Inside the World of Jean Pigozzi, the Tech Investor with the World’s Largest Collection of Contemporary African Art
“When you’re an obsessive collector, you collect friends, companies, and art,” says Jean Pigozzi, sitting in one of his many art-filled abodes, this time in the South of France. Indeed, Pigozzi knows everyone. And everyone seems to love him. But he’s not interested in fame or fortune. “Art is emotional. A lot people collect for the wrong reasons. I collect because I love these paintings and meeting the artists.”
Even so, the tech investor, photographer, and art collector still is a regular fixture on the social scene, from Art Basel in Miami Beach to the French Riviera. When in the Côte d’Azur, Pigozzi posts up at a manse in Cap d’Antibes—“I hardly move from my house!” says the collector.
Ettore Sottsass personally designed the house, which not only docks Pigozzi’s fabled Amazon Express fishing trawler-cum-party cruiser but also houses prized pieces from his 12,000-piece-strong assemblage of contemporary African art (the largest in the world), including his beloved George Lilanga paintings, which hang above a sofa in the drawing room.
There are a few reasons Pigozzi’s name may ring a bell. At 6 foot 4, the 64-year-old Pigozzi lurches above many of the super-rich whose own names are as bold-faced as their collections of art and other finery. Born to Turinese parents and raised in Paris, Pigozzi was wealthy from the get-go, and he has never made excuses nor apologized for his stature in society. It’s a well-known story, and his privilege is what it is. His father famously manufactured Simca cars, a brand which he then sold to Chrysler, affording Pigozzi the means to invest in order to accrue greater wealth. It also allowed Pigozzi to be “interested in things,” and chase those interests wherever they led him.
That includes friendships with Mick Jagger, Sol LeWitt, and Steve Jobs as well as a notable pursuit of photography, capturing images from the innards of high society. In short, it primed him as one of those rare encyclopedic obsessives, who “never invested” in art. “My main investment is in high-tech companies,” says Pigozzi. “I might have made more money in art, but I didn’t. I remained very focused over the last 25 years on my African art.” A true collector is hard to find.
Why did this overlooked genre hold his fancy? The collective practices that now seem ever so trendy were largely unheard of and mostly dismissed back in 1989 when he fell in love with Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. “Here’s the thing though, when I started collecting African, I thought African art was wood sculptures that you see in the Metropolitan Museum,” he recalls. His process was “completely instinctive. It’s like ‘Oh, I like this guy, I like his work,’ or, ‘No, I don’t like that guy or I don’t like that guy’s old work.’”
The irony is, for such a champion of the region, Pigozzi has still never been to Africa. “I’m a very difficult traveler,” he admits. How, then, is it possible that he was able to learn about and snap up thousands of paintings, photographs, and sculptures by Tommy Motswai, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, and Steve Bandoma?
“It was just a passion. With my curator Andre Magnin, 99.9% of what we bought was from the artists directly—there was nothing organized.” he says, “I’m completely dyslexic so I never read any theory about art, especially what I collect. With contemporary African art, there are no books whatsoever. There might be three people in the world who know a bit more than me, so it’s completely instinctive.”
The collection is mostly housed in Geneva, in a space known as The Contemporary African Art Collection. It is generally regarded as the apex and index of artistic production from the continent, and pieces are regularly loaned out to museums and institutions. “I’ve had many many shows, from the Guggenheim Bilbao to Houston, and now in March Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais in Paris,” he says, “I’ve been lending all over, I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve had!”
Pigozzi lent some 30 drawings by Abu Bakarr Mansaray to Okwui Enwezor for his “All The World’s Futures” thesis show in the Arsenale at this year’s Venice Biennale. And Magnin pulled dozens of pieces from Pigozzi’s holdings—including paintings by Moké and Pierre Bodo—to curate the currently installed show “Beauté Congo” at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.
Shows like “Beauté Congo” and the rise of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, the third edition of which opens during Frieze Week, are but a few of the signs of contemporary African art’s rise. “It took 25 years for people to understand what I was doing with the Africans,” says the collector, “but I think it’s on the verge of exploding. So many people are interested.” To Pigozzi, fairs are unique opportunities: “In three hours, you can see some fabulous art just walking around,” he says fondly. While Art Basel in Miami Beach is still his favorite (“All the parties with your friends and you can walk around in your flip flops and nobody cares what you look like”), places like 1:54 are essential to the collector for learning.
“Sometimes you make discoveries,” at fairs, says the collector. “You won’t see them in museums, you might see them at auctions, but up until now, I haven’t seen anything incredible because there were no great galleries following [African art], only small galleries.” He recalls that 1:54 “asked me to be on some kind of committee but I didn’t want to. I felt like if was on the committee, I couldn’t buy.” Passion and profession are often left best undiluted.
However, Pigozzi is also acutely aware that the art of collecting is changing. “Socially, collecting really helps you. It’s a way to move yourself up. I never cared about that,” he says. Then again, he never needed to. “A lot of hedge-fund guys, the stock market closes at 3:30pm so there’s nothing to trade anymore, so these guys, at 3:31pm, the dealers start calling them and say ‘Oh you know, I have this Warhol, I have this Lichtenstein, I have this Prince, I have this thing…’ so they have something to deal in for another three or four hours. It’s one more commodity they can trade. That did not exist 25 or 30 years ago.”
And while the blue-chip market may be bloated, “I would guess in a year or two, good African art will explode—I hope so.” Not that price has been or will be a motivator behind Pigozzi’s buying. “None of the paintings in my house are worth anything,” he says. “These African paintings in my house, the maximum they’re worth is $100,000.”
Africa isn’t the only region neglected by the market to have caught Pigozzi’s fancy. In the last five years, he has taken an affinity for contemporary Japanese works. “99% of these artists were born after 1985, 40% are women. I find them so talented and so crazy and so different,” he excitedly imparts. “It’s abstract art with weird architecture and weird things. It’s something that people know little about.”
In the short time since he began this collection, Pigozzi has already scouted some 250 artists. Just as with his appetite, his approach with Japanese artists hasn’t wavered. “I go completely by gut,” says Pigozzi. “And I don’t speak to any kind of advisers or curators.” Finding a new batch of market darlings remains far from the collector’s intent. But, he would be keen to see this new passion depart from his with African artists in at least one way: “I hope people take less time to catch on with the Japanese!”