An Interview with Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza

Antiquities collector, committed scholar, research benefactor and now successful gallerist, Baron Lorne Thyssen Bornemisza talks to Andrew Davies about what it means to have inherited ‘the collector gene’.


As an Art Historian I am fortunate to meet many collectors but rarely ask that fundamental question, why collect?


I collect because I am able to, thank God! Having said that, at some time in the future, scientists working on the Human Genome Project may identify 'the collector gene'! I wouldn't be surprised. Having grown up surrounded by beautiful art certainly gives you an aesthetic predisposition. You then hone it over time and it takes you into new areas.


Indeed, your family’s collections, now in the Thyssen- Bornemisza Museum Madrid, need no introduction. But why did you choose to focus on antiquities over perhaps Old Masters like your father or contemporary art like your sister, Francesca (von Habsburg)?


I have always loved Roman history. Learning the historical backdrop gives you a whole new dimension to layer on top of the aesthetics. If you've read Tacitus' horrific accounts of the rule of Caligula, you will look at a bust or coin portrait of the emperor in a different way, looking for visual signs of his insanity: the high forehead, the bulging icy eyes, that sort of thing. You'll be looking for the exact opposite when gazing at a bust of Marcus Aurelius; signs of serene wisdom and so forth... contemporary art doesn't speak to me in the same way, I’m afraid.


Which part of the collecting process gives you the most enjoyment?


The great joy of collecting is when you find an object outside your frame of reference. The ancient craftsmen were also given to great flights of fancy. You might come across an unusually shaped wine jug or a bronze table mounted on goat legs, for example. The unexpected makes you pause and think: "Wow! That's insane, or creepy. But how beautifully executed". Or you just lay eyes on a piece that is so pleasing that you find yourself sharing in the artisan's own pride at his skill across two millennia.


Your private collection includes notable Roman sculpture. Antiquities tend to be three-dimensional; do you prefer sculpture over painting?


Well, that's a difficult question because you are comparing different media. I do love sculpture though. If you've spent long hours looking at Roman portraiture on coins through a loupe, a full sized bust is at the other end of the scale and pretty spectacular!


You collect coins with a focus on Emperor Hadrian. What is their attraction? Do you find coins difficult to display?


Hadrian is one of the emperors I do collect, but not the only one. I have quite a large series of coins of Septimius Severus too. Coins are difficult to display because by definition, you can only see one side at a time. I have an elaborate system in a vitrine, which rotates them, but it is expensive. Lighting is equally important and problematic. Most numismatic collections in national museums are poorly lit, which is a pity. At the risk of plugging a friend who is now a competitor, Michel-Max Bendenoun, who owns Tradart, does know how to light his coins beautifully!


Some objects are said to have a transportive nature. Given a time machine for a day, where would you go?


Second century Roman Syria I think. Though only on the condition that I got to be the Roman governor of course! Also, one day isn't nearly enough to do something fun, like having a piss-up in Palmyra, drinking fine Falernian wine from my own estate with my generals, being naughty with a favourite concubine and invading Persia the next day, for instance. Given that invading Persia didn't work out too well for Marcus Crassus, I might recruit some decent archers this time as well!


I read that you recently purchased your great-uncle’s medals. Many collectors would keep them in a bank vault. What are your plans?


The story of how my great-uncle Admiral Gordon Campbell was awarded the VC commanding a Q ship is quite extraordinary. Talk about sang-froid under enemy fire! I decided to display them at the Navy Museum in Portsmouth, because it is the most fitting venue. I greatly look forward to working with the curator. We hope to present all his campaign medals and photographs later in the year.


Of the various facets of your career – oil business, film producing/directing, becoming a gallerist – which gives you most satisfaction?


Directing is a wonderful experience because you are working on a living canvas with actors and a lighting crew and you are constantly working with the director of photography to tell the story the way you want, by the camera choices you make. Ridley Scott is the greatest director in my view, because every shot is a stunning canvas, and nobody is a greater master with the cameras. But he is also a very accomplished artist, who draws out the storyboards himself. I wish I had that talent! However, gathering beautiful art and displaying it in a gallery to best effect with special lighting and so forth is working on a different kind of canvas and I find it personally very rewarding.


Kallos means ‘beauty’ in Greek. Why did you choose London to open the Kallos Gallery?


London is the centre of the ancient art market in Europe and arguably the world, whilst Mayfair is the heart of the London art market and the location is central and welcoming. It is important to me that the gallery brings people together to act as a forum for those already engaged in ancient art and to inspire those new to the field.

Was it difficult to transition from being a leading collector to become a major gallerist?


My collection is Roman. When Kallos opened, the gallery sold exclusively Greek antiquities for this very reason; I did not want to be accused of cherry-picking the best pieces for my collection! As the gallery has grown and developed, and I have become more used to dealing, we have expanded our offering to include Egyptian, Roman, and ancient Near Eastern objects. Very few great pieces of Greek art are available on the market, so moving into ancient art more broadly was the natural progression for the gallery.


Having invested time, effort and study in acquiring items, have you ever found it hard to part with any piece?


It is always hard to part with things. As you know, I come by my collecting gene naturally! I suppose it’s because I love collecting, and because I love classical art, that I wanted to open the gallery – this is where those two worlds meet. Since my childhood I’ve always been fascinated by the way we seek to possess and cherish works of art; owning a gallery allows me to play a part as these important works of art pass from one owner to the next.


And in the future?


Kallos is still a new gallery, and it will grow organically. We aim to keep the bar high, and ensure that everything the gallery handles is best in class. This takes a not inconsiderable amount of time and research, but it is what our collectors have come to expect from us. We intend to continue participating in art fairs, and hope that our debut in TEFAF Showcase this year will be a stepping-stone into the fair proper when the time is right.


Art fairs offer the most wonderful opportunity to engage with collectors. Even having a double-fronted gallery in Mayfair can’t compete with the numbers you get at an art fair! And the wonderful thing about antiquities collectors is that they tend to be ‘owner-collectors’. They want to own and live with these pieces in the long-term, not just put them in a bank vault and hope they will make money. I love hearing about other people’s collections, how they got the bug, how their collections have grown and developed. It helps us to understand our collectors and grow our business tailored to their wants and needs.


So, if you were to advise a new collector about forming a collection of antiquities, where would you advise they start?


Buy what you love, but know that you will make mistakes. If you want to build an important collection over time, keep focus, maintain passion, and always buy the best that you can afford. And don’t be afraid to upgrade a piece if you find a finer example on the market. Exceptional works of art will always hold their value, aesthetically and commercially.


You and your gallery have always been happy to assist visitors, students and academics. Why do you attach such importance to supporting museums like the Ashmolean as well as projects supporting cultural understanding?


I recently completed a Classics degree and I’m involved in archaeology at Oxford University. The Ashmolean is a wonderful institution and I have had the honour of being involved in and supporting some excellent projects with the museum. Of course the Cast Gallery is an exceptional resource for students across a variety of disciplines. The Coin Hoards of the Roman Empire Project is particularly interesting to me. The project aims to collect and digitise information about hoards of all coinages in use in the Roman Empire between 30 BC and AD 400. So much history of the ancient world is recorded on coins, so when finished the database will be the most fantastic resource.

I also support field archaeology and research in the Middle East. In the face of terrorism that seeks to destroy all civilisation, the academic community is very much at the forefront of this fight. Ignorance can only be defeated by spreading knowledge of the common history between Europe and the Middle East. In this struggle we need to engage on all terrains, military and cultural alike.


Thank you for your time. I encourage everyone to visit you at TEFAF or at your Davies Street Gallery.




March 28, 2018