Interviews Homepage

Paulina Kolczynska Conversation with Ernst Beyeler
A Collector’s Advice

(Published by Tema Celeste November –December 2001)

Kara Walker, Endlos Ratsel, 2001. Installation at Foundation Beyeler, 2001. Copyright 2001 ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo by Serge Hasenbohler.

Gallery owner and collector Ernst Beyeler cofounded Basel Contemporary Art Fair and established the Beyeler Foundation in Basel-Riehen.  Initially dealing in prints by Goya and Toulouse-Lautrec, he soon embraced Impressionist drawings and started dealing in works by Klee and Picasso.  Throughout his career Beyeler concentrated on modern and twentieth-century masters.  These now form the basis of his collection of about two hundrd works-which, besides masterpieces by Cezanne, Degas , Monet, and Giacometti, includes primary works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer, and Georg Baselitz-currently housed in the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen.  Since 1945, Gallery Beyeler has operated from its original location.

Paulina KolczynskaWhat would be your advice to today’s collector?

Ernst Beyeler:  It is very difficult to keep a close track on all the movements taking place in the art world. Art production is so wide spread and moves in such diverse directions that, in a number of cases , neither the interpretative means nor expertise has been developed with which to analyze it.  However, despite the vast quantity of material that appears and reappears on the market , collectors in particular should aim to keep up to date by going to galleries and exhibitions and by developing contacts in the art world.  Awareness of the complexity of well-formed judgments is very much part of the development of connoisseurship.  A good collector establishes relationship with a variety of galleries, dealers,  other collectors, and museum curators, as it can be risky to build a collection on the advice of one gallery alone.  Young collectors should look around a lot and follow their instincts.

Paulina Kolczynska: What has guided you most in purchasing art?

Ernst Beyeler:  There have been few works that had such an impact on me that I bought them there and then, but I do rely on my instinct and take note of paintings or sculptures that catch my eye.  Everything that I bought personally moved or impressed me first.  I also make time to listen to the advice of others.  My experience as an art dealer has always influence my collection, but I also continue to listen carefully to the opinions of others and compare them to my own.  The best, and wisest , form of judgment is that gleaned from as many objective opinions as possible.

Paulina Kolczynska: What role do museums have in helping collectors develop their judgment?

Ernst Beyeler:  It is important to retain a critical eye.  People often think that because a work is in a museum’s collection , the artist is necessarily talented or the piece is necessarily good.  Unfortunately, however, because museums are open to a wide variety of art nowadays, the distinction between high-quality works and ones of little merit is blurred.  Museums are not the clear benchmarks they once were. 

Paulina Kolczynska:  As you amassed your collection, how important were the opinions of artists?

Ernst Beyeler:  Without doubt, the opinions of artists were one of the many objective components that helped me form my views on art.  Their perspective was strongly influenced by what stimulated them, by the things that they liked.

Peter Kogler, Untitled, 2000, video projection with 8 projectors, 38.50 x 10.60 x 10.60 m. Sound concept F. Pomassi, computer animation in cooperation with G. Basil, Copyright Peter Kogler. Courtesy Foundation Beyeler.

Paulina Kolczynska: Of what should today’s collector be aware?

Ernst Beyeler:  The major change for the contemporary collector is the pace at which information travels:  Information that previously took years to collate reaches us today as short-lived newsflashes.  The situation is complicated as it’s difficult to find a strong point of reference in contemporary art, whose elusive and frequently immature and underlying message is the result of short-term success and the rapid rise and fall of new artists.  Perhaps the most effective way for collectors to adapt to this situation is by deciding what type of art they are instinctively attracted to before making any purchases.  Another difference nowadays is the way in which people collect.  In the past, especially in Europe,  it was common to buy works of art and keep them for a lifetime.  Today a tendency is to amass a collection within a short space of time, sell it or donate it to charity, and then start a new one.  This reveals a different attitude to collecting, to what accruing a collection means.  It’s a totally a new dynamic.  Today’s collections might shock and amaze, but they lack longevity.

Paulina Kolczynska: What should start-up collectors look for on the modern and twentieth-century markets?

Ernst Beyeler:   It is still possible to buy good-quality prints and original graphics in the more classis fields to form a good foundation collection.  Drawings, on the other hand, are more difficult start-up material because they have escalated enormously in price.  Pieces of true quality are rare and becoming increasingly hard to come by, even for those with the largest of budgets ,  as they are often already in museums or private collections.   It’s important, however, to keep your eyes open at all times.  Ultimately, the objects that you are buying will surround you every day, so buy things you genuinely like, although you should try to be selective.  Following the idea of an investment, three to seven really good pieces will suffice.  Since I have transferred majority of my collection to the foundation, my home contains only  few pieces – a few magnificent pieces – but the effect is wonderful.  Some people I know own one piece by Mark Rothko, yet it forms the central focus of their house, embodying, as it does, their aesthetic  philosophy.  That one work became their collection.  It’s a simple formula but a great one: Less is more.  Only a few spectacular works of art can form a good collection.

Paulina Kolczynska:  What is your opinion on art as an investment?

Ernst Beyeler:  Investing in art is always a risky business if it’s based on rash buys in sudden trends.  Recently banks are making a big effort to embrace art as part of wealth portfolios.  If, we follow proper advice, however, art can be as good an investment as stocks and shares.  It certainly makes an attractive addition to a portfolio in every sense.