Search, Like, Share: Redefining Collecting for the Digital Age

An interview with Sylvain and Dominique Levey, Art collectors for the 21st century

Two weeks after Art Basel in Hong Kong, Sylvain Levy is still visibly excited about what he saw at the debut of the Asian fair in May. Over lunch on the terrace of his Parisian duplex, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, he talks animatedly about the artistic differences between Hong Kong artists and those from mainland China.

“There is something special happening in Hong Kong,” he says. “Artistically, the differences are very strong. Hong Kong is really a meeting point between the West and the East, and the artists there have a different way of looking at the world than mainland Chinese because they clearly have not been influenced by the same things.”

“Interestingly,” he adds, “in Hong Kong there is not the supremacy of an art school like CAFA [the Central Academy of Fine Arts] or Hangzhou [the China Academy of Art] to influence a generation of artists. Many Hong Kong artists have been informed abroad and then came back. They are very deeply Chinese, but because there is not this school dominance, it has given them a freedom of creation that you may not always find in mainland China.”

When it comes to art, Sylvain and his wife of 29 years, Dominique, back their views with their wallet. Their DSL Collection focuses on Chinese contemporary art, and the recent short trip to Hong Kong yielded 10 new artworks, including two pieces by Adrian Wong and one by Lee Kit, who is representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale.

“We’ve decided to open the collection to Hong Kong artists,” Sylvain explains, adding that the couple has
also recently created a new section for Chinese contemporary ink. The medium, traditionally important in Chinese art, is currently enjoying a strong revival and transformation. Sylvain readily admits he can be “a bit of an addict” when it comes to art collecting, but Dominique is quick to point out that “it’s never been about accumulation.

The Levys discovered their first Hong Kong artist, Lee Kit, a little over a year and a half ago while visiting the gallery Aike-Dellarco in Shanghai. They bought one of his photographs, Sunday afternoon: Picnic with friends and hand-painted cloth at Yung Shu O, Sai Kung, HK, and soon after focused on the well-known graffiti artist Tsang Tsou Choi—a.k.a. the King of Kowloon—buying one of his works at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2012. But it was only in May that their newfound interest in Hong Kong art gathered momentum.

Prior to attending Art Basel Hong Kong, the couple had done their homework, poring over catalogues and researching the galleries representing the artists they liked. “So when we arrived, we knew who to go to,” Sylvain recalls. “They showed us a few works, and we decided to go for it,” he says, adding that the new pieces will be included in the second edition of the book on their collection, due for release this fall.

“They decide reasonably fast, but not in an impulsive way,” notes Roberto Ceresia, founder of Aike-Dellarco. “Before they collect a piece, they will talk to the gallerist extensively, ask many questions, and then take some time to reason about it. I would say that they give a lot of importance to personal relationships with artists, gallerists, and curators, where mutual trust plays a major role. Sylvain certainly spent a lot of time talking to me, and he is one of the most curious persons I have met, always keen to listen others’ opinions and ideas.”

At the time of the interview, the Levys are still waiting for their Lee Kit piece to be delivered to their Parisian home, which elegantly mixes contemporary furniture with paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Manolo Valdés, a wooden sculpture by Wang Keping, and an oil by Zheng Guogu.

Xue Song's "Coca Cola" 1997, has pride of place over the white marble fire-place, deisgned by Emilio Terry. In the far corner, Ron Arad's bronze "Pappardelle" chair (2001) complements a 1997 Wang Keping wooden sculpture. Photo by Ed Halcock

“We started as a young couple, going to flea markets and buying works to decorate our house, primarily 1940s furniture,” Dominique says. “Neither of us came from a family of collectors, though we had an eye trained for beautiful things.” Their aesthetic training was centered largely on fashion. Dominique’s mother, Rose Torrente- Mett, founded Torrente, a French haute couture and ready- to-wear label, and her uncle, Ted Lapidus, was a highly influential designer in the 1960s. Sylvain used to run French fashion house Caroll before turning to real estate development.“ After the first furniture, we started worrying about the walls, and I remember the first painting we ever bought was a beautiful sunset by Dupuy Godeau, not the best artist, nor his best work,” she recalls, laughing.

In the early 1990s, the couple started buying Western contemporary art, with works by Robert Rauschenberg, Manolo Valdés, and Antoni Tàpies decorating their home, but they concede there wasn’t a cohesive approach to the budding collection and the works were bought “more as trophies.”

“We only started to collect seriously with contemporary designs in the mid 1990s,” says Dominique. “We had friends who owned the Gallery Creau, and at the time, pieces by Ron Arad and the Bouroullec brothers were really accessible. No one wanted them. That’s when we started to buy, not just to decorate our house, and we had to take up storage space. But when you’re no longer constrained by space and size, that’s when you can really have a lot of fun.”

The couple eventually turned away from design. “It became too hot and expensive, and you had to be put on a waiting list to get a piece, and frankly I prefer to play golf than have to do that,” explains Sylvain. Their flat is still a treasure trove of 20th-century design with a range of interesting pieces, including a 1998 Zenith chair by Marc Newson, a 2001 Grappe carpet by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Ron Arad’s 1996 round bookcase and 2001 Pappardelle chair in bronze.

“The flat is very much a reflection of our life as collectors and our personal taste, which is very eclectic,”

Dominique says. “This is not a show flat—the children used to sit on this Ron Arad chair, and all the furniture is there to be used.”

Their current passion for contemporary Chinese art started in 2005 when the couple visited Shanghai and met Lorenz Helbling, founder of ShanghART Gallery, and also toured artist Ding Yi’s studio. They quickly started to acquire works by Zhou Tiehai, Zeng Fanzhi, and Zhang Huan. They also bought works by Yang Jiechang and his wife, Martina Köppel-Yang, after meeting them in Paris and started to focus on the young Cantonese art scene, from the Big Tail Elephant Working Group to the Yangjiang Group.

Huang Yong Ping's "Un immigrant sans papiers" (2006), hangs to the left of the stairs, over Thomas Heatherwick's glass table. Photo by Ed Alcock

Few collectors have published their own collecting manifesto, but the dynamic French couple has. They’ve also embraced 21st-century technologies—not only to digitize their collection of about 200 artworks to make them available to all on the Internet, but also to create iPad apps and reach out via social networks like Facebook with pages in English and Spanish. That’s not to say they’ve eschewed traditional media; they’ve published books in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, notes that the DSL Collection has been a “very public advocate for the field in general, as well as a pioneer in trying to apply the Internet and social media to the running and promotion of a private collection.”

“They have collected some of the most important figures of the Chinese avant-garde over the last three decades and have been generous lenders to exhibitions around the world, including at UCCA,” he says, noting that the collection is rooted in the “same basic understanding of contemporary art history as other major collections,” including those of Uli Sigg and Guan Yi. “While it is smaller than these other collections, DSL manages to feel alive rather than archival in its selection of particular works.”

Sylvain points out that over the years the couple has had different approaches. “Previously, it was a more traditional approach to collecting with no real coherence: we would buy an object because we liked it,” he explains. “But when we started our collection on contemporary Chinese art we deliberately decided to do things differently because from the start we knew we wanted to open the collection to the general public using the Internet and social media.”

For the Levys, it was extremely important that their collection had, as Dominique puts it, “a soul, as well as an image,” which they thought could only be created by following rules such as keeping the collection relatively small and within certain limits.

“It must be niche to give your collection a clear image,” Sylvain adds. “We wanted to work on big formats because Chinese artists have always liked to express themselves via those.... The difficulty when you start collecting is to have access to quality, and if you focus on big formats, there are very few people in that sphere, and you can have some beautiful pieces. Of course we can’t have them in our living room, but the day we decided to have a museum-like collection, we had gone beyond buying art to decorate our walls.”

“By limiting ourselves, we know we have to be much more careful in our selection, take the time to research and select each artwork,” says Dominique. “Early on we also decided that if we’d made a mistake we would be able to let go of the work. There are a lot of collectors that are in an accumulation phase, especially with Chinese art, because they want to open big museums. Our approach is very different.”

The Levys believe that a collection should be first and foremost a private story, “our own story as collectors, as well as the meetings with different people,” Sylvain says.

“Each of the artworks is a bit like the words that help us write a story, our story,” he adds. “Some are stronger than others. The idea is to create something that has a real soul. We can collect works by artists completely unknown, but these represent, for us, something very interesting in the story we’re telling.” The result is a highly personal, scrupulously crafted collection—though the Levys joke that despite similar tastes, curating doesn’t always come easy. “That’s the interest of this adventure; it has taught us to compromise, which is a very good thing for a couple,” Sylvain quips. “I guess I am the adventurous madman and she is the reason.”

This article was first published in BlouinARTINFO.COM magazine