Christian Levett’s collection, at home and in his museum, highlights the influence of classical sculpture on contemporary art. Claire Wrathall went to meet him. Photographs by James Mollison
This article appears in the January/February 2016 edition of Christie’s magazine
At the end of the worktop in the principal kitchen of Christian Levett’s rented London home stands a first-century marble head of a Roman noblewoman. To an inexpert eye it is extraordinarily lovely, a countenance divine even. But, says Levett, ‘It’s not a super-high-quality piece,’ hence its relegation to a room in which the second most expensive table ornament is probably the espresso maker.
Levett made his fortune managing hedge funds, but his passion is collecting and his taste is eclectic. On the far wall of the large open-plan living area is a Damien Hirst spot painting, next to which hangs 3 ovali rossi by Turi Simeti , a compatriot and contemporary of Enrico Castellani. Levett bought it at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht three years ago and believes it has since doubled in value.
There are more antiquities on the mantelpiece: a first- or second-century Roman bust that Levett bought in late 2008 for £8,000 and reckons must have quintupled in value (‘It’s pretty rare because so much of its chest is intact,’ he says); and an exquisitely detailed bronze of a captured Gaul or Barbarian, his hands tied behind his back and a band around the bottom of his trousers. This, along with the Gaulish torque he is wearing, his long hair and his unkempt beard, reveals his race. ‘That’s a rare and very high-quality piece,’ says Levett, ‘even though we don’t know where it was found.’
In contrast, the giant stoneware head on a plinth that stands in the window is from the Heroic Heads series by Marcus Harvey ,the former YBA who caused a storm with his infamous Myra Hindley portrait made from children’s handprints at the Royal Academy’s 1997 Sensation show; he is now represented by London’s Vigo Gallery, which Levett co-owns. And beside that is a smaller head in a military helmet by Steve Goddard, a work from his German Soldier series, decorated with an Iron Cross. It’s an important detail, because medals were Levett’s way into art.
The son of an Essex bookmaker, he spent his 1970s childhood in Southend, making Airfix models of warplanes and watching war movies on TV. ‘My dad had been a soldier for 11 years and had a fascination with the army, and various family members had fought in the First World War and the Boer War,’ he says. ‘Then a shop opened on our street selling coins and medals. My mother used to take me there, and that’s what I’d spend my pocket money on.’ At the age of seven or eight, the collecting impulse was beginning to manifest itself.
Levett began to buy coins, too — Greek and Roman ones when he could afford them. ‘When I was a kid, going to art museums wasn’t something we did, and we certainly didn’t have any art in the house — my parents couldn’t afford to spend money frivolously. But we did go to castles, cathedrals and archaeological sites, and museums like the Tower of London and the Natural History and Science Museums. So I’ve always been interested in history and historical objects.’
‘It struck me as unbelievable, absolutely mind-blowing, that you could buy ancient armour and classical marble sculptures’
It was as a young commodities trader in Paris in the 1990s, however, that Levett really began to look at art, visiting the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay on hungover Sundays. In time he began to buy: ‘a lot’ of impressionist and modern drawings; hand-painted natural history books; antique furniture (‘though it was never a collection as such’) and militaria, specifically weapons and armour from the Hundred Years War. His old masters collection included the superb Frans Hals that once hung in Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel Air sitting room, although Levett’s ex-wife got them as part of a divorce settlement and, he notes ruefully, is gradually selling them off without telling him so he cannot buy them back.
Then, about 15 years ago, motivated by nothing more than curiosity, he ticked the box marked ‘antiquities’ on an auction-house catalogue-request form. The catalogue duly arrived and Levett was astonished. ‘It struck me as unbelievable, absolutely mind-blowing, that you could buy ancient armour and classical marble sculptures,’ he says. ‘And it all seemed so amazingly cheap compared with practically everything else.’
He began to buy ‘fanatically’, mostly at auction if rarely in person, preferring to leave absentee bids of what he felt were appropriate prices because, he says, ‘I never want to be excited into paying more.’ He pauses. ‘You do have to be a bit careful.’ Even so, he would sometimes buy 20 things in one auction. Within a decade, he’d acquired ‘about 1,000 pieces’, so had this ‘absolutely mammoth amount of things in storage’. And then he realised they needed to be curated: ‘The bronze works needed proper humidity; everything needed looking after.’
The answer was to hire a curator, the academic and archaeologist Mark Merrony, and to found a museum, and in 2011 the Musee d'Art Classique de Mougins (MACM) opened in the South of France, in a town that was an established haunt of artists close to the site of a Roman settlement. ‘Picasso, Man Ray, Picabia, Cocteau, and Leger, all lived there,’ says Levett, adding that Chagall and Dufy also had connections with the place.
The museum contains what is believed to be the largest collection of ancient armour and helmets in the world. Rather than focus on that, however, it struck Levett that more people would come if he were to capitalise on the area’s connection with other artists ‘to demonstrate how antiquities have influenced artists over the past 400 years’. Hence his decision to exhibit paintings from his other collections — works by many of the artists connected with Mougins, as well as Alexander Calder, Giorgio di Chirico, Roy Lichtenstein, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the baroque painter Alessandro Turchi.
‘It’s surprising how many 20th-century artists drew classical things or actually had a classical period,’ he says. ‘Yves Klein made several classical pieces [such as his Blue Venus], Dali turned Venus into a giraffe [in his bronze Vénus à la Girafe] and Warhol made screen prints of Botticelli’s Venus.’ Some of these are displayed in the museum alongside Roman depictions of the goddess of love and a Cézanne drawing of the Venus de Milo.
Elsewhere, a couple of second- and third-century busts of Caracalla — one in his prime, the other as a boy — stand next to a Matisse drawing of a bust of the emperor — ‘probably the one in the Louvre’ — and a bronze military diploma that once belonged to a Pretorian guard who served under him.
Levett and Marc Quinn have become friends, not least through their common interest in antiquities. ‘He has some incredible pieces,’ says the collector
There are contemporary works here, too, including a Hirst skull and a couple of sculptures by Marc Quinn, notably his marble bust Bill Waltier (Blind from Birth) from 2005. ‘It was an ideal piece to put in the museum,’ says Levett, ‘because it looks so like a Roman head. He even has a Julio-Claudian haircut a bit like the emperors had in the first century ad.’ Certainly this was the artist’s intention.
A second work by Quinn, an almost life-size lacquered bronze of a hunched youth in a hoodie with a skateboard and a skull (one of the artist’s Life Breathes the Breath series) is also included. Its pose and vanitas theme remind Levett of the 19th-century plaster casts made by the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli of the citizens who perished in the ash in Pompeii, crystallising the moment of death.
Levett and Quinn have become friends, not least through their common interest in antiquities. ‘He has some incredible pieces,’ says Levett. Not that it is unusual for artists to be interested in classical sculpture. Rubens amassed a celebrated collection (Levett owns his portraits of the emperors Vespasian and Vitellius), as did Sir Peter Lely and, latterly, Cy Twombly.
Main image at top: Levett in London with works from his collection including: (1) Steve Goddard, Soldat, 2010/2011 © Steve Goddard, courtesy the artist and Vigo Gallery; (2) Marcus Harvey, Tragic Head, 2012 © Marcus Harvey, courtesy the artist and Vigo Gallery; (3) David Bailey, Dead Andy © David Bailey, courtesy the artist; (4) Duncan MacAskill, Untitled, 2012 . © Duncan MacAskill, courtesy the artist and Vigo Gallery; (5) Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 1990. All rights reserved. DACS 2016.; (6) Duncan MacAskill, A Road Left Vacant, 2012 © Duncan MacAskill, courtesy the artist and Vigo Gallery. Among the antiquities are: (7) an Egyptian cartonnage mask from the 3rd century B.C.; (8) a Chalcidian bronze helmet from the 4th century B.C.; (9) a Roman fragmentary bust of a young boy
But perhaps the stellar exhibit at MACM is the Cobham Hall Hadrian, a Roman marble statue from circa 117–138 A.D., with detailing so fine that even the diagonal crease across his left earlobe — an indication that the emperor, despite his washboard abs, may have been suffering from coronary artery disease — is visible. When he bought it at Christie’s in New York in 2008, the hammer price with buyer’s premium was $902,500 (against an estimate of $350,000–550,000). But all things being relative, says Levett, ‘it was actually quite cheap’ given its ‘incredible provenance’.
In a sector of the market that has historically been complicated both by a flood of looted works and by several scandals involving fakes, provenance can be prized even above condition. In this instance there was documentary evidence to suggest that it had stood at the Villa Montalto-Negroni-Massimi in Rome until John Bligh, fourth Earl of Darnley, acquired it on a grand tour in the late 18th century and brought it back to his ancestral home in Kent.
‘Museums won’t show a piece if it doesn’t have a pre-1970 provenance, so it’s absolutely critical,’ says Levett, although he does add that it is sometimes possible to make weak provenance work in your favour. ‘I bought a bust of Alexander the Great for absolutely nothing because the vendor missed its provenance, but we’d discovered it had been published five times between about 1870 and 1955.’
‘You do get to know people in the museums,’ Levett says. ‘That way you get impartial advice’
Listen to Levett describe in detail the works in his collection and he sounds like a scholar, someone for whom research and the acquisition of knowledge is as much of a pleasure as ownership. ‘You do get to know people in the museums,’ he says. ‘I have good connections with the Greek and Roman departments at the British Museum, the [Sir John] Soane’s, the Ashmolean in Oxford and the Met in New York. That way you get impartial advice.’
To further his own and others’ understanding of antiquities, he also owns the magazine Minerva, a leading international publication on ancient art, archaeology, museums and the trade in antiquities.
And his philanthropy extends from academe to archaeological projects. These include the British Museum’s dig at Naukratis in Egypt and its draining of the pantanello (little swamp) at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli near Rome, where many important statues were unearthed in the 18th century. ‘It looks as though they made a pretty good job of it,’ says Levett, for the current dig has yielded little of note.
But then, aren’t all the best collections born of a thirst for knowledge? And isn’t this why every great museum was founded? ‘At any one time we’ve probably got seven or eight pieces out on loan,’ says Levett. ‘And that’s really good.’ Whatever the pleasures of ownership, some works of art ‘need’ to be on public display, he believes, singling out Ai Weiwei’s monumental Iron Tree (2013), which belongs to him but resides at Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield.
Levett does keep some of his finest pieces to himself, though. Go up to the first floor of his house, past the Anish Kapoor on the stairs, and there, facing the bed in the master bedroom, is Tracey Emin’s huge embroidered calico Still Life (2012). ‘I bought it at Frieze and I think it’s a masterpiece,’ he says. ‘A premium work of art. Quite a cool piece.’ (Look closely, and what his younger son ‘thinks [is] a mountain range’ is actually one woman performing cunnilingus on another.)
It’s not the only arresting work in the room. On a console by the adjacent wall sits Antoine-Louis Barye’s scarcely less sensual 1857 bronze Theseus Slaying the Minotaur. In case it seems familiar, it’s just like the one in the Metropolitan’s collection in New York.