Shining surfaces. Hungarian art works from the past decade – Selection from Attila Rátfai’s private collection

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

It is a great honour to me to be here to open this exhibition „Hungarian art works from the past decade”, selected from Attila Rátfai’s stunning private collection. Attila started to collect art some 10 years ago, and during this decade his collection has grown and developed into a huge and really interesting one. As at the time when he started collecting art we both worked at the Institute of Economics, and he knew of my collection (as in my room in the Institute all the walls were already covered by works of 20th century Hungarian graphic art), he showed me his first acquisitions… and later, as we sometimes went to the same auctions, I could somehow follow his way of building up his impressive collection.

This October I was in Paris, and there I saw an unbelievably rich and fascinating exhibition at the Grand Palais, an exhibition based on the legendary art collections of the Stein siblings, Leo, Gertrude and Michael Stein, and Michael’s wife, Sarah Stein. As it was Michael’s task and responsibility to manage the family’s inherited assets (invested in the San Francisco streetcar network), and as he had to deal with the finances of the whole family, he had some more money at his disposal than the rest of the family. But the inherited assets also made possible for Leo and Gertrude to live in Europe on the returns of their investments without difficulty, and without any need to rely on paid employment. Although they were quite well off, they were not really rich, especially not by American standards.

These 4 Americans came to Europe gradually, one by one, around the turn of the 20th century, and all of them started to collect modern art here. Leo was the first to arrive. As he studied art history in the US, he went to Italy first, and there he started to buy minor works of renaissance and baroque Italian art. However, quite soon Leo moved to Paris, and there he switched to collecting modern art together with his younger sister, Gertrude, a poet and a writer, who was to become later the most famous member of the family.

At the beginning they mostly bought the works of Cézanne, an established artist by then. But at the same time they also started to collect the works of a very young painter, called Picasso, still in his blue period. They also bought some works by Bonnard, Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Later Leo’s interest turned gradually towards Renoir, a very big name by then. When in 1914 Leo finally left France for Italy, the collection had to be divided: Leo took most of the Cézannes and the Renoirs, while Gertrude could keep most of the Picassos. Around this time she became infatuated with the scandalous and revolutionary cubist paintings of Picasso, and got hold of some of the most outstanding and representative works the artist created during his cubist period. Later, when Picasso’s prices became too high for her, she went on to collect Gris, Braque, Picabia and many other young and promising talents. At the same time Michael’s and Sarah’s unique collection, decorating their villa (one of the the largest and most luxurious house that Le Corbusier designed in the 1920s) represents a slightly different collector’s strategy. They were (together with Leo and Gertrude) among the very first collectors and buyers of Matisse, and later they became close friends of the artist, and their collection remained focussed on his art throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Why am I talking about the Steins’ collection here and now? The reason for this is quite simple. While a piece of art tells something about the artist, a collection characterizes the collector. It speaks about his personality, his motives and his way of collecting art. Seeing the exhibition based on the Stein collections made me raise a question that is perhaps relevant here as well. What are those circumstances, skills and personality traits that can make someone a great collector?

Being in the right place at the right time perhaps helps somewhat. In the case of the Stein family being close to the roots, or right there in the very centre of the art revolution of the 20th century was undeniably one of the reasons behind their success as collectors and connoisseurs of art. Besides, of course, a collector has to have at least some financial means at his or her disposal: some money is definitely needed that can be spent on art. That said, as we could see from the example set by Gertrude Stein, the amount of the money needed is not necessarily that much. To have a good eye, some individual taste, and a nose for quality are far more important than money. Although an art collection can also be considered an investment portfolio, in case of a true collector it is certainly more than that. Without a personal touch, an instinct and a love for art one can only become an investor, but never ever a collector.

It seems that there are various types of collectors: some tend to buy the works of famous artists, still in fashion but no longer living. Some would rather buy works of lesser known, underrated or at the moment not fully appreciated artists from the recent or not so recent past. Some would buy mostly contemporary art, but still concentrate on already established artists, or living classics, like Leo Stein did when he bought Cezanne and especially Renoir. And some would take risks, collecting the works of contemporary artists, many of them not so well known yet, sometime only at the very beginning of their career.

Of course these different strategies for building a collection can also be mixed. But to create a truly individual and outstanding collection, a collection that creates links between artists and artistic movements that will be identified by art historians only much later, one has to be smart, intelligent, have a good eye, has to be brave enough to take risks and has to be somehow addicted to his goal: building a collection that has that very special personal touch.

I think, that Attila’s collection, and the small part of it that is exhibited here clearly demonstrates that he has all those qualities that are needed to become a significant collector.