An adventurous collector

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

An adventurous collector

 

OR an collecting adventurer. Ger Eenens has been traveling and exploring all over the world for the last 35 years. A conversation about life and his passion for art.
 

Mart Engelen: We find ourselves at this extraordinary location in Engadin, Switzerland. What does nature really mean to you?
Ger Eenens: Everything. Nature is most important of all we have on this earth. Modern technique almost makes us forget that we are part of our natural environment. My past has most certainly contributed to my awareness in this respect: I grew up in a medieval setting, in an ancient medieval castle and park, with monumental trees. My father was forester and gamekeeper there. We used to have a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, water was pumped up from the well and we ate game from the forest. We lived a life in harmony with nature and the four seasons. I am grateful that such was my childhood. Being close to nature, you learn to respect it. I’m struck with the fact that nowadays people lack the ability to observe. We used to go out into the fields and forests and learned to pay attention to all those small details of insects, flowers and trees. You need this ability to appreciate art.
ME: You have wandered all over the world as an adventurer. Are there any challenges left for you?
GE: As a child I had access to a magnificent four hundred year old library. I loved reading old travel books, like Gerrit de Veer’s famous itinerary of the 1596 expedition to Nova Zembla. But what used to be a challenge is not so any more. The real challenge now would be for me to go exploring as a modern man, but under old-time conditions, without all the technical possibilities we have at the moment. Today exploration has become a superior form of sport for the adventurous rich for those who hope to gain a sensational fame by triumphing over obstacles reputed as insurmountable. Now you can always phone for help to be rescued and that is why people take great risks. But if you detach yourself from these possibilities you commit to dealing with nature in a very different way. You find yourself in a struggle for survival.
ME: So, basically, by being more cautious you show respect for nature?
GE: Absolutely. Look out of the window at those people taking the ski lift. In their high-tech ski outfits they are transported from a warm hotel room to a heightof 3000 metres before whizzing down in one go, covering 2 to 3 kilometres in a short space of time. But think: if they had to walk up it would take them all day, with temperatures dropping to -25/30 in winter. Many would freeze to death before reaching shelter. Nowadays we completely rely on modern technique.
ME: Now I would like to move on to another major passion of yours: art. When did you start collecting art?
GE: Good question. But it can only be answered by first establishing how to define “art”. People look at art from a multitude of angles. One person’s art is another person’s rubbish. When does a beautiful object, a hand-crafted object maybe, that you found as a child, turn into art? Collecting is in the blood. It is a disease really, a passion. In fact, it is an abnormality. Of course men were born as hunters, so from that should naturally follow: “we start collecting”. Nonsense. It all starts with an interest aroused during your childhood. It’s a personal development; you start with collecting simple objects and then your eye is caught by specific details: beautiful shapes, light, etc. You learn to appreciate those to such an extent that you not only want to enjoy, but to possess. But, to return to my childhood: I grew up in an environment where nature as well as art, were a matter of course. A medieval castle, paintings, architecture, antiquarian books. We used to play in that castle, all authentically furnished and decorated. There were beautiful things to admire. When I was there I always asked to borrow a certain travel book. Thus I developed a passion for books and travelling. When I was 14 I started collecting books myself, followed by drawings and paintings, mainly from the 14th and 15th centuries. Acquiring an object is what gives me most pleasure. In any way whatever, whether by exchange with another collector, buying at an auction, fair, gallery or from private sales. The process leading up to the actual acquisition is what I enjoy most.
ME: How do nature and art relate?
GE: Nature over art, absolutely. Art is, as the word implies, a copy of nature. For most artists inspiration originates from nature, their direct surroundings, flora, fauna, buildings, people, etc. If we go back in time to the caves of Lascaux we see people beginning to draw pictures of what they saw around them, the animals they hunted and objects and phenomena they respected but did not understand for example the moon and the sun. Actually prompted by a lack of knowledge, man as an artist was close to nature. Not knowing frees the way for inspiration and consequently creates myths. This can be clearly observed in primitive art, with objects we would now call modern.
ME: Does all this mean that nature is always a part of the works of art you acquire?
GE: I think nature is always present, either directly or indirectly, in any form of art or art movement. Even the most abstract art can be traced to nature.
ME: Last weekend I read a newspaper article about a large contemporary painting by Damian Hirst, depicting only red, blue and yellow circles. I fail to see how that relates to nature.
GE: Neither do I. Unless you have tears in your eyes and look straight into the sun, which would also make you see red and blue circles. However, it is very clever bringing this on the market and selling it as art. But this is about the art of marketing, rather than about a work of art. Of course that is a form of art in itself.
ME: What is your favourite work of art?
GE: The first thing that pops up in my mind is the polar bear by Pompon at Musée d’Orsay in Paris. How Pompon managed to magically transform a piece of marble into a graciously moving polar bear in his primal strength is extraordinary. Incredibly powerful in all its simplicity.
ME: And a work of art that is part of your collection?
GE: That is difficult. Each work is unique and has its own story. Art is emotion, a chemical reaction between object and beholder. There are many different forms of art. Talking about my own collection: I love every piece, its story, material, quality and rarity and I could not name a favorite.
ME: What kind of art do you collect?
GE: Basically that which catches my eye and I feel attracted to. Primitive art, Asian art, paintings from the 15th century to the present, antiquarian books, tribal art, etc. This is called eclectic, a term I do not particularly like. Some people claim that you can only be considered a serious art collector if you limit yourself to a certain art movement and focus on that alone. I beg to disagree, as do many important collectors nowadays.
ME: Do you consider 17th century Dutch masters to be an investment or merchandise?
GE: Certainly not merchandise, and not an investment either. If your collection is not built with love, passion and knowledge but from an ”investment and profit” point of view, you are bound to go wrong.
ME: Is there a difference between buying art at an auction or at a gallery?
GE: If you buy at an auction you subject yourself to the current fads and fancies. Prices fetched there are not indicative of the artist’s real value. Two envious bidders have been known to cause enormous sums of money to change hands, their greed determining the price. An art dealer could not afford to act like this, most assuredly not in today’s transparent world of art. Researching auction results at, for example, Artnet.com is too simple. That makes it difficult for an art dealer to ask 4 times the purchase price for any piece, unless it was a bargain, which seldom is the case.
ME: What would you advise a beginning collector?
GE: Collect out of love. Buy only what you really like and only after thorough research. Build a network of fellow collectors, museums and art consultants. That is the basis for any good collection.
ME: If we were to go back in time, which artist would you like to meet and what would you ask him/her?
GE: I would like to go back to learn more about an item in my collection. Several objects still need questions answered as to origin and maker. Currently on exhibit in the World Museum in Rotterdam is a statue made in the early Pandya period in India in the 9th century. Made by Jain in Tamil Nadu, it is timeless and cosmic. The material is granite and in terms of shape, size and radiance it is absolutely unique. I would very much like to meet the man who created this statue and ask him where he found the stone and why he made it the way he did.
ME: There was a lot of fuss about a painting by Hans Makart you once bought. Certain experts claimed that it was a copy, the original painting being part of the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Now that its authenticity has been proved, can you tell me more about the course of events?
GE: I wanted to buy a Japanese fusuma. It is important to know that fusumas are often painted on a gilded background. When I went to see the works during the view-day of the auction house, I noticed a painting in a corner. I only saw the gilded background painted over with black trees and plants, as with all fusumas. This painting, almost 5×2 metres, caught my attention. I saw that it was a good painting, not painted like a copy. It was unlined, with a contemporary frame and in good condition. I was convinced it was an authentic work. The auction house people told me the painting was a copy and could be of no interest to me. That made me wonder if I was blind or if, perhaps, they did not know what they were talking about. I felt challenged. In the course of time the painting has been examined by many experts, one a well-known restorer of Makart paintings. They all concluded the work could not be a copy.
ME: Did much time pass before it was accepted as an original?
GE: A year and a half. Because Hans Makart is a Viennese painter I had the experts of Museum Belvedere flown in from Vienna. A comprehensive study of the paintings, also the one in d’Orsay, left them no doubts. In my opinion, the problem was that the auction house only checked the website of the Musée d’Orsay, which mistakenly showed the painting in mirror image.
ME: So you claim their research was not thorough enough?
GE: Yes.
ME: Does this often happen?
GE: I think so, and this creates bargains for the connoisseur.
ME: How do you envisage the future of art?
GE: Collecting is always a journey, never a destination. Art in all its appearances will always exist, as will dealing in art. It fluctuates with the economy. Now we live in a fast, almost virtual world, thinking speed is the standard. However, I think that in the near future we will be back with our feet on the ground. We are going back to basics and learn to appreciate what really matters: Love, quality and respect.
Art as reflection of mankind is timeless and eternal.

 
 

An adventurous collector
 
 
 
 

Right: Emaciated Siddharta Gautama, commissioned by King Rama V, 1853-1910 Thailand.
 

Left: Digambara Jina, Jain early Imperial Pandya style, India 9th century.

Right: Emaciated Siddharta Gautama, commissioned by King Rama V, 1853-1910 Thailand.