NEW YORK - William Louis-Dreyfus has spent over 50 years amassing a huge, idiosyncratic collection of modern and contemporary art with utter disregard for the marketplace. But suddenly he’s quite interested in the return on his investment.
The 82-year-old, French-born remarkably successful businessman – better known to Americans as the father of Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld and Veep – insists that he doesn’t need the money for himself. But with his recent decision to sell off the collection incrementally, for the benefit of Harlem Children’s Zone, he is hoping to maximise his donation.
While Mr Louis-Dreyfus’s collection does contain some blue-chip names, such as Grosz, Dubuffet, Giacometti and Frankenthaler, a good deal of its artists were obscure when he bought them, and have yet to become fashionable. He’s hoping the world will catch up to his tastes.
“In business, he was always a risk-taker, and in collecting he is the same way,” says Julia. “He likes to be right.”
During a recent visit to his museum-like private gallery – housed in a former electrical-supply warehouse near his home in Westchester County, New York – Mr Louis-Dreyfus recounted his career as a collector and businessman, as well as his fascinating family background.
“My great-grandfather Leopold was the last of eleven children born to a farmer in Alsace-Lorraine. In 1851, when he was sixteen, he started selling wheat. The business he started became the major grain trader in the world.”
The Louis Dreyfus Group – where William was CEO from 1969 to 2006 – grew into an international organisation of diversified companies involved in energy, commodities and shipping.
Born in Paris in 1932, his childhood was tumultuous. “I first came to New York when I was eight years old. After the fall of France we were able to get out because my mother was American. So I spent the war years in New York, but we moved back to France in 1945.”
Enrolled in a lycée in war-ravaged Paris, and speaking less than perfect French, life was challenging. When he could, he skipped school; one of the places he escaped to on those occasions was the Louvre, which was a formative experience for him.
“Paintings struck me as something very special,” he recalls. “I remember particularly a picture by Frans Hals of a peasant girl. She was wearing a very loosely fitted blouse. I used to look at her a great deal. I’m not sure my interest in her was purely artistic.”
Two years later, William moved back to the US and settled there permanently. After graduating from Duke University and Duke University School of Law, he practiced law in New York City for several years.
“But then my father talked me into working for the family business. I succumbed.” During his 45-year tenure at the firm, he travelled back to Europe often and was glad for the opportunity to maintain links to his homeland. “I am very happy to have had the French connection. The French are difficult as well as highly captivating.”
His career as a collector began while he was still working as a lawyer. “One year I received a sizable bonus. I think it was $60,000. I wanted to save it. As I didn’t understand the stock market, I thought I would put it in art.
“I read somewhere that paintings by Max Ernst were selling for more than pictures by Kandinsky. I thought, that can’t be – Kandinsky is a better artist. So I bought a bunch of Kandinskys.
“My ego was such that I thought I could tell what a good painting was. I have the conviction that I know better than most. I know that’s not true! But collecting is sort of a crazy and obsessive thing to do, so I guess I’m slightly crazy and obsessive.”
Louis-Dreyfus’s 3,500-piece collection now includes works by some 170 artists. A number of them – such as self-taught artist James Castle – have been acquired in-depth. “When I find somebody I like I tend to go crazy. I probably end up with too much of some, but there you are. I’ve made some mistakes but I don’t regret too much.”
Over the years, the collector has become close friends with a number of the artists in his collection, including John Newman and Graham Nickson. “I admire the sector of the world they are in. Being a painter requires a talent that is so mysterious. It’s an exercise of pure instinct.”
Louis-Dreyfus has an artistic temperament himself. About fifteen years ago, he began writing poetry; his work has been published in the Hudson Review,The New Criterion and Southwestern Review. “It’s been very satisfying. If I get a few more acceptable poems written maybe I will publish a book. But that’s not why I do it. A writer, like a painter, hopes his work is seen, but the act doesn’t depend upon that.”
A few years ago, as he was contemplating the future, he saw a television interview with Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, which riveted him. “When I learned more about what Geoffrey was doing through the Harlem Children’s Zone – his approach of helping children from birth to college – I thought that made so much sense. He is a marvelous, clear-thinking person and the job he has done is supreme. So I went to meet him and I told him I wanted to give my collection to fund his work.”
And this is where Louis-Dreyfus began thinking about the art marketplace. He plans to sell off pieces of the collection individually, or in groups, over the coming years, based on their market values.
“Some pieces have reached close to what I think their top value will be, so we will start selling them soon. But I have to wait for most of the paintings to gain in value.”
Though Helen Frankenthaler is one of the bigger names in his collection, he does not plan to part with her work soon. “She’s the best-kept secret in America. Her work is undervalued.”
No one is happier about the donation than Louis-Dreyfus’s three children. “I’m thrilled to pieces about it. It’s a perfect move – one that addresses the philanthropic desires he’s been focused on his whole life,” says Julia, whose two sisters are trained social workers. “And what would I do with 3,000 paintings?” she cracks.
In the interest of raising the value of his collection, her traditionally press-shy father has recently begun cooperating with efforts to raise its profile – notably with a documentary, Generosity of Eye, which was narrated by Julia and directed by her husband Brad Hall. (It can be viewed on the website of the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection, ld-collection.org).
Though he is 82, Mr Louis-Dreyfus anticipates much effort ahead. “I’d love for some far-seeing collector to come along and buy the whole thing tomorrow so we can give it all to Harlem Children’s Zone, but I don’t see that happening. We have a long road before us.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.