On a crisp September afternoon in London, almost 400 lots from a private art collection came up for sale at Sotheby’s, in a much-anticipated auction replete with firsts.
Not only was it the first time that an oil painting by the highly regarded German abstract artist Tomma Abts had ever come up for auction – Zaarke (2000) more than trebled its presale estimate of £35,000 (almost Dh174,000) – but it was also the only time that any of the works from the much-coveted collection had ever been sold.
The collector? The world-famous fashion photographer Mario Testino, a man who has launched modelling careers with the lens of his camera, but also helped to sustain artistic ones thanks to his passion for contemporary art.
The reason? A good cause. Testino will use the proceeds from the sale to support the contemporary art museum he founded in 2012 in his home town of Lima, with the aim of giving local artists a platform for their work and exhibiting international contemporary art in Peru.
Thanks to two sales and an online auction, Testino’s MATE – Museo Mario Testino will benefit from a healthy endowment. The afternoon sale, which featured works by Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Ruff and Ugo Rondinone, generated a cool £6,285,375 (Dh31 million), while the day sale, which also included works by Tracey Emin, Urs Fischer, Luc Tuymans and Shirin Neshat, resulted in sales of £2,423,313 (Dh12m). The top lot in the online sale was Richard Mosse’s Lac Vert, which sold for £28,000 (Dh138,000).
Although the diverse works were, undoubtedly, contemporary, they were also linked by the eye of their collector, which has proved itself to be as brave as it is astute, guided more by the need to be provoked and challenged than soothed. “People always say: ‘You have to buy what you like’, and I’m not so sure of that phrase. I think you almost have to buy what puzzles you, what attracts you and what, at the same time, confuses you, because there needs to be a space for growth,” Testino tells me before the auction.
“What you like is something you’ve already consumed. And once you take it home, it has no space to grow, so you get bored of it quite quickly. Whereas what attracts you, but confuses you, has a long time to grow, and so you can live with it for a much longer time,” says the photographer, who has created campaigns for fashion labels such as Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Valentino and Versace.
Guided by such impulses, Testino has been collecting art ever since he started making money from his photography in London in the 1980s – his work first appeared in British Vogue in 1983 – and has benefitted from the feedback of a trusted inner circle of aesthetic advisers, including the photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd (stepbrother to Diana, Princess of Wales) and the art dealer Sadie Coles, whose artists feature heavily in Testino’s collection.
The result is an art collection that is still housed worldwide, much of it in storage, but some of which Testino has also lived with. Works from the sale, such as Anselm Kiefer’s collage H20, hung in the photographer’s kitchen, while Richard Prince’s picture of a girl astride a motorcycle, Untitled (Girlfriend), was not only mounted above the headboard of Testino’s bed, but also featured in a photo shoot with the supermodel Kate Moss.
If Testino’s collection features stellar works by internationally recognised artists, it also contains lesser-known pieces by ones who are just at the beginning of their careers, which means that some of his investments now seem incredibly well-judged, while others appear as acts of patronage.
The sale not only contained incredibly rare and sought-after paintings by 36-year-old artist Tauba Auerbach and works by Laura Owens, whose mid-career retrospective is just about to open at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, but also contained pictures that were estimated to sell for as little as £400 (Dh2,000).
“The very important thing is that I collected artists young. The interesting thing for me was that I became so obsessed with it – that my buying was associated with making young artists stay alive almost, because I was buying them quite early on and betting on people that had no proof,” Testino tells me.
“My money was going into things that could make it or couldn’t make it. But I was excited by the process with the artists, participating with the artist’s career and development and growth. They also all surprised me with what they did.”
When I ask if the sale represents an end to his collecting days, the photographer responds with an emphatic “definitely not”.
“I’ll continue to collect and support young artists. The art world is where I feed. It opens my eyes to new things and shifts my consciousness. What I love about it is that it’s constantly challenging us to look at things differently, not necessarily because you like them, but because you are surprised and curious,” he insists.
“Just as photography is a vehicle for me to live a new moment, to go to a new place, meet a new person and so on, art is a process of encounter and discovery. Art is never static.”
This article originally appeared in The National.