Petr Aven: "I have spent well over $1 million on Russian contemporary art"


Kandinsky and Chagall, Goncharova and Larionov, Konchalovsky and Petrov-Vodkin, Serov and Korovin, Lentulov and Sudeikin, Serebryakova and Annenkov, Drevin and Udaltsova. This is just a selection of the famous Russian artists whose works Petr Aven (Pyotr Aven) has in his collection. The chairman of the board of directors of Alfa-Bank, number 24 on the Russian Forbes list of the country’s richest businesspeople in 2017, philanthropist and long-time football fan has managed to put together a truly impressive collection, ranging from the miriskusniki painters to the Knave of Diamonds group.

Works from the collection have been included in many museum exhibitions, including the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, London's Tate and Royal Academy, Vienna's Belvedere and New York's MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).

Petr Aven (Pyotr Aven) spoke to ARTANDHOUSES about his dream of opening a private museum, his diverse collections, his personal collection of contemporary Russian art and the issues facing Russian artists around the world.

Your famous collection of paintings and prints is well known, it's catalogued, and you don't hide your acquisitions. But what did you collect as a child?

I collected stamps for many years, then model cars and aeroplanes. I used to glue them together and hang them on the wall. But the most serious hobby was stamps from different countries related to sports.

Have these collections survived?

No, when I left school I sold all three.

Some collectors change their passions and their collections after a long period of collecting. Were you ever tempted to sell everything and start again?

No, as an adult I never had that temptation.
What do you think about the current state of the art market? Are there often works that you personally find interesting?

There is almost nothing interesting for me anymore. There was a huge redistribution of the market that came with the change in the social order at the beginning of the 1990s. A lot of people moved up the social ladder, a lot of people sold paintings, and a lot of things flooded the market. There was also a kind of reassessment of values, and what seemed unimportant became important and expensive, which also drove sales. So if you compare that with the situation in the 1990s – and I'm talking about Russian art, the kind I collect – there are far fewer sales now. Very important, first-class pieces hardly ever show up.

When you decide to buy a work, are you guided by your head or your heart?

I'm guided by what I like – that's the first thing. Because I built a systematic museum collection from the beginning, I always knew what I needed. I filled in gap after gap, trying to collect the best of each artist in the genres in which they worked. In other words, I was guided on the one hand by a systemic approach and on the other by my own senses. That has always been paramount. And in terms of price and provenance, I certainly consulted professionals. I tried to buy only the best in each genre: portraits, still lifes and so on. And if I had a still life by a certain artist, for example, and they offered a better one, then of course I would buy it. Sometimes I bought works that I simply liked. There are a few Korovins hanging behind you – quite a lot – but I couldn’t let them go. Overall, I tried to make sure that each artist was represented by at least one work from each genre.

You don't have any Malevich?

Malevich is not my kind of artist. He's avant-garde and I don't collect avant-garde works. I would have bought a figurative Malevich, something very early or late, but the pieces on offer were unreasonably expensive. I had the opportunity to buy a 'suprematist' Malevich, but that's not my thing.
Do you still collect Soviet porcelain. Any new pieces after the catalogues of this collection were published?

Not really. I stopped buying pieces systematically – trying to fill certain niches – but there are still a few outstanding items that I know the whereabouts of, and which I would buy. I’m talking about a handful of specific items. For example, I was recently offered a signed plate by Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, and I bought it of course, as it’s a tremendous rarity. Similarly, I am currently talking to the owner of one Chekhonin dish, and if he sells it I will certainly buy it.

Is it still possible to add to your collection of Vrubel's majolica? Are these things still on the market?

I haven't come across any recently. In the last two or three years, I have not been offered a single thing by Vrubel, but if I had been I would have bought it. Someone probably has them, but I haven't had any offers so far.

You have many collections. Do they require some kind of storage? Or do you keep everything hanging in different houses?

I have everything in different places, and different collections in different houses. Paintings are on the walls everywhere, and porcelain is in cupboards, but it's all on display. There is no special storage.

Do you find it easy to part with your works, giving them to museums for exhibition?

Now it’s easy. A collection should be seen. That's why I’m happy to give my pieces to good exhibitions. There's an empty space above you, and usually there's a Serebryakova (Portrait of N.G. Chulkova) hanging there. It’s currently on show at the Tretyakov Gallery. It's easier now with insurance and shipping, and even our museums have become adept at this. My items are requested all over the world in huge quantities. It used to be very difficult for me, but now I have learnt to live with empty spaces on the walls.

What is the most expensive piece in your collections?

A sculpture by Henry Moore, located in England.
What will happen to your collections in the future? You recently mentioned that you are planning to open a private museum in Riga. Will all the collections go there?

Yes, of course, I want to open a private museum and I think about it a lot. The problem is where to build it. I think it makes no sense to do this in Moscow, because there is already the Tretyakov, and my collection overlaps with it but is certainly inferior in terms of the quality of the works it contains.

I'm not particularly keen on doing it in London because I don't think it would be very interesting for the British public as a permanent museum. I'm not sure they would visit it. So now I'm just deciding where to do it, because I haven't lived in any other city. In Riga I have the largest collection of Latvian ceramics and porcelain in the world. I also have the largest collection of Drevin and Udaltsova. Drevin is actually the greatest Latvian artist. That's the museum I'll probably do there, that’s what I'm thinking about. From that point of view Riga seems like an obvious choice but, you know, the museums and galleries in Riga are empty, and the city has not yet become an art centre. I recently received a letter from a well-known gallery owner who recommended that I open my museum in Berlin, where there is traditionally a strong Russian presence and interest in our art. It would probably be more popular in Berlin than in Riga, but I haven't spent any time there and I have no connection with Berlin.

So you haven't decided yet?

Yes, it is quite possible that my children will deal with it. My daughter is very familiar with the collection. My son isn’t interested, but my daughter is.

In 2014, Forbes Magazine estimated the value of your collection at $500 million. Do you agree with that estimate, and has the value changed in the last three years?

Prices have been stable recently. Russian art is practically unchanged in terms of price. Of course I have bought some things, including expensive ones, but overall the value of the collection has remained the same, I think. I bought two Chagalls (Red Houses in 2015 and an early work from 1911 in 2016), but I don't think that changed the value of the collection very much.
Do you ever sell anything from your collection?

No, I never sell. I only buy.

Did you know that your words on contemporary Russian art at a private party sparked a heated discussion on Facebook? Vladimir Dubossarsky addressed you in a video message on the Forbes website. What exactly did you say then?

Yes, I am aware of this. I know Vladimir Dubossarsky well and I will respond to him through Forbes. I have arranged this with Nikolay Uskov and will meet him next week. There are some things in his message that are fair and some that are completely unfair. And unfortunately the level of discussion on Facebook is on a par with almost all discussions on our internet – not very inspiring. But Vladimir Dubossarsky is a good artist and a wonderful person, and I will definitely respond to him.

Are you interested in contemporary art? Do you own works by modern artists? Whose work do you like the most?

I'm certainly interested in contemporary art, and I don't rule out the possibility of starting to collect it, but not Russian art. I have a lot of Russian contemporary art. Vladimir says that for a million dollars you can put together a brilliant collection, but I have spent considerably more than a million dollars on Russian contemporary art. I have a house full of Russian contemporary art, where you’ll find Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, Koshlyakov, Osmolovsky, Kulik, Faibisovich, Gutov, Zvezdochetov, Grisha Bruskin, Kosolapov, Sokov and Bratkov – I have all the big names there. But it just so happens that it hasn't become major contemporary art. I bought it fifteen years ago, hoping that it would eventually become part of the international conversation, but that hasn't happened.

I like contemporary art and I follow it closely, but in the last 15 to 20 years, for some reason, German artists and American artists of the same age and even younger have become big names, while none of these artists have. You can blame me for that, of course, but you have to agree that it’s ridiculous.
And Kabakov and Bulatov? They are world-class Russian stars.

Only Kabakov. Nobody became a star except Kabakov. Only he was able to transcend the Soviet reality. Personally, I like Bulatov very much and for me he is a great artist. Just like Grisha Bruskin, my comrade and a wonderful artist. But for various reasons – I don't want to talk about them now – they didn't become global names. And they're not going to become world-famous. I’m not very interested in remaining within the framework of a national project, because even in the banking business we are striving to become an international group. I may collect some contemporary art, but not Russian art.

But you haven't started building this collection yet?

Not yet, because it takes time. You have to be involved and you have to immerse yourself. Out of those living today, I really like Gerhard Richter, I think he is an absolutely brilliant artist. I like David Hockney very much. I like a lot of living artists... It's a new story, and maybe I'll start it. But you've got to build a new house! Everything has to hang, I don't like it lying around in corners.

Yes, contemporary art takes up a lot of space.

I have a lot of modern park sculptures in England, all in the garden where there was space for them. There's still some room, so I'm definitely going to buy something else.
Do you see contemporary western art as a dominant force?

It's not me, it's the market. The prices of western artists and ours are not comparable! A Koons is worth $35 million and our best sculptors charge a $100,000 for their work. What is there to talk about? You can have all sorts of attitudes to price estimates, but they generally reflect the level and quality of the work in one way or another. Our artists are very nice, with a good education and good work, but something didn't work out.

It is rather unexpected to discover that you have a significant collection of contemporary Russian art. True, many artists have told me that you bought works from them, but I had the impression that these were one-off, spontaneous purchases. Do you have any plans to catalogue this collection?

No, I have no plans to do that. Don't get the idea that I'm bragging, but I only catalogue something when I'm sure I'm making a contribution to global art culture. That's why all my catalogues are in two languages: Russian and English. I've published three huge volumes on Soviet porcelain, which represents the most complete edition on the subject, and it's also aimed at a western audience, because for them it's a complete revelation. As is the catalogue of paintings, also in English. Now there will be a catalogue in English of majolica by Vrubel, a brilliant Russian artist whom nobody in the world really knows. But unfortunately the catalogue of Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, Koshlyakov and Gutov and so on is of no interest to anyone who speaks English. That's the main problem.

Do you look at contemporary art at exhibitions and biennales?

No, I never go to biennales. I can't be in crowds. Paintings should be seen one by one. I like the idea of visiting museums at night. The museum opening at night when there are no people, so you can look at everything in peace. I've never been to a biennale. I can't look at art in a crowd of thousands of people.
What advice would you give to aspiring collectors?

The first thing is to understand what you like, what you see potential in, and then start buying. In reality it has very little to do with money. The most important thing is that you like it and feel it close to your heart. Last night I spent the whole evening looking at Maxim Boxer's print collection. He has a small but beautiful collection of Silver Age drawings, which are very close to his heart. It's not so expensive – he's never had a lot of money – but it's wonderful.

You have to be prepared to collect systematically, you have to have a good understanding of what you want to collect and, most importantly, you have to love the object you are collecting. You can't collect through a curator – you have to do it all yourself. If you hire a curator to put together a collection for you, it's a completely pointless affair and I see no reason to do it. You can only make a good collection if you have a passion for it.

If I were just starting to collect now, I would find a niche and I would definitely collect something without any serious money involved.

But according to you, the antique market is now completely washed out. How is it possible to build up a collection?

First-class pieces are washed out, but on the other hand you can build a niche collection –there’s nothing wrong with that. Russian artists are perfect for a niche collection, and especially young artists. After all, look, the artists we have listed are my generation, I know many of them personally and I understand their art. And young people have their own generation, and some of them may well become great. So it’s quite possible for beginners to collect young Russian artists. In fact, thousands of things can be collected, because collecting is such a fun life!