Do It Yourself as a Collecting Strategy: Alexander Ivanov
Art critic Aliya Sayakhova interviews Alexander Ivanov, one of the most active Russian art collectors and the owner of the world’s largest collection of Fabergé jewellery in private hands. Mr Ivanov famously acquired a £9-million worth Imperial Fabergé egg at Christie’s in 2007. The Rothschild Egg (see Figure 2) now enhances the display of the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden. This establishment, the first private-owned Russian museum outside Russia, presents Ivanov’s multifaceted collecting interests, which in addition to Fabergé include Pre-Columbian and Ancient Chinese gold, Old Master and Impressionist paintings, Russian icons, as well as vintage cars.
Aliya met Mr Ivanov on one of his regular shopping trips to London.
Mr. Ivanov, when and why did you start collecting art?
I started collecting while I was still studying at Moscow State University. When I was in my third year I launched a business; I was trading in computers and office equipment. At this point there wasn’t much available in the shops so one could make very good money doing what I did. Soon I had some spare money, but this was late 80s, we were at the outset of Gorbachev’s perestroika and there was nothing to buy even if you had money. In the early 1990s I started visiting antique shops looking primarily at fine art. But more and more often I began encountering Fabergé pieces that my gaze would fix on unconsciously. Consciousness arrived some time later - I gradually became interested in Fabergé art, as well as history of the brand, and spent a lot of time in archives studying various documents related to Russian jewellery production.
Do you remember your first acquisition? How did your taste change since then? Is it still being transformed up until today?
My first acquisition was a work by Eugène Verboeckhoven “The Cowhouse”, followed by some other paintings. The Fabergé collection started forming in 1992 when I bought a pelican figure and a picture frame by Fabergé for a very reasonable price. It has since become 35 times more valuable. (Unfortunately I had to part with these objects because my ex-wife has obtained them as a result of divorce proceedings.)
The taste has not changed. What has changed is that today we have more opportunity to buy a variety of things. I now study Chinese art, and have recently acquired a collection of Chinese golden objects from the I-XVIII centuries.
Do you trust art consultants or you prefer to make your choice independently?
Art consultants are simply dealers that have no education, taste or money. So the answer is no, I don’t trust them. I build my collection entirely on my own.
Your collection strikes by its diversity: Russian icons, Pre-Columbian gold, Fabergé... What’s your favourite part of the collection that brings you the foremost satisfaction (aesthetical, intellectual, etc.)?
My favourite part is certainly the Fabergé pieces: because of my long-standing experience in gathering Fabergé, because of my knowledge of the history of the house, because of my work experience as a Fabergé expert in the Russian Ministry of Culture...
Besides that the Fabergé collection I own is absolutely unique.
Do you think that at some point your collection (say of Pre-Columbian gold for example) will be completed and there will be no room to advance it? Would you then move into other collecting domains?
The collection is constantly being updated and this is an infinite process. Pre-Columbian gold is a very particular area of collecting. In order to gain expertise in it I spent a lot of time in the archives, I travelled in South America, I met dealers, I published my own book on Pre-Columbian gold, etc. Now my collection of the gold of Pre-Columbian America is the biggest private collection in the world.
Are there new areas of collecting that you are just starting to discover?
I have recently discovered the ancient art of China. Up until recently I had no idea that jewellery art in Ancient China was so complex and diverse. Unfortunately there are not too many golden pieces preserved until today, however I have already amassed about eighty objects. These include various animal statues, tableware, Buddhist artefacts, etc. Apart from Chinese art, I am also studying Lucien Falize1 - am thinking of putting together a small collection of his oeuvre.
What area is most difficult to collect? Are you motivated by challenge - when every object has to be hunted after?
Collecting art is always difficult. One always faces lack of money, expertise and opportunities. Therefore in order to become a successful collector it is essential to have experience, then knowledge, and of course money.
What about competition with other collectors?
Competition is always present. That’s why the prices for high-quality pieces always remain high. This is particularly true in relation to the Old Masters and Ancient Chinese art. While on the Fabergé market there are not too many top buyers, the competition can still be quite harsh.
Dealers often spread negative rumours about me, but I couldn’t care less. I am a leader on this market.
Who do you consider as your competitor if there are such?
There are a few. It used to be Vekselberg, but he hasn't bought anything in the past few years because of financial difficulties. Before him there was Forbes but due to the crisis his company has sold everything off. Basically I am the only one at the top end of the Fabergé market at the moment.2
Mr Ivanov, how do you communicate with fellow collectors? Are you a member of any collectors' club? Do you like to show your collection to friends and are you interested in what others acquire?
I do communicate with other collectors but very rarely.
History knows many examples when art collectors would also act as dealers (marketing guru Charles Saatchi is one notorious example, art dealer Allan Stone3 is another). Do you make money on art?
I do make money on art. But only when I need money urgently to buy something else. I am not an active dealer. And there are many people who want to buy my objects - so I am doing quite well with “making money on art” process. Everyone knows they can be sure of the quality of art they are buying from me.
Do you collect contemporary art and specifically contemporary Russian art?
I am an artist myself - and that’s my only link with contemporary art. Sometimes I do buy contemporary but only if I really like it. Contemporary art market is a huge financial bubble that can burst any moment.
Most of Russian collectors collect Russian art - where does your interest in Pre-Columbian objects stem from?
I collect Pre-Columbian or Chinese gold in the deference of the arts of these powerful civilisations.
In addition, today there are only about 12,000 Pre-Columbian gold objects in the world, whereas Fabergé has left 120,000 objects, and there are about 40,000 still around, so they are much less rare than Pre-Columbian art. (Figure 6) Chinese jewellery totals about 15,000 objects.
What does Russian government think of you opening the Museum in Baden-Baden, and not in Russia?
The Government and the Duma obviously don’t appreciate it; the Communists in particular. Today the political climate in Russia is very unfavourable; the gap between the rich and the poor is extremely wide. Therefore such projects like a Fabergé Museum can only be carried out abroad. The situation is only getting worse each year, and social tension is gathering momentum.
Do your sons share your passion in collecting?
I have two sons: Anton is 16 and Sergei is 14. They both want to continue my cause. They are planning to read History at the Moscow State University and carry on enriching the collection.
Cover Image: Mr Ivanov and the Silver Rabbit
Figure 2: "The Rothschild Egg", K. Fabergé and M. Perkhin, for Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, 1902.
Figure 3: "The 25th Wedding Anniversary Clock," which was a gift from the extended Romanov family to Czar Alexander III and his wife on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary; K. Fabergé and M Perkhin workshop, 1891. More information here
Figure 4: A detail of Figure 3
Figure 5: "The Buddha," Previously owned by the Onassis family. K. Fabergé and Cartier, late 19th century. More information here.
All images courtesy the Fabergé Museum, Baden-Baden http://www.faberge-museum.de/
1. Lucien Falize (1839-1897) was a French jeweller famous for his Japanese-inspired objects, as well as pieces in the Renaissance Revival style
2. Despite the “financial difficulties” mentioned by Ivanov, Viktor Vekselberg is worth $15.1 billion as of March 2013 (Forbes Profile) and was named richest Russian businessman according to Bloomberg in October 2012. He notoriously acquired nine Imperial Fabergé eggs from the Forbes collection in 2004 (author’s remark).
3. New York expert and dealer in Abstract Expressionism, junk sculpture and realist painting who “was perhaps as well known for amassing art as for selling it” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/18/arts/18stone.html?_r=0