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March 8, 2013 7:19 pm
The house was not easy to find. The boat journey to get to it started on a windswept pontoon next to a busy highway in Istanbul.
“It’s like visiting James Bond,” Ömer Koç’s secretary had joked, but tales of his masked balls and exotic art collection, coupled with the two silent boatmen at the helm, made it feel more like a trip to the Magus.
Koç is a scion of one of the richest families in Turkey. His grandfather, Vebhi Koç, started out selling vegetables in Ankara but soon moved into manufacturing lightbulbs and then cars, tractors, fridges, washing machines and gas canisters. Koç Holding now owns all of Turkey’s oil refining capacity, and Ömer, one of three grandsons of the company’s founder, is its vice-chairman. He is worth an estimated $1.1bn.
The contribution the Koç family has made to Turkish culture is evident throughout the country. Five museums or galleries were set up by family members, and hospitals, schools and universities all bear their name. The Koçs sponsor the Istanbul Biennale and archeological excavations, including the one that unearthed a 16-foot-high sculpture of Hadrian five years ago. Every year the family donates about €10m to the arts.
Ömer is the middle of three brothers and the family member most passionate about contemporary art. Three years ago he set up the cutting-edge space Arter in Istanbul to communicate his enthusiasm more widely. Now he is building a €50m contemporary art museum in the city, set to open in 2016, that will display works from the Koç Foundation – a mix of art from Turkey, its immediate neighbours and further afield.
Koç’s home, perched high above the Bosphorus, has a dark, old-world splendour to it. Figurines and curios are crammed on to tables and recline on floors in a profusion worthy of one of his heroes, William Beckford.
Welcoming you at the door is a large bronze sculpture of some hermaphrodites by Marc Quinn – a friend, it emerges, from Koç’s days at Millfield school in Somerset.
“I was only there for two years in a house run by a spinster and shared with eight other boys,” says a surprisingly friendly Koç over a vast spread of raw food served by two staff.
Sitting in the middle of the dining table is a centrepiece of rhinoceroses. In fact there are rhinos everywhere – made of leather, hessian, porcelain, velvet – even in the toilet. Koç picks up something that looks like Cinderella’s glass slipper, except that it has a large horn protruding from its toe.
“I suppose I am fascinated by them because they shouldn’t really still exist – they’re dinosaurs,” he muses in sonorous, scholastic-sounding English. At 50, with pellucid blue eyes, Koç looks like a bird of prey but he has the manners of a turtle dove.
His conversation is peppered with old world courtesies – “these are rather nice,” he says, proffering some sesame-toasted kale leaves – though he may be less charming when discussing gas prices rather than art.
The house is one of many he owns – he occupies another “more introverted” palace, also on the Bosphorus, during the winter months, and he has a duplex party pad in the centre of Istanbul.
In this, his summer house, the walls are studded with the first things Koç collected – Iznik plates – and row upon row of artists’ self-portraits. Paintings by Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer are crammed next to ones by Otto Mueller and Egon Schiele.
“I have always been fascinated by self-portraits. It’s very difficult to do a good portrait and doubly difficult to do a good self-portrait,” he says. There are portraits of Koç too, including a penetrating, gimlet-eyed one by Julian Opie that he shows me on his iPad.
But eclipsing all else is his array of erotic art. Everything from Japanese ivory Shunga sculptures to life-size figures by the Chapman brothers jostles for position in what looks like a Victorian drawing room with very un-Victorian things in it. “I am interested in sex and death,” Koç explains.
A wax sculpture of two conjoined torsos – having sex, wrestling, dying? – by Berlinde De Bruyckere is set against a painting of Prometheus Bound by the 17th-century master Luca Giordano in the unnerving dance of Eros and Thanatos that defines this part of Koç’s collection.
Most arresting are the hyperrealist sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, the Australian artist who makes what look like genetically modified humans, as grotesque as they are (sort of) cute. He owns six of them.
I ask him why he likes them so? “One of her main themes is trust. She has creatures sleeping next to one another – touching each other. People judge by appearance. Normally you would expect to be turned off by the kinds of creatures she creates – but they are enormously heartwarming.”
Koç’s love of art is matched by that of books. He is said to possess the best private collection of books about Ottoman history in the world, as well as maps, etchings and early photographs. Koç studied Ancient Greek at Columbia University before joining the family business, and his fascination with the origins of his region remains undimmed. He also has a fine collection of French literature – one of the three languages he speaks fluently – with autographed manuscripts by Baudelaire, Proust and Balzac.
“I love my books; they give me a sense of security – like a loaded gun,” he says. “Even if you haven’t read them, they are always there.”
Some books he owns, inscribed to Oscar Wilde from his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie), are set to form part of a new exhibition about the writer that Koç is planning in Paris next year.
“I try, if I can, to read for a couple of hours a day,” he says, but one wonders how, in what must be a dizzying schedule heading six large organisations, he finds even five minutes. Even keeping up with his shopping sounds like hard work. “The day I don’t see a catalogue is a wasted day,” he says. “I buy according to my taste. Everywhere, fairs, galleries, auction.”
How does he choose what to buy? “I don’t like things that require a manual. So much contemporary art is pretentious; it has to grab me; there are people’s opinions I respect but I don’t really have an adviser.”
The middle-aged servants replenishing, for the umpteenth time, our little phials of thyme tea, are, it transpires, among his most reliable scouts. “I try to educate them and take them to exhibitions,” he says. “I give them the catalogues from, say, Sotheby’s. And I say ‘Look at this and tell me what you think might appeal to me’ and invariably this one – Ihan – gets it right. He only speaks 100 words of English and no French but his visual memory is phenomenal.”
A few weeks after our meeting in Istanbul, Koç invites me to lunch in London, where he spends three months a year. The walls in his lofty Chelsea apartment are decked with Orientalist paintings and blue-chip contemporary art from Turkey, including a work by one of its most famous modern masters, Taner Ceylan, a picture of the bloodied head of a boxer. Koç is committed to promoting his country’s art abroad, it seems, as much as at home.
“A lot of young people have started collecting Turkish contemporary art, which is good, and not necessarily people of huge means, which is also good,” he says in the shadow of a stuffed giraffe that looms over his dining table.
Last year, the number of lira millionaires in Turkey rose from 7,000 to more than 50,000. Five art fairs now take place in Istanbul annually and the number of commercial galleries selling contemporary art has soared from about a dozen to 200 in a decade, yet there is little government support for contemporary art. Given this, Koç – whose Arter gallery is attracting 450 visitors a day with a show of Turkish contemporary art, Envy, Enmity, Embarrassment – and his fellow financial sultans look set to dominate the country’s cultural scene for some time to come.
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