Interview : Alain Servais

By Herbert Litsenburg

We had the pleasure of speaking with Alain Servais – a notorious and well-known collector who lives and resides in Brussels, Belgium. Everything but naive, Mr. Servais is known for having an outspoken opinion and realistic view on the functioning of the art market. We speak to him about some of the issues still present in the current art world, as well as his journey as a collector.

You’ve mentioned that you feel the art market needs more regulation and that information has to flow more freely. What are some of the pitfalls created by this lack of regulation and flow of information, that you would want to warn a starting collector for?

It is always awkward to be partially quoted. So I need to introduce precisions.

Yes, I believe that the art market urgently needs regulation but I believe it should start by best practices defined and enforced by professional associations. It is therefore self-regulation before potential regulation.
How come that the art market does not enjoy the advantages of best practices like architects, lawyers, writers, real estate agents, etc. in order to sift the wheat from the chaff ?

There are too many dysfunctional and unethical bad practices by a too large « few » in the art market at the moment.

Let us name a few :

– The news agencies are currently reporting another fraud on fake Pollocks but mention that the same fake paintings are presented by multiple different potential buyers. Why are the experts not publicising those fake cases publicly so that vulnerable buyers are not exposed anymore?

– The absence of generally accepted contracts for services provided in the art market leads to cases such as Bouvier vs Rybolovlev (or Lisa Jacobs or Helge Achenbach or Darlene Lutz), cases between « art advisors/dealers » and their clients ; acquisitions of videos without the necessary rights ; disowning of acquisitions by collectors from dealers ; multiple conflicts between galleries and artists like in Dean Levin vs Robert Blumenthal.

– Why are there not the same due diligence standards for money laundering as in other regulated markets?!

You often speak about your love for history of art and the important role this plays in your collection. What is it that attracted you to contemporary art of all movements, which often has a large actual context as opposed to an art historical one.

What art history taught me is that the difference between collecting contemporary art and all previous art is that the contemporary art collector must try to identify the key socio-economico-politico-etc developments happening in his time.

Indeed most of the time it is only the art related to the society it is developed into which history will want to preserve eventually and it is art history developed mostly in musea which teaches me to recognize those potentially « disruptive » works from the rest. It is also important to have enough notions of art history to distinguish the truly original works from the repetition. Approaching art with this additional socio-economic dimension is my kick and interest for contemporary art : understanding not only the art but the world into which it is created.

You’ve mentioned that the brick and stone gallery system is essential to the functioning of the art world. What do you think the rising importance of art fairs and the Internet might do to this?

Again, this is a partial quote. I believe that brick and stone galleries have a future from the fact that art gains enormously from being seen in person (except the increasingly interesting one created to be seen online or on screen).
After biennales and musea, it is in galleries that art looks the best and therefore they will stay. The big ‘but’ is that they [The galleries] urgently need to evolve by adapting to the art market’s evolution from a craft to an industry.

The mega galleries pushed this transition forward in an answer to the huge influx of new unsophisticated money in the art market but the rest of the pack is left in their old ways whining about the lost old time when the market was an individualistic « gentlemen’s club ».

I am happy to see evolutions in the emerging and midsize galleries by an increased collaboration between them like in Condo, Okey Dokey, Internationale in Paris, Ruberta, Good to Talk, etc…

Art fairs cater to the event-driven mentality of many art market participants, particularly the new ones. They are also « time-efficient » in gathering art and people in the same place at the same time. Finally, they are the gallery system answer to the « impulse buying » found at auction houses and trigger a lot of acquisitions under the pressure of « now or never ». Art fairs fullfill a useful function in the art market ecosystem but like many of its sections, it evolves rapidly with the two trends of concentration and specialization materializing themselves more and more clearly.

“To express itself well, Art must be shown in the right context and this is where it attracts me and leads me to decide to preserve it.”

How do you source the artworks and artists you like? Is this through more traditional platforms such as the galleries and word of mouth, or do you employ more modern tools such as the Internet?

For me Art is about ideas, questions to ask, doors to open. To express itself well, Art must be shown in the right context and this is where it attracts me and leads me to decide to preserve it. Therefore it is in the places where art can give me the most context that it inspires me to acquire it : museums, biennales, curated non-profits, etc…

For emerging artists, the discovery will most often happen in galleries which I am becoming an exception in still visiting assiduously.

I am extensively using internet resources to fine tune my selection of institutions or galleries to visit but the physical interaction I have with the art is essential to me. Therefore I am not browsing Instagram (on which I have no account) or other social media and I am not considering acquiring art online except for works I have already experienced in the « flesh ».

“For me Art is about ideas, questions to ask, doors to open.”

What is the most effort you ever went through to get your hands on an artwork?

In the mid-90s at the beginning of my collecting I was trying to acquire works by a British photographer after seeing a retrospective of his work in a museum. His name is John Hilliard. I contacted the now-defunct Paris gallery Durand-Dessert to acquire works but I wanted earlier works rather than recent ones. After a couple of months and multiple of their attempts to sell me only recent works, I took the London phone directory where I identified 3 John Hilliard. I cold called them all and found the artist. He recommended me to visit his last retrospective in Bologna. I flew there on my own and I chose the works I liked in the museum. Then, after visiting him in his studio in London, I acquired the 3 works I had seen in the museum. I still don’t understand why the gallery did not want to help me properly.

If there were no boundaries, what would be the dream addition to your collection?

A few works pop up in my mind:

An el Greco like this one

A Robert Ryman from the 1960’s like this one

A Philip Guston from each of his « periods »

The Wu Tsang video installation i failed to acquire in Berlin a few years ago