“Leave the bar and focus on the bell.” That’s what keeps Serge Tiroche focused on discovery. Discovery of contemporary works of art created by artists of African descent. With a collecting career that spans more than thirty years — family auction house and international art trading, then running an artist incubator project, then founding an art fund and now building a private collection of African art — the former wealth manager now aims at bridging cultural and artistic wealth.
In this Collector Spotlight, we explore Serge’s approach to acquisition and his extensive and diverse art collection including works by Zanele Muholi, Bronwyn Katz, and Ablade Glover. We learn that taste evolves and that a collection “should be something that breathes. You should always bring new things into it and let things go that don’t fit anymore.”
Thanks a lot for having me. I haven't prepared anything particular for this talk and so I'm just going to share a little bit about myself, and if people have questions, I am happy to speak to anyone who wants to get some advice or know more about what we're doing at Africa First.
Let me start with a bit about my background. I'm Israeli. I was born here, moved to the US very young and came back to Israel. When I was six, I already spoke three languages, so I immediately went to an international school. I then did my military service between the ages of 18 and 21, and then went abroad to Paris, for an undergraduate degree at the American University of Paris.
At the time, my parents had moved to Paris to work in the art industry as fine art dealers, buying and selling through auctions. While I was living in Paris, I got involved in the family activity and that's when I started my hands own experience in the market for fine art. A couple of years later, I started my own collection of contemporary art.
I started collecting Israeli contemporary and very quickly started going to the main art fairs — Art Basel, Frieze, and FIAC — and started a small collection of contemporary international art. I then went on to get an MBA from INSEAD in France, after which I went into finance, in wealth management, for about 10 years, until 2007 just, before the financial crisis. Then came the classic midlife crisis after which I decided to really follow my passions and my heart. I decided to leave banking, so I stepped back, took a sabbatical, and started to think long and hard about how I would combine my passions for investments and for collecting art …and came up with a few ideas.
The first of which was to found an artist incubator project. That was a completely new concept at the time. I took that from seeing incubators in the tech industry and thought, why not invest in artists — they need to have a whole set of skills in order to succeed in the art market. I wanted to help artists hone those skills and develop and guide them into a career in art. So I founded ST-ART in 2008.
Another initiative in 2011, which is what brought me to African contemporary art, was that I decided to create an art fund focused on contemporary art from developing markets. I raised about 20 million dollars and we started investing. It was a ten-year project, which we are actually closing right now, it's the final days of the fund. We started collecting in 2011, we turned it into a fund in 2012, and it closes ten years later, which is where we are now. It's called Art Vantage and it owns a collection called the Tiroche DeLeon Collection. It's a significant collection that we built mostly between 2011 and 2017, making acquisitions across the developing world. A lot of art from Asia, South America, a tiny bit in Israel, the Middle East and obviously Africa.
And funnily enough, the first trip we made for the fund was to an art fair in India, Mumbai, the India Art Fair. There, I met an Indian gallerist who was representing El Anatsui. So, the first major piece we bought was by El Anatsui.
Well, I discovered El Anatsui, like most people in the West, when he participated in Venice at the Biennale a few years earlier, and I was completely blown away by the work. I always knew that once I could afford it, I would want to buy one. She had in the booth actually two beautiful pieces. I bought one first and then after a while, I bought the second one. We were lucky to own, in the fund altogether, five El Anatsui wall sculptures that since then have all sold. They were excellent investments.
I think it's no secret that investing has become a more significant part of the puzzle of what makes a decision for people to acquire art. Of course, it has to be coupled with passion and interest and knowledge and research. But the value of art is escalating all the time and if you used to be able to buy good art for relatively little money, today, it's no longer the case. If you want to purchase good, established art, you have to put up serious capital. So you need to do your research. You need to make your selections carefully. It's not necessarily because you want to resell, make a profit, or be a dealer. You can be a collector, but you need to be confident that you're investing smartly for the long term and that you're not destroying hard-earned capital in the long term. So thinking about the investment potential of art, especially if you're collecting established artists, is a very important factor.
For me, the medium is not such an important factor when I look at art. For me, it's about originality, creativity and the quality of craftsmanship. I'm very much into craft. This Kimathi Mafafo piece behind me has amazing craftsmanship. She doesn't do it all by herself and that's great. She uses machinery and employs people who know how to sew these pieces and how to put them together. They're gorgeous objects. So a lot of things come into play when I decide what to acquire and the medium is just one of those things. It could be photography, it could be sculpture, it could be painting, it could be a tapestry. It could be videos.
We have to separate the two activities. When I was running the fund, I had what I call the barbell strategy where I would look for a few very important artists that would serve as the core around which we build regional portfolios. So, for the African portfolio, that was El Anatsui, William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo. And there were younger, more emerging artists. We made some great discoveries for the fund. Artists whose careers have skyrocketed since — Igshaan Adams, Turiya Magadlela — when we bought them, they were completely unknown and now they're superstars of the industry.
When I stopped collecting for the fund in 2017, I decided to focus my own private collecting activity purely on African contemporary art. I founded Africa First and the idea of Africa First was, leave the bar and only focus on the bell.
"Leave the bar and only focus on the bell."
[The idea was to] look at young, emerging artists and discover them very, very early. Today, I sometimes buy works directly from artists, artists that approach me, or that I find through Instagram or through people I know. Sometimes I buy them before they’ve even signed with a gallery.
I’d like to think that the fact that they join the collection and feature on my Instagram is something that people in the industry follow. Usually, things then start to happen with them, after a while they get signed by a gallery, and they get invited to participate in the Biennale.
When they have a broader following, we use our contacts to organize auctions. I’ve collaborated with Artnet, I work closely with Philips, with Sotheby’s, with Lempertz… When the time is right and it helps promote the artist’s visibility and career.
I think it depends on what you do for artists. If you're just buying for yourself and you're circumventing the galleries, I think the problem is with the artist in that case. It's like adding another gallery or another agent to develop your career. If you're selling directly to collectors behind the backs of your galleries in the markets where your galleries operate, that's a problem. And that's an artist education problem. So we have to separate those things. Africa First is a full-time job for me, and not just for me. There's a team of people working here. So the fact that we haven't chosen to be a gallery doesn't mean we don't have our own set of expenses around the program that we're running.
We've actually started a collaboration with Israel’s top gallery as we speak and we’re going to start exhibition programmes here (at the time of publication we’ve had 3 exhibitions already). Africa First is a collection, it's a residency project and in a way, it's becoming kind of a gallery. We're also intermediaries to auction houses. So we're this hybrid model where we do everything. We're full-time players in the industry, sometimes more significant than some of the smaller galleries and definitely less significant than some of the larger galleries in terms of our contribution or possible contribution to the careers of artists.
But to answer your question about speculation, definitely. We spoke about investment as being so much more significant today than it was in the past. People have made a lot of money buying and selling art in general, contemporary art in particular and African contemporary art in recent years has been hot turf for art speculators.
And of course, the disconnect between primary and secondary is very obvious. I think we all see it. Even me, I guess you can consider me an insider of the industry, there’re a lot of artists I missed. And at some point, when they’re no longer available in the primary market, I certainly can’t buy them in the secondary market with the crazy premiums that they’re trading at.
Fortunately, there are other artists out there and you look elsewhere. You have to do your research and know where prices are in the primary market. And if you’re willing to pay the premium, it needs to be a reasonable premium to primary prices because what’s happening also is that primary prices are constantly on the up because secondary prices are so strong, that galleries find it much easier to justify increasing primary market prices.
You also have to think, “if I didn’t buy in this exhibition and everything was sold out, and there’s a 50 person waitlist, by the time, my turn comes, the prices will have gone up 50% in the primary market as well. So maybe I should just buy at auction now.” You need to try to understand how real the demand is. How much does the artist produce, is this work of exceptional quality that I won’t be able to find in the future? There are all kinds of things you need to consider before making a decision to buy in the secondary market.
But it’s true the demand for African figuration is peaking. I think the warning bells are out there. We need to be very careful and very selective when we’re buying black figuration at the moment because there’s a lot of it. For now, it continues to go up and defy gravity but at some point, I think people will come back to their senses and we’ll see a lot of those names start dropping. There’s too much speculation. People bought too many works and they’re going to want to offload them at some point and at then there’ll be more supply than demand and that’s when prices will start to drop.
I think abstraction was always a field of its own and it is limitless in its possibilities and the mediums that African artists use. There’s a very distinguishable abstraction in African art, which is what makes it so unique and so beautiful. I think that we’ll see more abstraction and that we’ll be more attentive to it, but that doesn’t mean figuration is going to go away. Figuration has always been there even when it wasn’t popular and it’ll continue to be there. There are also limitless options with figuration. So it’s just a question of trends and I see my role as trying to forerun the trends. Today I’m very curious about trying to find more abstract artists that I think are innovative and interesting. There’re lots of great artists that actually combine the two in very smart ways — figuration and abstraction in the same work.
I add almost every day. I've had this sort of cap in my mind of 500 works. I'm approaching it. That's my biggest dilemma now, how am I going to collect less. The thing is that, as I was building the collection and found artists that I liked, I sometimes bought up to 7, 8, 9 works by the artist and those artists, their careers have matured, they're now with galleries, they now have secondary market demand. So it's a way for me to fund new acquisitions. I've been occasionally selling works by artists where I have a large number of their works. I still believe in their practice, but I use that capital and roll it into younger artists.
And that allows me to continue to collect, which is what I love doing. So the pace is going to slow down, obviously, because I'm reaching my cap of 500 works, but I continue to acquire very regularly. I'm looking at things every day, I get sent things I ask for information from galleries, and the remit of the collection is huge. Think about it. It's 54 countries in Africa plus artists of the African diaspora. I've been collecting quite a few British artists, some American artists, and some South American artists, so it's really broad.
My father always told me that his favourite piece was the one he just bought and just hung. So in my case, it's the Kimathi Mafafo and Moufouli Bello. Moufouli Bello is one of my recent favourites. I was in her studio in Paris and I saw what she was working on. I was just blown away. She's such a terrific artist. She's not just a painter, she's a conceptual artist as well. I think she'll go very far.
If you're starting to build a collection, I think it's important to figure out what you're trying to achieve for yourself and to figure out what your budget is. Are you buying for your home? Are you buying for your office? Are you buying because you're passionate and you don't care where it hangs? What is your collection going to be about? And then take time to research. The more you see, the more you engage, the more secure you can feel about the decisions you make. And it's okay also to buy and a couple of years later decide that it's no longer a fit and to sell. A collection should be a living organism. It should be something that breathes. You should always bring new things into it and let things go that don't fit anymore. Taste changes and evolves. So, I think just take your time, think about what you want to do, do the research and step in. Don't be afraid to step in. There are always ways out as well.
What is it all about? It's a question I ask myself every day. Where are you going with all of this? What are you doing?
Well, I've actually been thinking very hard about that for some time. And for part of my collection, I've sort of come up with a new idea. I can't share it yet, but I have thoughts on what to do with a big part of my collection. I'll share news when it's relevant, but yes, I am thinking long term on what this is all about.