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  • Art sales: collectors open their doors
    02.16.2006 arts.telegraph

    Unusual: Nam June Paik's installation Video Scooter (1994) sits in German collector Harald Falckenberg's study

    Will Bennett on private collections

    One of the great contradictions of the art market is that it simultaneously has a thirst for publicity and an obsession with secrecy. Auctions are a very public form of theatre, while the world's principal art fairs are no slouches when it comes to advertising their wares.

    But once a work of art has been sold, a veil begins to descend. Auction houses often trumpet big prices, yet they rarely reveal details about buyers. Meanwhile, dealers at fairs often refuse to confirm that a sale has taken place, let alone identify their clients. Artworks suddenly move out of sight into the discreet world of anonymous collectors, sometimes vanishing for generations.

    Yet not all buyers want to hide their collections away - as art advisers Susanne van Hagen and Irene Gludowacz discovered when they researched a book called A Passion for Art: Art Collectors and Their Houses, the English edition of which was launched in London last week.

    They approached 60 collectors asking if they and photographer Philippe Chancel could talk to them and take pictures of art in their homes. Some French collectors were nervous because such publicity might bring an unwanted visit from France's tax inspectors, but only a dozen of varying nationalities refused outright. Curiously, not many of those they approached were worried about security.

    This positive response, helped by the fact that van Hagen and Gludowacz knew some of the collectors through their work, left them able to choose. They selected 22 collections, mostly of modern and contemporary works, preferring owners with charisma and a reputation as patrons, and set off on visits covering thousands of miles around Europe and North America.

    The project involved much diplomacy, assuring collectors that they could be trusted. "A lot of personal kindness and charm is needed," says van Hagen. "If they don't like you, they won't do it, so you have to be careful how you handle them."

    Other, less predictable hazards included a parrot owned by Frenchman Pierre Berge, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, which sat in on the interview and repeated in fluent French everything that was said. Berge revealed that he loathes all the Surrealists except Giorgio de Chirico, but likes the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Mark Rothko, and some pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein.

    Although the aim of the book, also published in French and German, is to promote the role of collectors as art patrons, much of its attraction is that it satisfies sheer nosiness. What do collectors who have lavished a fortune on art do with their purchases? Dakis Joannou, the Greek construction millionaire who is one of the world's leading contemporary art collectors, has placed Jeff Koons's 1991 sculpture Bourgeois Bust - Jeff and Ilona in his living room, leading out on to a terrace and swimming pool. The white marble piece contrasts vividly with the blue of the pool, with the Athens hills as a backdrop.

    Harald Falckenberg has Nam June Paik's shambolic installation Video Scooter parked in an otherwise Teutonically tidy study, while his fellow German Inge Rodenstock's drawing room has two Koons porcelain dogs on a table behind the sofa and a Damien Hirst spot painting sharing a wall with Richard Tuttle's Abstraction Tan/White. One of the more startling contrasts is achieved by Christoph Muller, who specialises in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings but displays them in a utilitarian, Bauhaus-style home.

    The one British collector in the book is Frank Cohen, dubbed "the Charles Saatchi of the North", who has always been open about his contemporary art collection. Cohen has Grayson Perry's vase Emotional Landscape on a coffee table in his modernist home outside Manchester, while William Roberts's late-1960s painting Snooker dominates his study. Some of Jean-Michel Basquiat's works can be found in a four-storey house in New York owned by Hubert Neumann, where Untitled (Tyranny) is in a corner opposite a cabinet full of work by contemporary artist Wim Delvoye.

    Gludowacz, van Hagen and Chancel are planning two books looking at collections in America, Japan, Scandinavia and Spain. As the only complaints they have received so far have been from collectors upset at not being included in the first one, they should have no trouble filling them.

    'A Passion for Art: Art Collectors and Their Houses' is published by Thames & Hudson at £36