‘Everything I’ve done in the cinema lately has been for the sake of painting. Cinema was magnificent in the ’70s. There are fewer masterpieces these days.’
In 2008 the celebrated film maker and producer Claude Berri (1934-2009) whose credits include producing Roman Polanski‘s Tess and Valmont by Milos Forman, was generous enough to share his passion for collecting with me (1).
This passion was directed, above all, towards the American abstract artist, Robert Ryman (born 1930) best known for his all-white monochromes. ‘Ryman is like Monet without the water lilies. It’s a style of painting that evolves with each hour of the day and with the sun.’
When he died, Claude Berri owned no fewer than seven canvases by Ryman.
Last May, his son Thomas Langmann, also a film maker and producer (it turns out he collects as well, including Francis Bacon and primitive art) sold via Christie’s for 8.2 million euros a 2002 canvas he’d inherited, all white brushstrokes with the canvas’s edges still visible.
On 22 October in Paris, at the request of Thomas Langmann, Christie’s will be auctioning another portion of his father’s collection.
Thomas Langmann did not reply to our request for an interview.
The 79 lots in the catalogue have an estimated value of 5.5 million euros. The auction house will also be offering 69 lots of photography, another of Claude Berri’s passions, on 12 November, which in total are expected to fetch 1.2 million euros. In addition, Christie’s will be auctioning some of the less valuable lots online between 17 and 27 October and a final portion in December.
The Berri collection’s name, however, is primarily associated with a controversy dating from 2011. When Claude Berri passed away in 2009, he left no instructions as to what should be done with his collection.
For 15 months, as agreed with the two heirs Thomas and Darius, Marc Blondeau, a private dealer and friend of Berri’s, was in negotiations with French authorities over what is called a ‘Dation‘.
It provides tax relief on an inheritance to the value on the international art market of the works in question. It is an unusual tax arrangement obtained only with the approval of the ministry of finance and French museums, the National Museum of Modern Art in this case. With nine works in total by such names as Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Giorgio Morandi, Lucio Fontana and Richard Serra, the gift would have been the largest ever endowment of contemporary art – a rumoured 30 million euros.
But at the last minute the heirs had a change of heart and sold the works in one go, for at least 50 million euros, to Qatar, through the New York-based French broker Philippe Ségalot it seems.
The works under the hammer at Christie’s this time do not contain any major pieces, with the exception of a 1913 machine drawing by the French Dada artist Francis Picabia (1879-1953), estimated at 200,000 euros, and a large, rare work on paper by one of the most famous activists of the Italian Arte Povera movement, Jannis Kounellis (born in 1936) ( read ad watch his interview: https://judithbenhamouhuet.com/report/janis-kounellis-when-one-of-the-greats-of-arte-povera-takes-up-residence-in-grandiose-18th-century-surroundings) estimated at 800,000 euros.
As it happens, the London gallery White Cube is currently hosting, thanks to the curation of Mathieu Paris, an exhibition of works on paper from the same period by Kounellis, a kind of graffiti featuring signs found in the street, very few of which are for sale (2).
‘Provenance plays a major factor here,’ underlines the Christie’s Paris expert Paul Nyzam, defending the sale. A number of items in the Berri sale are works on paper.
Aurélia Chabrillat who was Claude Berri’s collaborator for five years, right up until to his death, testifies: ‘What he loved in drawing was the possibility of seeing the spontaneous genius of the artist.’
She mentions the example of his meeting with the Californian artist Paul McCarthy (born 1945). The catalogue contains one of his drawings from 2001 that has a 40,000-euro estimate.
She adds that Claude Berri was nurturing a project that never came to fruition – exhibiting his Dada and surrealist drawings at the Pompidou Centre.
A 1922 collage by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), the major German Dada artist who remains insulated from the price excesses of the market, is estimated at 120,000 euros.
Several drawings by the surrealist Victor Brauner, André Masson and Roberto Matta are estimated to fetch between 20,000 and 150,000 euros.
‘For Claude Berri these artists embodied the spirit of the Second World War’ said Aurélia Chabrillat.
Claude Berri was a bulimic yet visionary collector who never drew a line between different periods of art history.
(1) Global collectors. Editions Phébus. 2008.
For the french speakers: Thomas Langmann speaking about his father on french tv