5 things we learnt from Alain Servais on Artspace

The iconoclastic collector talks history, art sharks and why the art world is so turning into the fashion world
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The collector Alain Servais (Photo by Jean Leprini)
The collector Alain Servais (Photo by Jean Leprini)

The Belgian investment banker turned art collector Alain Servais has some pretty unorthodox ideas about the gallery system. In the second part of his How I Collect interview for Artspace, Servais offered some insight into the areas of the art market he currently believes are undervalued, a few of the dysfunctional aspects he sees in the current system, and what he thinks the future holds. Here are just a few of the great quotes that really grabbed our attention!

If you want to know an artist's true value, look to art history “If you know enough about art history—and I am not an art historian by any stretch of the imagination—you can recognize the people who played a significant part in that history, even if they weren’t acknowledged at the time. And these people don’t carry the prices they should—it’s as simple as that.” Servais cites Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Robert Rauschenberg and Gilbert & George as artists who, from an art-historical point of view, were undervalued when he invested.

 

Untitled 424 (2004) by Cindy Sherman
Untitled 424 (2004) by Cindy Sherman

Size matters “With Gucci or Prada, they don’t sell the catwalk pieces, they sell more standard products in the shops, and it is there they make money. With art it’s the same. That means you’re producing a work in the gallery that hardly anyone will be able to buy. It’s funny in terms of pricing, too, because if you think that buying a 10-square-meter painting by Anselm Kiefer is 10 times the price of a one-square-meter Anselm Kiefer, you’re wrong. It will sometimes be cheaper to buy the bigger Kiefer, because the element of size gets in the way at some point. I was interested in a massive installation at Manifesta and the artist came home with me to see how he could maybe adapt it to a 300-square-meter space. I began discussing the price with the artist, and half jokingly I said to him, 'How much would you pay me to take care of this piece?'"

The art world is no longer a playground “With people complaining about flipping and other marginal details today, the key thing to understand is that the world’s contemporary art market grew by 21 times between 2001 and 2008. What does it mean? Before, art was a leisure industry, and the gallerists and collectors were hobbyists. Dealers would characterize their collectors, ‘It’s cool, guys, we know each other, let’s take time to discuss things, no problem.’ To artists they represent, they would say, ‘You’re like my son, I would do anything to develop your career slowly—you could count on me, and I’ll give you money when you go through a difficult time.’ When you get to an $800 million market for contemporary art, suddenly the sharks start getting in the swimming pool. It’s not a playground anymore.”

 

Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer

If something looks like a Picasso run away! “As an art lover, I truly believe that art has a very strong social function, so I want to defend it. And what I’m seeing is that we now have the sharks for good art and the sharks for bad art, and we have the new buyers who are being convinced that after you have your five cars and two houses the thing to do is to buy art. But what they don’t have is the education or the culture, so they buy something that refers to something they know—for instance, that looks like a Picasso. I’m sorry guys, if something looks like a Picasso in 2015, run away! This is the issue with Zombie Formalism—it’s bringing nothing new. Nothing, nothing, nothing! The worst temple of that right now can be found in Hollywood and Los Angeles.” 

The L.A. art scene is by far the worst in the world right now (even if many think it’s in the ascendent) "Without any doubt. We are mixing two things here. Yes, that abstract painting is where the demand is right now, and this demand really is increasing. Ten years ago I was seen as a major client, someone whom dealers would die to invite to dinners and stuff like that. Today I am considered a marginal buyer, because the dealers kind of leave us old-school collectors alone—they know that we do our homework ourselves and that we’re going to come and choose and decide what we want and they’ll ship it and send us the bill and that’s it. They don’t need to work on us and we’ll still be there, so it’s ok—we’re like drug addicts who they know won’t go away. So they focus on new clients, the ones who really like to see James Franco up-close at a dinner at Cipriani, blah blah blah. They don’t know much about art, so you cannot sell them Barbara Kruger with a strong message or a complex work like the old-school collectors buy, but dealers can make tons of money by manipulating them into buying what is ‘hot.’ I find it convergent with the luxury goods industry.”

 

White Snow Dwarf 7 (2010—2011) by Paul McCarthy
White Snow Dwarf 7 (2010—2011) by Paul McCarthy

You can read the full piece here; you can learn more about collecting in our book Collecting Art for Love, Money and More; and for more on Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Robert Rauschenberg and Gilbert & George, browse through our art books here.


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