Venice or Paris? Five years after I first asked him, elusive billionaire art collector François Pinault has agreed to meet me for lunch and even offers a choice of location: Venice, where his showcases at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana form one of Europe's biggest private displays of contemporary art; or Paris, where his home is a hôtel particulier or grand townhouse in the centre of the city.
The non-negotiable element is that our conversation be in French, so I opt for Paris and e-mail his office to apologise for not being entirely fluent. The reply, in English, comes back instantly: "Monsieur Pinault is very kind about these things, and I am sure will behave as a gentleman."
The fact that this needs saying is revealing. A self-made luxury goods magnate, Pinault is internationally acclaimed for his cutting-edge art collection, consisting of 2,000 works, many acquired directly from artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. But in France he has never shaken off a reputation as something of a wide-boy who made his wealth through takeovers of ailing companies, aided by political friendships; he is close to Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. "French people ... look at Pinault as a pirate," Le Monde journalist Harry Bellet told Forbes Magazine, which last year estimated Pinault's fortune at $8.7bn—reportedly the third-largest in France.
When I arrive at Sormani, a Michelin-starred restaurant off the Champs-Elysées, Pinault is already there: a lean, silver-haired figure with crystalline blue eyes, mobile features and a questing, slightly sarcastic expression. He darts out from among a gaggle of waiters to greet me: exquisitely courteous but also restless and looking at least a decade younger than his 74 years. Soberly dressed in sleek grey suit, blue shirt, dark purple tie, he apologises immediately that he must leave early, for a funeral. So we begin lunch at once, with Evian water and a plate of succulent mortadella presented on the house.
Pinault says he has chosen Sormani for its Italian connection, since we are marking the fifth anniversary, this weekend, of the François Pinault Foundation's inauguration in Venice. Pinault is a regular here and the maître d', knowing he will not bother with a menu, suggests asparagus to start, then fish. Pinault requests coquilles Saint Jacques (scallops), and when I decline shellfish, recommends the turbot. We both refuse wine: "I only drink in the evening, otherwise it gets complicated," explains the owner of Château Latour.
Sormani appeals because "c'est pas trop snob": important for a man such as Pinault whose empire treads a tightrope between exclusive art and fashion—from Gucci, to Yves Saint Laurent and Christie's—and a defiant non-elitism. I think this is why he favours expensive conceptualists such as Hirst and Koons, whose work depends on branding but is also aggressively anti-bourgeois. By contrast, "in France", says Pinault, "people think art stopped at the end of the 18th century. Well, perhaps a few curators go on to the 19th, and the impressionists. But then there is un moment de blocage. They close the curtains."
At his Paris home, he has negotiated an "arbitrage" between new art and the ancien régime furnishings selected by his wife Maryvonne. Less successful was an ambitious, long-running project to build a museum on the site of the former Renault plant at the Ile de Seguin outside Paris, which was halted in 2005 by bureaucratic obstacles. With the parting shot that "eternity is for art, not for projects designed to serve it", Pinault took his money to Venice, where he was embraced as rescuer of the Palazzo Grassi, languishing since the death of its former owner Gianni Agnelli of Fiat. Within a year, he transformed the Grand Canal palace into a contemporary museum, designed by Tadao Ando; after a fierce battle with the Guggenheim Museum, he also won control of the Punta della Dogana, Venice's former customs house.
"Italy is plus gaie," he says, with a wave at Sormani's glitzy decor of red-painted chandeliers, mock-classical reliefs and crimson velvet walls. "The Italians live well. They have problems, like all countries, but they are well-dressed, the women are pretty." Italian artists, especially Rudolf Stingel and Maurizio Cattelan, are prominent in his collection; French ones are not. "I don't look at an artist's passport," he protests. "My mission is not to forbid French art. If the quality is there, I buy; if the quality isn't there, I don't." The French, he notes, "don't buy art—perhaps it is the Catholic religion, they don't spend money on things that are superfluous."
The exception is Pinault's rival Bernard Arnault, an even wealthier luxury goods billionaire, whose plans to build his contemporary museum in Paris did get the green light: his Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, designed by Frank Gehry, opens next year. In advance, international dealer Larry Gagosian recently launched in Paris, suggesting that the French capital will become an increasing force in contemporary art. Does Pinault now regret relocating?
"Je ne regrette jamais," he says. "I have no sense of nostalgia. Tomorrow is what interests me." His collection will tour to Seoul this autumn, Brazil in 2014; art from Asia, Africa and Latin America is influencing western artists and vice versa, he says. "We're on our way to globalisation, this is a vision I like. Everyone knows Venice. It's Italian but belongs to the world, it's open to the orient. And the presence of the old, Tintoretto, Titian, in confrontation with the [contemporary] Biennale: we see art continue here. We must die but life continues in art. During wars, the crisis in Japan, art always delivers this small hope, never despair. Artists have a capacity to anticipate the world towards which we are going. The glory of Tintoretto is that art is not dead, the movement hasn't stopped."
Two plates of fat juicy green asparagus arrive. Pinault methodically cuts the tip off each spear, dabs it in mustard vinaigrette, eats it at a measured pace and leaves the remainder. As a symbol of the self-made entrepreneur's flight to quality, it is comically apt. For Pinault "started with nothing—no money, no qualifications, no diploma".
Born into a peasant family in Champs-Geraux, a village in western Brittany, he was mocked at school in Rennes for his rural accent and shabby clothes, and left at the age of 15. "I saw a bit of art in churches, things like that," but never entered a museum. Then, when he was 30, "a friend in Brittany, a Sunday painter, took me to an exhibition in Rennes of the Nabis and Pont-Aven school. There was no Gauguin, the things were not well-painted but the colours were vivid. My friend said, 'Look! Look!' I saw nothing, understood nothing but I went a second time, I made him go back. To insist: that is the Breton character".
That tenacity was also responsible for the success of his initial business, in the timber industry. Then in 1980, in London, he stepped into an auction house for the first time. "I saw a small canvas by [Pont-Aven artist] Paul Sérusier, a Breton scene of a farm with an old woman. I bought it because she resembled my grandmother. That was my first significant purchase. Then I looked, I read, and I galloped through the twentieth century—Picasso and the cubists, surrealism." A landmark was Mondrian's "Tableau Losangique II", bought for $8.8m in 1990, which announced the rigorous, cerebral nature of his taste.
"At first, you want to show you can do it," Pinault admits, punching the air with his fist, eyes gleaming, when I ask about the pleasure of the chase (his holding company is called Artemis, after the Greek goddess of hunting). "You buy in the mainstream, then you develop your taste and you don't need to follow anyone."
In the 1990s, he realised that from the postwar period onwards, "one could still find major things". "Everything earlier was already in museums, it was too late," he says. "Then—voilà!—I arrived at the contemporary. Two things mattered: the first, to do with my character, my curiosity for knowledge; the second, to be able to buy artists who count."
Pinault is a formidable player. At the 2007 Venice Biennale, for example, he bought the installation of Sigmar Polke paintings in the Italian pavilion just before interested museum directors arrived "un peu après". Nevertheless, there have been complaints that his programme in Venice changes too slowly, and fails to attract the visitor numbers achieved under Fiat's reign. The new display of works beginning this weekend, however, is addressing some of the criticism; notably there will be a more clear-cut division between Palazzo Grassi, to be used for short-term exhibitions—The World belongs to You opens there in June—and Punta Dogana, where In Praise of Doubt, a long-term museum-style presentation opens on Sunday at Punta della Dogana. This includes works by Koons, Subodh Gupta, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Cattelan and—significantly positioned at the entrance to the exhibition—Donald Judd.
"Mon propre goût," Pinault says suddenly, as our main courses appear, "is minimalism—Donald Judd, Robert Ryman, things assez mystique, big white paintings." He stabs at his scallops, pushing the accompanying spinach to one side as irrelevant. "But I didn't want to be a maniac, collecting just one thing, imprisoned in a sole period. So—j'ai enlargi la palette de ma connaissance [I widened the scope of my knowledge]. Also a spirit of tolerance made me look more broadly."
As I savour my buttery turbot, served with delicate morels and spring vegetables, I wonder what drives an entrepreneur in the desire to possess and then share works of art. Is it a penance for the ruthlessness of business, or a civilising veneer, or a balance to worldliness?
"There is certainly a form of equilibrium between the material life of business and the life of art," Pinault concedes. "The passion for art is, as for believers, very religious. It unites people, its message is of common humanity. Art has become my religion—others pray in church. It's a banality, but you don't possess art, it possesses you. It's like falling in love."
This is said without irony, and confirmed by anecdotes: consultant Philippe Ségalot, for example, recalls accompanying Pinault to see a Carl Andre floor sculpture; after half an hour of silent viewing, Pinault said, "I have no choice" and paid $7m for it. Like many collectors, he is particularly enthused by his newest discoveries—he mentions Algerian installation artist Adel Abdessemed and Leeds-born sculptor Thomas Houseago ("he looks like Rodin!"), both significant presences in this weekend's Dogana opening.
Does he ever make mistakes? "I can go wrong but not heavily. Collectors are like artists, there are days when you are less en forme, you are tired, it's not so good." It is a "fixed rule" that he sees everything he purchases, mostly at studio visits. I propose that he is too powerful to go wrong: his interest in an artist is enough to make a career soar. At this, the competitive streak, politely downplayed so far, rises. "Yes, Gagosian comes to my shows and a fortnight later goes to see the artists and puts them under contract!" Pinault laughs, adding, " He is terriblement efficace, j'aime bien cet homme! He has the energy, the regard, the intelligence."
A good collector, Pinault says, "needs an eye, emotion, the capacity to feel something in a work. You can be a cold brute in business; you don't need feelings: it's effective to eliminate them. But in art everything is about emotion."
I quote Sergei Shchukin, great Russian collector of Matisse: "If you feel a psychological shock before a work, buy it without further ado." "It's the same with me," Pinault exclaims, recalling a visit to African-American artist David Hammons. He was so shocked by the work that he left, then returned and bought two pictures. "You don't want anything trop aimable—c'est la séduction. There should be no seduction. You need shocks—Damien Hirst, for example, is having a difficult time now but that's experience. Anyone who goes through life without tests and difficulties—huh!" He shrugs dismissively and apologises again that he must leave for the funeral. As I sample a violet meringue from the sprinkled array of petits fours that comes with the bill, the prince of luxury hastens away from the table with a grin: "I live as if I have eternity before me but every morning I say, 'It could stop here.'"
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.