Such a luxury is not usually available for the businessman, beholden to a board and shareholders. When buying art, though, it is his own money and he is a free man. He makes his own choices although he is also advised by the American curator Alison Gingeras, who has been very much involved installing the art at Dogana and, perhaps too, steering Pinault towards younger, not-so-well-known artists.

This adventurous collecting spirit is at odds in many ways with Pinault’s natural conservatism, certainly when it comes to his politics. And, despite having many socialite friends, more so now through his more outgoing son who is married to the actress Salma Hayek, he is not a natural party-goer, preferring a one-to-one chat.

Pinault will, publicly at least, rarely pronounce on rows that inevitably affect both his business life and his art collecting. He and Tom Ford fell out three years after Pinault bought the luxury goods firm Gucci. Ford left, but Pinault will not openly criticise him.

Owning Christie’s has had its ups and downs—the “ups” being the many years of profits from the booming art market from 2002 to 2007, and the “downs” including the massive storm over the commission-fixing with Sotheby’s, which became public in 2000, just two years after Pinault bought Christie’s. More recently there has been the downturn in the auction market because of the recession.

But Pinault puts a brave face on business at Christie’s and the art market. “The hype around the art market and bumper sales has gone. We have had a correction in the market because the hedge fund managers got into trouble. They artificially created a market. In part, the inflation of the art market in recent years was fuelled by what I call the new collectors who considered art primarily as an investment rather than a true passion. Now the real collectors are back.”

Like Pinault? “Yes, the recession can be a good time to buy. There is less speculation now. It is healthier.” But who is talking? The voice of the collector or the boss of Christie’s?

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“With art, emotion is vital, while in business it is generally considered suspect”'