Why Collecting is Like Flying an Airplane, from Globetrotting Art Collector Jean Pigozzi

It’s hard to catch Jean Pigozzi—the Harvard-educated Italian businessman, art collector, and photographer lives between Geneva, New York, and Panama, and at six-foot-four, commands an impressive list of entrepreneurial pursuits. For the globetrotting Pigozzi, it’s all business meets pleasure—he founded a men’s clothing and accessories line when hard-pressed to find a wardrobe that suit his worldly aesthetic; he’s built a research station on a remote island in Panama, “bringing hi-tech to conservation”; and as a collector, in addition to having assembled the world’s largest collection of Contemporary African art, he’s renowned for the playfully-titled Japigozzi Collection—the Pigozzi take on Contemporary Japanese art. On the topic of collecting, Pigozzi is passionate, if not obsessive, and in a chat with Artsy, takes us back to his 20-year-old beginnings as a collector, the chance meeting with Takashi Murakami that drew him to Japanese art, and offers uncensored, unconventional advice on building a collection—not the right way, but the Pigozzi way.

Artsy: We’d love to know how you started collecting.

Jean Pigozzi: I started collecting when I was at Harvard in the early ’70s. On the weekends, I used to always go to New York and look at galleries. So the first thing I collected—I was perhaps 20 years old—was a little drawing by Sol LeWitt, I think it cost 500 dollars or 600 dollars. And then slowly, I built a little collection like a bad dentist from Cincinnati. I had a little drawing by Warhol, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but it made no sense together. Until I met Charles Saatchi, much later. He said: “That’s not the right way to collect; you have to specialize in something.” So then I started collecting. I went to this show about 25 years ago, “Magiciens de la Terre”, which was at [the Centre Georges Pompidou] in Beaubourg in Paris, and they had a bit of things from India and Africa, and America—a bit of everything—and I really focused. I really liked the African art, and I tried to buy whatever they had but it was not for sale. And I hired a guy who was called André Magnin who was the curator for the African part, and we put this collection together over 25 years, which is by far the largest collection of contemporary African art [in the world].

Artsy: What then drew you to Japanese contemporary art?

JP: About four or five years ago, I met [Takashi] Murakami, and he said: “You should come to this thing in Tokyo.” It’s called GEISAI, it’s a biannual Japanese art fair that he puts on every year, where he invites hundreds of young artists, and for one day they rent a little place for about 100 dollars. It’s a space that is about the size of a ping-pong table, and they can show whatever they want. So I went to Tokyo for this, and I saw some very interesting art, so I started collecting Japanese art. Then I went to hundreds of galleries, and all that, so then I started my Japanese collection.

Artsy: Can you tell us more about your Japigozzi collection? Are there particular commonalities between the artists’ work?

JP: It’s mainly very young artists, born after 1980, and now we’ve moved it up and we really only collect art from people who were born after 1985. And the interesting thing is that about 40% are women, which is usually very rare. And it’s every kind, from photography to video to painting to installation—and it’s not manga. Everybody thinks of Japanese art as being manga. I have very, very few mangas. I have abstract, and I have people who do portraits, and people who do weird things of every kind.

And the great thing of the Japanese, you know they’ve got incredible craftsmen that go to school for years and years. Compared to the Chinese, who are not as technical as the Japanese. Some of the Japanese artists I have are incredibly good draftsmen, where the Chinese are a bit more sloppy.

Artsy: So, is there a reason you’ve focused on women artists? As you said, they account for 40% of your collection. Is this something you have done consciously?

JP: No. The women artists, I have no idea, because I don’t know the names of them. Let’s say “Katherine” or “Christina” or “Maria”, I know those are women in America. But in Japan, I don’t know what names are men’s or what names are women’s, so I have no idea when I buy something if it is by a man or a woman. But I asked my curator to find out, and we discovered that about 40% of the artists are women. But I had no idea. There wasn’t any conscious choice whatsoever.

Artsy: Can you tell us about your 2011 exhibition, “JapanCongo,” that combined the work of African and Japanese artists?

JP: In “JapanCongo,” I wanted to do a show where I mixed both African and Japanese artists, and somebody suggested I should speak to Carsten Höller. I went to see him, and I said: “This is what I want to do,” and he said: “You’re mad.” But he said okay.

So he came to my warehouse in Switzerland, and after two hours, he said: “Okay, so let’s do it. Let’s take one country, which is Congo, and one country, which is Japan,” and we created a fabulous show. We did one in Grenoble, and then we did it at the Garage in Moscow, where on one side [Höller] did this weird thing with two very long, curved walls, and [on one side] he put all of the Japanese art, and on the other side he put all of the African art. And if somebody went in the middle of the night and moved some of the Japanese paintings to the African side, and some of the Africans to the Japanese side, you would not know.

Artsy: Do you visit Japan often? How has the Tokyo/Japanese art scene changed since you first started making trips to visit the galleries?

JP: I go about once a year. There are more galleries now. But you know, Japanese galleries are sometimes the size of a college bedroom, and you sit on the floor and they take things out of little closets. So it’s not the same scene—there’s nothing that looks like a Gagosian or Pace Gallery, or let’s say there’s two or three in Tokyo. All the rest are run by really young people, and are little; you have to walk up five floors and go along a corridor, and at the end there’s a little gallery. And they’re spread all over Tokyo, so it’s incredibly difficult to find them. The first time you go there, they don’t understand, they don’t speak English—the foreigners in Japan are called “gaijin”—so they feel weird about selling to you. They don’t understand who you are, so it’s not automatic; it takes a bit of time to get the confidence. But now more and more are going to the Basel art fair. At [Art Basel] I’m sure there will be at least three or four Japanese galleries.

Artsy: As a photographer yourself, how does that influence your approach to collecting, if at all?

JP: I think it helps me a lot because my eye is trained. I’ve been to a million museums, and I’ve been doing it for so long; it really helps you to know a lot about art and to have seen thousands of paintings. I think that’s extremely important, because if someone puts you in an airplane and you drive the airplane, you’re going to crash immediately. So if somebody says: “I’m going to start collecting tomorrow morning” and they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re going to buy a lot of uninteresting stuff that’s overpriced, and that’s stupid. So you definitely have to train. You can’t become a collector overnight—it’s like saying you’re going to be a gourmet chef by reading one book, when you’re going to poison everybody. So really there’s a lot of homework to do before you can start.

Artsy: Do you have any tips for new collectors or aspiring collectors?

JP: I think they should choose an area. I find it completely uninteresting when you go to somebody’s house and they have one Warhol, one Richard Prince, one this, one that. You have to have some kind of a theme. Either you decide you’re going to do women, or you’re going to do paintings about horses, or only paintings that were painted between 1960 and 1967. You have to have some kind of a theme to do a collection. Like you see every stockbroker in New York going up and down Park Avenue, for me it’s completely uninteresting. So you have to do your homework, and decide you like something, and then you do it right.

Artsy: Who are some of your favorite artists to collect right now, or what Japanese artists do you think we should be watching?

JP: I don’t really know because, first of all, I don’t know their names. If you go on my website, you’ll see about two hundred names, but I don’t know the names. I’m interested in very, very young artists, so the prices are between $2,000 and $5,000. I don’t know that any of them are going to be the next Murakami or the next Picasso. I hope so, but I have no idea. I don’t really look at it like that. I buy a lot of them, and some of them, I see new work by them and I keep on buying.

The way I collect is not the right way. If you look at it in a financial way, financially you shouldn’t do it the way I do it. You should buy established artists who are already worth $300,000 or $400,000, and it will go up to, you know, ten million. My artists are worth like $5,000 and it will take 30 years before they will be worth anything. So my approach is not the right financial approach. I’m more interested in building a collection than doing it as a business, so I’m not the right person to ask about a good find.

Artsy: And who really knows what is the right way?

JP: Well, the right way, let’s say if when I had started my African collection—and these numbers are not real numbers—but let’s say it cost me ten million dollars. If 20 years ago today I had bought one Warhol and two Basquiats, they would be worth 50 million dollars now, or more. So I don’t know if my African collection is worth that, I have no idea, but on the other hand, I have a very special collection. Nobody else has it, it’s been really fun, it has been shown in many, many museums, and I’ve really built something I’m very proud of. Would I be very proud of having two Basquiats and a Warhol on my wall like a lot of other people I know? Not really.

Installation shots of Japanese works in Jean Pigozzi’s Geneva residence ©  Jean Pigozzi.

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