Wednesday, 3 June 2009

On the pleasures of ownership

Climbing the staircase to the very top of his 19th century townhouse in the middle of Geneva, Jean Bonna itemises each magnificent work of art as he shuffles past, pausing a couple of times to gesture and offer an observation.

“Here you have some of the Italians,” he says languidly. “Castiglione … another Tiepolo. Those are three of the Durer prints of the unicorn. This is the Whore of Babylon” At the top of the staircase he pauses, and then heads off into an airy room. “Now this Courbet, it really is absolutely exceptional. And the Delacroix and the Gericault… “

The list goes on and on, through all three floors of his house. This Friday, the most spectacular of this endless parade of drawings will find their way into an Edinburgh exhibition: Raphael to Renoir: Master Drawings from the collection of Jean Bonna. It is, as they say, unmissable.

The show is the only European outing of a unique selection of artworks originally chosen by curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It will form the centrepiece of the National Gallery of Scotland’s festival exhibition schedule, an extraordinary display of works, which together capture, as Mr Bonna puts it, “the first thoughts” of the great artists. “Even when they are finished drawings,” he says, “they are more immediate than a painting, more spontaneous. There is movement, more life.”

Each of the Edinburgh works is taken from the walls of this rambling, very intimate house. From Raphael’s Study of Soldiers (which normally adorns the ground-floor sitting room) via Woman in a White Bonnet by George Seurat, and Odilon Redon’s vibrant pastel, La Barque, they hang in its bedrooms and parlours, the corridors and anterooms, arranged for their owner’s particular delight.

Mr Bonna, now retired, was the fifth generation of his family to enter the well-rewarded and very grown-up world of merchant banking, but he has been an incorrigible collector, since childhood. When he was 11, he was gifted a book written by the president of the Bouquinistes – or booksellers – of the Paris Quais, even then inscribed “to one of my good clients”.

Thus encouraged, for decades French Literature consumed him, until he had collected everything, “from the first literary work to the beginning of the 20th century”. Everything? It seems an astonishing claim. This dapper little man in his neat jacket, a striped shirt and braces, stops and considers for a moment. “I am missing maybe 15 major books.” he says thoughtfully.

But it was never just about literature for Mr Bonna. He has knitted together in his many different collections a personal world of high culture, in which his own good taste is arbiter.

There are autographs of most of those French authors, from A to Zola, filed away in a cabinet on the third floor of the house. The Durers on the staircase are symbols of what he modestly calls “the nucleus of a print collection”. He has an assortment of Louis XV and Louis XVI chairs and other antique furniture; an array of vintage photography; and what he describes as “a few bronzes and a few terracottas”. He loves music, though he protests that he doesn’t collect it. “I have a few things by Wagner I could show you,” he says, “but that is slightly besides the point.” Mr Bonna, in his mid-sixties, even collects ex-wives – there are two of those bumping around Switzerland.

Drawings by the great masters, however, have been the heart of his obsession for the best part of 25 years. He purchased his first in 1985, L’Aubergiste courtisee (The Courted Maid) by Hubert Robert, though it was three years before he bought again at Christie’s in New York.

Gradually he met dealers, curators and other collectors, becoming immersed in a whole new world of high culture, studying, learning and buying whenever he found something he liked and could afford. The 120 drawings he has loaned for the Edinburgh show represent slightly more than a third of his total collection, and the larger portion will remain on the walls of this house. He even employs two full-time curators.

There is a price on all this. Over these last two decades he has parted, he admits, with millions of dollars, including the [euros]650,000 he spent at auction on Parmigianino’s The Holy Family with Shepherds and Angels, a work he describes as “the most important Italian old master drawing, his best study for his finest painting”.

But playing this market is not just about wealth, he insists. “‘Means’, as they say in France, ‘is a condition which is necessary, but not sufficient,’” he says. “The first quality you require to build a collection of either books or drawings is passion. It you are not passionate you do not do it. Even when I was working, if I had a free hour, I would visit antique shops, a dealer, a museum, a curator. It consumed all my time, besides my profession and my family. It takes you over completely.”

Mr Bonna’s passion for art never ends. In a drawing collection, he says, each image has a different subject, and their number is almost limitless. Theoretically you could collect forever, though there are constraints.

“If you decide to make a collection, say, of French literature, you will inevitably buy an author which you don’t like. I am not particularly fond of Rousseau but I still have everything written by him, in first edition and in contemporary bindings, because he is very important in the history of ideas. But you could never buy a drawing you don’t like – or at least I cannot,” he says.

He has a some tips for anyone with a few spare shekels and time to cultivate the market. It is not wise to buy at auction too often, he advises, it only antagonises the dealers. Better to cultivate the dealers and curators, and keep track of the ownership of the finest drawings – this way you’ll know in advance when an opportunity to buy might arise.

And learn where to shop for bargains., he says Not at flea markets – “I never find things in flea markets” – but at booksellers who will occasionally buy whole libraries from dying collectors. Often there are drawings in among these books, and the dealers sometimes have little idea of their true worth. Occasionally, Mr Bonna has left a shop with an old master in a paper bag, worth many times its purchase price, and a satisfied smile on his lips.

From such efforts, great collections grow, and with them a warm sensation which he recognises as the pleasure of possession. “I wouldn’t say it made you feel good or even better. You simply feel different.”

Can he define the pleasure of passion more precisely? Mr Bonna has an anecdote to encapsulate exactly what he means. He recently spent a fascinating day at the Uffizi in Florence, poring over the drawing collections, and absorbing the wisdom of the curators. It was absolutely fascinating, he says.

“But ownership is another ingredient altogether,” he adds, suddenly animated. “To have a Raphael on your own wall – when you come home at night you can say: ‘This is mine!’”

* Raphael to Renoir: Master Drawings from the Collection of Jean Bonna, 5th June to 6th September. £4 (£3). National Galleries complex, the Mound, Edinburgh.

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