Rarely does an art collector find himself at the center of global gossip, or suddenly discover controversy about his collection spilled across the Internet and the press. But that’s exactly what happened to Dutch collector Bert Kreuk, who woke recently to find his name scrawled in the headlines: Artnet.com’s Alexander Forbes described him as an “art flipper,” Artforum deemed him “controversial,” and on his popular Twitter feed, Belgian collector Alain Servais called him “toxic.” (The tweet, which also referred to Kreuk as an “art flipper,” subsequently found its way into Forbes’ Artnet story.)
At issue: Kreuk’s $1.2 million lawsuit against Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, who failed to deliver an artwork Kreuk commissioned for an exhibition of works from his collection at the Hague Gemeentemuseum last year. (Kreuk came under fire as well after the exhibition, when he sold several of the works at Sotheby’s: many accused him of using the museum to add value to the art – a claim Kreuk vigorously denies.)
The situation, however, as well as its handling in the press, raises questions beyond the Vo lawsuit itself. What does it mean to be a so-called “art flipper”? At what point can a collector reasonably divest from his collection without being accused of “flipping” the work: a year later? Five years? Does it really even matter? Even Servais himself acknowledges in the July issue of ARTnews that he plans to sell a Frank Stella and a Gerhard Richter from his own collection.
The truth about art collecting is: tastes change. New artists emerge. In the absence of infinite capital, sometimes you makes choices, selling works you no longer find as exciting in order to afford the ones you do – works that fit better with an organically growing collection. Friends of mine, for instance, recently divested most of their collection, selling (among others), a Van Dongen and a Metzinger, and acquiring (among others) a Fontana, two Plensas, an Albers, and a Balkenhol.
Art collections – like most collections – are living things. They grow, evolve, morph into new collections; change rooms, change homes, and, on occasion, change owners. As Kreuk himself said when I interviewed him for Sotheby’s, “I am a very active buyer, which means that I have to constantly refine and update the collection, otherwise it gets unfocused. Selling is part of refining.”
But there’s another part of this story, and it was actually the main reason I wanted to address it myself: the sloppiness with which the press – and that includes the art press – has handled it. Neither the initial coverage by Holland’s RTL News nor Alexander Forbes’ summary of that report included statements from Kreuk or Vo. In fact, Kreuk told me, no one even contacted him for confirmation – a simple matter of basic fact-checking. (RTL did, he says, amend the original piece online after he complained to them, adding statements from his attorney.)
And so I contacted Mr. Kreuk, who sat down to speak with me again, this time about the allegations of “art flipping” and the situation with Danh Vo – and to talk a bit about what art collecting is really all about.
Abigail R. Esman: I was a bit surprised by the Artnet story, as perhaps you were as well. It seems to be about your lawsuit against Vo, but somehow it then turned into a name-calling game, attacking you as a collector — or in the article’s terms, “art-flipper.” I’m not sure how those two things are connected. Was there a part of the story that somehow wasn’t covered there? Has Vo accused you of “flipping” art?
Bert Kreuk: Of course he did, and so did others with little knowledge of my collection. It is too easy to label somebody as an art-flipper by ignoring the facts or not knowing how he or she is managing the collection; every collector manages his or her collection differently.
Yet I also think it is weird that Danh Vo is using the sale of some part of my collection at Sotheby’s in November 2013 to justify non-compliance to an agreement which was made 11 months before that!
ARE: What exactly was the agreement, and what happened when you asked Danh Vo to make good on it?
BK: First of all, a decision to sue an artist is not lightly taken. As a collector you will never win the sympathy contest with this. This is the first time in 20 years that I sue an artist in court, but I simply cannot accept the flagrant breech of an agreement.
What happened was: Danh Vo was selected as one of the artists to make an installation piece for the exhibition “Transforming The Known” [held at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague in 2013]. He selected (and got) the best hall in the entire exhibition. Early January 2013, we extensively discussed his contribution – a commissioned work, which I would buy for $350,000 and add to my collection, due before the opening in June 2013. Vo confirmed that this gave him more than enough time.
Yet just before the opening, and after having made all arrangements for five days of installation, Vo decided not to show up. So just one day before the opening, I had to completely rearrange the space. I can only speculate on the reasons, but a similar installation was shown and sold in the show at Kurimanzuttu in Mexico shortly after my exhibition. To my mind, he should have been forthright if timing was an issue or if he had any problems with his gallery schedule or even if he had reached the conclusion that he now could sell it for more in Mexico. Whatever the reason, at least stay communicating. I could then have given the space to another artist and we would not be in the position we are in now.
ARE: How do you explain the amount of the suit, though – over $1 million? The work you purchased was only $350,000.
BK: In the last 12 months I have donated works, financed exhibitions and contributed to non-profit organizations, far in access of the amount in question. So it is not about the money, but about the principle of abiding by an agreement. That applies to collectors as well as to artists. One cannot try to justify a default by an event (selling some of my works at auction in November 2013) that took place more than 11 months after the fact.
In fact, in the interim, Danh Vo has already been ordered by the courts to finish another, different work in my collection, backed by an immediate due and payable fine of 40,000 euros and 2000 for each day of delay. The remaining demand is simply for executing of the agreement from the Gemeentemuseum show – that is, delivery of that artwork — or if for some reason he is not able, then for me to be able to acquire a similar work on the secondary market. I want to make clear that the claim is a reflection of the value in the secondary market and has zero to do with profit losses.
ARE: To set the story straight, can you explain the chronology of events from when you decided to create the Gemeentemuseum exhibition and when you first contacted Sotheby’s about selling the works in that exhibition?
BK: During the almost two years of preparation that went into the exhibition “Transforming The Known,” I did extensive research into all of the artists in the collection — not only for the exhibition narrative, but also in relation to other works in my collection. It was a great educational journey. This additional knowledge taught me that some works were not, perhaps, the best examples of an artist’s work, , or were no longer relevant to the collection. Plus, during the time it took to create the exhibition I had already added another 200 works of art, and the collection had started to get unfocused.
Meantime, Sotheby’s and I began discussing the possibility of doing something similar for S2. The final decision for that, though, was not taken until after the Gemeentemuseum show.
I know that many have accused me of using the exhibition in the Hague to increase the value or get an institutional seal of approval. But frankly, if that had been the case I would have shown my emerging collection in New York not The Hague. Most of the artists have never even been shown in the Netherlands before. The fact is, in the end, you have good art and bad art. Bad art does not become good by showing it in a museum.
ARE: Much of the discussion here seems to be about whether you are a “bona fide collector” (whatever that is) or someone who is using art as a commodity, with a focus on money and value. Where would you say you fall here? Do you live with and enjoy your collection, and try to be involved in the art world itself, or is it, indeed, mostly an investment project for you as a businessman?
BK: Honestly, I couldn’t care less whether I am seen as a “bona fide collector,” especially by those who base their opinions on preconceived notions. Of course art has become an asset class: that reality is also reflected in the prices and I do not see any problem with that. Ironically, those in the art world who do object to this notion often profit from it at the same time.
Besides, almost every collector sells.. The difference is that I am open about it. I do try to honor relationships by offering works back to the galleries that sold them, but sometimes they’re just not interested. But buying and selling around 5000 works of art in the past 20 years has enabled me to build a great collection of about 800 works of the highest quality, from the Impressionist period up to the present.
That quality is the result of my way of collecting: I first and foremost buy art because I like to live with it. But yes, of course I look to the price next; it should have benchmark and make sense. I constantly navigate between price and principle and ask myself for instance; do I buy one word painting by Christopher Wool, or 10 others on the list?
When you are such an active collector like I am, you cannot avoid the fact that you buy works that may later no longer seem relevant to the collection. It is a matter of constant refining, choices, education, evaluation and selection. Contemporary art is made every day, so as a collector I am continuously making choices. And since I do not have a museum, I cannot collect all of the artists in my collection in depth. In the end, it is all and only about my vision for the collection.
ADDENDUM: The editors of RTL contacted me with the following update:
For the record: the fact checking for the initial coverage by RTL Nieuws was done with documents and a confirmation of Vo’s sollicitor. Mr Kreuk’s sollicitor was also asked for a statement, but didn’t return calls. Only after publication, she did. Her remarks were then added. A complaint of Kreuk was not made. The next week, Kreuk himself contacted us with new information on the case. This resulted in a follow up on the story.
In the updated story, which can be found here (in Dutch), Kreuk observes: “A collection like mine is the result of conscious, careful planning. I’ve sold works in order to make room for Vo’s work. Because he failed to deliver, I now have a gap in my collection.”
Additional update, September 11
I confess I had no idea that this was going to become such a he said, she said situation; but below is a response from Vo’s galleries to this article, which deserves, too, to be aired. Mr. Kreuk denies the statement, however.
What made you want to show works from your collection in public?
At a certain moment you have so many works that you say, ‘OK, what’s the fun of storing it all?’ – you can have only so much space in your own homes, even if you change it regularly. You can never see it all in one spot. Even here with this exhibition, it’s just a very small part of the collection. Many years ago I had this idea that I needed to show my art in order to make sense of it in a framework where everything flows, and that’s the ability that I have now, and that’s the reason I’m thinking, maybe slowly, but in the years to come that I will have my own space, to tell the whole story of the collection. Now it’s just bits and pieces.
How did you select which artists to include in this exhibition?
BK That’s the tough part. It is basically those artists who are really most intriguing, and I think can tell in their own unique way – an authentic way – what they’re trying to reveal in their art. There are a couple of young artists working now who can do that excellently, like Latifa Echakhch. All her art is about women’s rights, free speech and awareness in the Muslim world, but it also leaves room for interpretation. She guides you, but then it’s up to you to find what’s in your mind, what you like to see, and it’s this kind of artist that basically intrigues me. I have work by a lot of established artists – like Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel and Sherrie Levine – so I do want to show them as part of this show. I’m most interested in really conceptual art, because I started out collecting those artists.
How did you first start collecting contemporary art?
BK That’s a long time ago. At a certain moment I was involved with impressionist art. When you have collected that, and been involved in that collection, and you have the best, you start to be intrigued about what else is out there. And then I got in touch early on with work by Christopher Wool. He is basically an extension of the abstract and minimalistic ways of painting. He always says in his art, ‘It’s not about what I paint, but how I paint,’ and that’s important. That’s where I started to make the switch. If you look at Andy Warhol, he uses the screenprinting process, but it’s all about the image, what he wants to present – Christopher Wool was the other way round: he used the screenprinting process, but for him it’s not about what he’s presenting, the image, it’s about the process, and there is where it started to become interesting.
Is that connected to you being in America?
BK Yes, I think so. I was often in galleries in New York, where you are confronted with those artists. I come back regularly to Holland, but those artists who are really well known and shown in New York, like Stingel and Wool, were almost not recognised in Holland. That’s part of the reason behind this exhibition: I haven’t seen something like it before. It has to do with the fact that in New York the whole environment breeds talent. I always say a flower blooms better in full sunlight than in darkness, and all the right circumstances are there in New York, where those people can enhance each other. I don’t think you have that in Holland. They have initial talent in Holland and they bloom, but there’s not a group where you have lots of people talking to each other, enhancing each other and making good art, like you have with say the Brooklyn group that includes Matthew Day Jackson in New York. That’s why a great number of artists in my collection are American.
In your collection generally, are there Dutch artists? In terms of the contemporary part of it?
BK I almost bought a Marlene Dumas; she is a great artist, but I’m waiting for the right work. There’s so much offered to me which I don’t think holds up to the quality of the collection. Before I buy something I really have to research it, I really have to understand the art. I’m thorough. I’m not somebody who’s following the herd. I have to determine a purchase based on my own experience and knowledge of art. I have to understand what I’m buying, and it has to make sense. No, not many Dutch artists, but then again, I’m not really Dutch any more, because I’m living most of the time in America.
So what is it that makes you want to acquire a work of art?
BK I’ve owned a business for the last 30 years, and in business it’s all about money, and it’s all about working, and at a certain moment you come to a realisation that there’s more to life. It’s not about only chasing goals of business and money, so for me it’s like an educational process, trying to enhance your life with nice things around you, and to open yourself to the idea that people can make great works of art, and try to reveal ideas. Most of the time I’m very attracted to tough conceptual art with some political or social message. It’s about life. It’s about expanding your mind, to keep your brain working in a different way than just about commercial ways of thinking or doing things. I always said that the art was a counterbalance to what I was doing in business.
Are there kinds of works you wouldn’t buy? Do you have limits in terms of sex or violence?
BK No, when art is done for the right reasons, and it is uniquely done, and the artist is very truthful to what he is thinking, and he wants to communicate that in an artwork, then I don’t have a lot of limits. But it needs to be done for the right reasons. If he or she has done it only to shock, or to do something out of the ordinary because they think they can become more popular or get the conversation going, that doesn’t work. That’s why I’m doing a lot of research, because I’m trying to understand if they do it for the right reasons. If they don’t, I don’t buy it.
Are you similarly open about the work you have in your own house?
BK Yes. Very much so. There are skeletons in my home by Matthew Day Jackson. It’s eerie, but it tells the story of life and death, and as I said, when that is done for the right reasons, I don’t have a problem, because if I see it, it intrigues me, and it tells me the story about the artist, not about the skeleton. It’s not about anatomy but about the concept, and the intent of the artist.
I guess to some extent when people come to visit your exhibition, they will be forming a portrait of you through it.
BK Yes. If they look at the art, it is a very tough, social, political philosophy, and I always try to ask questions about what the world presents to me. Take Luc Tuymans. I was so intrigued about his painting called Studio, which I own, because it is all about manipulation of media. And we are living in a world where that kind of thing happens. It doesn’t really mean I agree or subscribe to their ideas fully, but you know, at least they are presenting an idea that keeps your mind working. If you look at my exhibition, it is about those artists who have a unique way of communicating. Most of the subjects interest me, but do I subscribe to the conclusion? That’s a different question.
What would you like people to take away from it?
BK You know, what I’d like them to take away is that art is not only about a nice two-dimensional picture. Art is also very much about learning, and about an educational process. People should look at an artwork, not because they think it’s ugly, or it’s beautiful, because ugly is a very subjective word. Something beautiful might be very superficial – somebody came up with an idea, made it commercial so that people buy it. That’s easy. It’s always easy to buy an artist who is clever enough to present something which is attractive, but staying truthful to the concept of their own ability and their own ideas, that’s something else. Ugly is maybe even nicer. It’s about the educational process, and helping people on their way to think differently about art. That’s what I’d like people to take away from it, that they have to think for themselves.
Do you ever find that you’ve bought a work that made complete sense at the time you bought it, and maybe five years later saying, ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’
BK Yes, there are works like that. I make mistakes. It’s all part of the learning process.
What was the first piece of art that you bought, and do you still have it?
BK I still have it, yes. It was an oceanic picture, but it’s somewhere in the guest room. I have an emotional connection with it. I don’t sell a lot of art. I try to keep those works, because it tells me about where I’m coming from; it tells me about the emotional value when I bought it, under what circumstances I bought it, so in that sense it doesn’t fit in the collection but it does fit in my story.
Do you commission much work?
BK No. I have a very big problem with the commissioning of work, because I don’t think you can push a button from an artist and expect a great work. It’s inspired by what, by you as a collector? OK, you can inspire them, but before you know it there is always this influence from the collector. There is always some kind of instruction. Inspiration’s good, but instruction… That’s why I don’t do it, I just buy it because I like it, but I hate when people say, ‘I have a nice space above my couch and I need something there’ – it doesn’t make sense. That’s nothing to do with art, that doesn’t have to do with art collecting in general. That’s not how I collect. I don’t think you get the best collection by doing that, honestly speaking.
What’s the attraction of political art?
BK Maybe it’s not to do so much with the politics, but I am a little bit rebellious, in the sense that I like artists to question the status quo. Usually people’s lives are configured in a certain way – that you have to have a job, you have to do this, you have to do that. It’s always within a structure, and that structure is basically laid upon us from society. But there are these artists who are questioning, why this, why that? I don’t subscribe to the conclusions from different artists, who are far left or far right or whatever, but I think it’s about the uniqueness, and the questioning that attracts me.
Do you think about what will happen to your collection in the future? About whether the works in it will endure?
BK I always wonder myself, about my collection, will this art really matter many years from now? How transformative is this art, really? And if it’s in a historical context, what does it do? These are some important questions, because so many people buy art without even asking themselves the simple question of whether they want to have it in their homes. Then it becomes speculative, it has nothing to do with art collecting, so if you collect for the wrong reasons, you’ll never end up with those artists that matter in the long run. I always consider that when I buy something.
How can you tell that an artwork is going to meet these expectations?
BK If I can associate a piece of artwork or a concept directly with another artist, another contemporary artist of today, I will not buy it. It needs to be unique. Of course, it can have references to other artists and artistry, but art is a revolution, it must not be a one-on-one copy, and so much of what you see today is.
Do you work with art advisers?
BK I listen to people whose opinions I respect, but I’m not going to be led by advisers, because you never know if there’s a second agenda or what is behind it. On the other hand, if you have 20 years of experience in art collecting, then at the end of the day, nobody can really advise you any more. It’s in your complex process of thinking as to what you like or what you don’t like. Nobody can say to me, ‘You need to collect this, or you need to collect that.’ I mean, I collect what I collect based on certain rules for myself, but at the end of the day, it’s your collection, it’s not the collection of your advisers.
Transforming the Known: works from the Bert Kreuk Collection was at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, from 8 June to 29 September 2013.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue
The story of US-based Dutch collector and entrepreneur Bert Kreuk (b. Capelle a/d IJssel, 1964) is one of a true American dream. Over the last fifteen years, Kreuk’s passion for collecting has taken him on an endless voyage of discovery and the resulting collection is at once daring, spectacular and highly personal. This is a collection of global ambition, created in order to be shared. It tells the story of the development of art over the last twenty years.
In the summer of 2013, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag will exhibit a selection of works from the Bert Kreuk Collection that express the personal and social engagement of contemporary artists in a wide range of materials and media. While Bert Kreuk lends art works to museums worldwide, this is the first time that a substantial part of his collection will be on public display in a single institution. The Gemeentemuseum is delighted that the collection will have its first showing here in The Hague and warmly welcomes Bert Kreuk as a guest curator.
Bert Kreuk about the exhibition: ‘It is a liberating feeling once you discover that art is more than a mere reflection of reality. Collecting art for me is an educational journey of exploring, observing and under – standing, without learned assumptions. The artists in my collection have the ability to give a personal, intentional and authentic expression to their concept. They should have the wish to communicate an idea beyond the illustration of a scene or an instant identifiable mood. They extend boundaries and disrupt conventional ideas about art, and as such they are ‘transforming the known’.
Contemporary art opens new worlds, in which ideas, concepts and intentions are as important as form, execution and technique. The meaning of simple objects do not represent a less profound or less inferior conceptual background than complex works.
Inspired by traditional painting, the exhibition starts with a more conventional idea about painting and, through contemporary sculpture, concludes with painting as a conceptual performance. Many featured artists have never before shown work in the Netherlands. I warmly thank the Gemeentemuseum for the opportunity to introduce these artists for the first time and their vision that made this exhibition possible.’