Standing six meters tall, French artist Jean Dubuffet’s blue, red, white and black sculpture decorates the entrance of the Beirut headquarters of Bank Audi, Lebanon’s largest bank. It is one among many modern pieces that adorn the head office. Old masters’ paintings also feature in Bank Audi’s corporate art collection on display in their offices in Switzerland. The bank’s mosaic pieces are placed at Villa Audi, the bank’s art space. For this month’s special report, Executive visited Raymond Audi, the bank’s chairman and a Lebanese art patron, for an insight on the bank’s art collection.
Walking into the Bab Idriss headquarters, one cannot but notice the impressive tower sculpture of Dubuffet. Why did you choose to acquire this piece 12 years ago for the entrance of the headquarters?
When we had to find a sculpture piece for the entrance, I wanted to have a sculpture by French artist Bernar Venet, but my son, who is my art mentor, suggested to have a more colorful piece. We went to the Dubuffet foundation because we knew the person responsible for the art collection of [French automaker] Renault. It was very expensive and it is one of our most valuable pieces. I told Venet that we will switch him to another place in the bank and his piece is now placed at the Wadi Abou Jmiel entrance of the bank. He promised me that he will offer to Lebanon one big piece, like when the French artist Arman offered a piece [Hope for Peace] to the Lebanese army [in 1995]. I’m still expecting one day he will come and offer a piece for the town.
Raymond Audi takes pride in the bank’s art collection
When did Bank Audi first start its art collection?
Before the [Lebanese Civil War started in 1975], I was collecting mosaics and I bought piece after piece from several places to decorate the walls of our branches. After buying a bank in Switzerland and spending time there after the war, we discovered that it was a good opportunity to start collecting Flemish and Spanish art because of the tax benefits on art investments. So we collected about 13 valuable pieces from renowned artists such as Pieter Brueghel (the younger) and Lucas Cranach (the elder) that are in our Swiss offices. As I started moving in and out of Lebanon, I started supporting Lebanese artists and buying some beautiful pieces from artists such as Paul Wakim and Jean Marc Nahhas.
How do you go about acquiring a piece of art?
I hate to go to the launching of art exhibitions at galleries because you are surrounded by lots of people and the gallery owners want you to buy immediately. That’s why I don’t go. I go suddenly when I am free and without saying who I am. If I find something nice, I buy. I don’t have art advisors [except for my] son, [who] knows a lot about art, especially modern art.
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Who is your favorite artist?
For me, Paul Wakim is one of the best, and he is a fantastic guy. I knew him from his early days when he was painting with cats all around him.
With time, I discovered he does not deserve to be helped. I helped him raise the value of what he is doing in such a way that he should at least help me in developing our art collection. Anytime I ask for a good piece, he prices it highly, and he is becoming greedy. I am not happy about him, but for me, he is one of the best.
What are your thoughts on the Lebanese art market today?
We don’t have a national museum that collects pieces of art and gives them a proper reference. The galleries, which are the main art dealers, are over-inflating the prices on pieces that are of bad quality. They are not differentiating between the good and bad quality pieces.
Do you acquire art for investment purposes? To sell them for profit?
It is becoming more and more of an investment, and the value of our art collection [which remains undisclosed] is very high. But the choice of the piece depends on its quality more than on its value. Some good painters are not paid what they deserve, and some are very well paid for what they don’t deserve. This is the current art situation, and I pay very close attention to it.
With art pieces fetching exorbitant prices, some industry experts are saying art valuation is a bubble that will eventually pop. Do you agree?
We feel that art is becoming a kind of haven for [some] investors because they don’t know what to do with their money, especially for the ones that are asked questions like, ‘From where did you get your money, how did you make it’ and so on. They don’t like to answer these questions, so they prefer to invest in art.
Some large investment banks are offering their private banking clients an opportunity to invest in funds dedicated to art. Is this something that Bank Audi would consider?
Would you consider opening a gallery?
We don’t want to be a seller or merchant of art. We have in Villa Audi a display ground where we feature a retrospective of artists that passed away, for them to be better known after their death. I would like to create a museum for mosaics at Villa Audi, but unfortunately archeology in Lebanon is a major problem. Authorities consider any collector as a smuggler. Any new minister that wanted to help was dismissed. Villa Audi is not officially a museum, but in fact it is a museum.