Unseen – Collector of the month: Aernoud Bourdrez

In this series of interviews, we explore the lives of various collectors by looking at what, why and how they collect. Focusing on a range of collectors, from art advisers to personal collectors themselves, we find out what drives their fascination with collecting photography.

This week, we talk to Aernoud Bourdrez, a lawyer specialized in copyright law who has acquired an impressive photography collection while acting as a legal representative of many Dutch photographers. Aernoud’s collection is shaped by his fascination with originality and artists who challenge our prejudices and, implicitly, our narrow definitions of what constitutes art.

What is your stance on the psychology of collecting? How did your collection evolve?

For the purpose of my latest exhibition at Huize Frankendael, I divided my collection according to the various driving forces that guided me when collecting photography. My initial drive was materialism. I used to search for iconic pieces with an urge resembling greed. I had to have them. For instance, that is how I came to own the man jumping over the puddle (officially called Behind the Gare St. Lazare) by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
After materialism followed association: animals, cars and women. All easy themes to relate to. From association I went to arousal, with works by Helmut Newton. After arousal, I developed an interest in fascinating stories told by documentary photographers, which gradually evolved into an interest in the photographers themselves. And so on. There is no artistic hierarchy among all these phases. Each phase includes beautiful and interesting art that will last but also art that I would not purchase again.
What I discovered was that most art collectors I know have followed exactly the same route, starting with materialism, followed by association, and so on. If we appear to follow a certain pattern, we can get a better understanding of what motivates us and, even more interestingly, what we should look for in our next purchase.
Only the most recent phases I’ve gone through became, in my view, more personal. After I developed an interest for artists who reinvented themselves and built an oeuvre (Viviane Sassen, Jacqueline Hassink and Paul Kooiker), I became fascinated by art that questioned my prejudices.
Could works without an author (e.g. speed radar and detective cameras) be art? And what about artists whose works borrow or appropriate from others without the kind of permission that copyright laws require (e.g. Richard Prince, Rob Scholte). How can they get away with it?
Today, I am fascinated by artists who help me gain a better understanding of certain things: what art is, what it can do, how it can make us rethink copyright law and other laws that have a say in defining or even allowing art. No clue as to what my next phase will be, nor whether I am half way through the current phase or only just at the beginning.

As a lawyer, you reflect a great deal on conflict and the complex dynamics behind it. Can you tell us how this is reflected in your collection? Is it driven by harmony or contrast?

I don’t like conflict, but I do feel very much attracted to it. At the same time, I’m always looking for harmony. This interplay of conflict and harmony has formed the basis of my collection, plus an added special interest in works that address conflicts between the art world and the copyright law. Richard Prince’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2007 left me completely puzzled, as I found all of his works to be blatant copyright infringements constituting criminal offences. It inspired me to fly to Chicago to meet Jim Krantz, the commercial photographer who shot the Marlboro Man ad that Prince copied and later sold for $ 2.4 million. The purpose of my trip was to acquire one of Krantz’s works that had been copied by Richard Prince. I liked the idea of obtaining a ‘more original’ work, reproduce Richard Prince’s signature and add edition 3 out of 2 (the edition of Prince is 2/2). At that time, my paradigm for art was originality, which is not uncommon for a copyright lawyer; originality is the first criterion for copyright protection. It was only later that I started to understand the concept of the intervention, which can result in an authentic artwork without actually having to create the object itself (e.g. Brillo by Andy Warhol, Fountain by Marcel Duchamp).

How many works do you currently own and what is your long term vision for your collection?

I now own around 150 works, but I have less of an urge to collect for the time being. I decided not to buy any clothes, art, gadgets or anything else I do not urgently need in 2018. As of late, my fascination lies in the ideas behind the work, the intellectual property of the artist, especially when it comes to artists who are capable of changing mindsets.

Talk us through some of the artists in your collection. We know you appreciate the oeuvre of Dana Lixenberg, for instance.

The beauty of Dana’s work is that she can capture people in a subtle way, without imposing herself on the picture. At the same time, she has a clear though modest signature in her images. What I like about photography is that you can recognise the character of the photographer in the image. In each of Dana’s works you notice her boundless respect for her subjects. In 1998, I was sharing a flat in New York with Morad Bouchakour, who pointed her out to me at a party, explaining: “Look, that is Dana Lixenberg. If you look at her contact sheets, you will see that almost every picture is perfect.” I have various works by Dana. But also works by Bouchakour, who is a master of the decisive moment. I collect mainly Dutch photographers, since those are the ones I mainly work for. The vast majority of the works I own are from my clients.

Is it true you have amassed your collection mostly through bartering?

I did barter for some works, but I’ve purchased most of them. Happily, photographers are very generous. More than once, photographers have given me a print as a present.

What are some of the things you’ve bartered for artworks – aside from the already infamous case of the DAF 46 you traded for an X ray of Jackass star Ryan Dunn?

I’d heard about a well-known person who in addition to his normal family life, also had a secret second life. I was informed that he had captured that second life in a photobook, which he keeps in a locked drawer at his office. Indirectly, I sent him a letter in which I proposed to exchange that book for immortality. I offered to exhibit that book in a bullet-proof glass display case, promising that I would only disclose his identity and the content of the book after his death. That would put him in good company, along with the late Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and the late French ex President Mitterrand, both of whom arranged to have their extramarital relationships disclosed only after they passed away. He has accepted my proposal, so I am now in the process of having the display case produced and hope to receive the book soon.

When do you prefer to barter for works rather than purchase them? Is it more exciting and challenging to find material equivalents for art than to organise a straightforward monetary exchange?

I prefer to barter in cases where taking money would be second best or even inappropriate, and especially where the other party is triggered by the non-financial elements of the proposal. In general, though, I prefer to purchase works, just like I prefer to be paid for my legal services. That keeps most exchanges simple.

What draws you to events such as Unseen Amsterdam?

Twenty-some years ago, we still needed to explain why photography qualifies as an art form. Nobody would question that today. Events like Unseen have made an important contribution to the emancipation of the photographic medium in the art world. All key players in the photography world – not least the photographers! – seem to feel at home at Unseen. That’s one of the things that I find interesting and inspiring about the event.

Is there perhaps an image or an artist that left a lasting impression on you at the 2017 edition of Unseen Amsterdam?

At the last edition of Unseen, I saw the work of Liz Nielsen shown by Danziger Gallery. But she doesn’t have a camera! Instead, she creates her work in the darkroom. Fantastic. I had never heard of that before. She doesn’t even know what the work will look like. Nevertheless, she calls herself a photographer. I would really like to acquire one of her works. First thing in 2019, I will reach out to her.

Aernoud Bourdrez works with Florent and is author of various books, amongst which the international bestseller Think Like a Lawyer, Don’t Act Like One.

Unseen, March 12 2018


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