I’ve never met Charles Saatchi! Mixing with collectors is not pleasurable,” says David Roberts. “There’s always a tremendous sense of competitiveness, it’s too much like hard work. They say ‘do you have X?’, and if you say ‘no’, they give you a look which says, are you suggesting this person is no good? But if you say ‘yes’, the next question is ‘when did you buy it?’ You say, ‘quite recently’ and they say ‘Oh I got mine in 1992!’ It’s all about, how big is yours?”
In Roberts’s case, the answer is: pretty big. A Clydeside-born property developer with six children, he started buying art in the mid-1990s and now owns thousands of works by 700 artists, mostly contemporary. In 2007, he realised that “there was too much to fit into the family home in Ascot, the London flat, the office, the house in France. The warehouse was filling up. I’ve made donations to museums but the work just goes into storage. I had to do something to show it, there’s a resource here that should be used – and then I get to see the works!”
So he opened a modest showroom in Fitzrovia. Five years later, he has survived recession and divorce to launch one of Britain’s largest private galleries, the David Roberts Art Foundation, in Camden, north London, in September.
When I first encounter him at the 12,000 square foot former furniture warehouse, Roberts, 57, a thin, awkward figure with a square face and greying hair pulled tightly back from a broad forehead, is nervously pacing the long, narrow, still empty galleries. The Foundation’s curator, Vincent Honoré, indicates the high ceilings and flood of light and tells me “the building is a tool for openness, engagement, dialogue”.
Roberts’s fiancée, a 29-year-old Lithuanian blonde called Indre Serpytyte, gestures at the “rougher and readier look, not the normal clean lines” of exposed brickwork and beams. A gaggle of PR girls quote stellar names – Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter, Pierre Huyghe, Doris Salcedo, Martin Creed, Ai Weiwei – for the opening show, A House of Leaves. As I prise Roberts away from the crowd, Indre kisses him and says “good luck”, as if talking to me is a dreaded ordeal.
“I never go to openings, I never make speeches,” Roberts explains. Although based in London for 30 years, he speaks with a strong Glasgow accent – he grew up in Greenock in a working-class shipworking family, and trained first as a naval architect, then a land economist. His collection is global in scope, but when I ask what unites it, the first artist he mentions is Glaswegian.
“Other people may look at the collection and say, ‘Oh, there’s a fascination with death’, but it’s lots of things, difficult to define: different works touch me in different ways. For example I recently bought a big Karla Black piece – painted with make-up, lipstick – and one reason I loved it was it gave me a tremendous feeling of nostalgia, it reminded me of the smell of my mother’s handbag, her powder compact.
“Some things make you laugh, some make your hair stand on end, sometimes you think something is really wonderful intellectually. The works tend to be on the darker rather than the lighter side.”
The first piece he acquired was “a very unremarkable thing”, a geometric composition by Spanish painter Manuel Otero, which reminded Roberts of “1930s Soviet styles” – as a child he was dragged weekly to a Presbyterian church with “Soviet realist” stained glass windows. He saw the Otero in a gallery in Brittany, while on holiday almost 20 years ago: “It cost £3,000, to me at that time it was a fortune. There was a really weird moment – I had to pay in cash and I handed the dealer the money and I almost didn’t want to let the notes go – we had this tug of war over them.
“That was the thin end of a very large wedge. I do think certain people have a collecting gene. I became and continue to be obsessive about buying art. I’ve almost never sold anything. I get very attached to things.”
He found the art world “seriously intimidating and not very friendly to begin with. It’s easier now than 10 years ago, more global, art fairs make it more democratic. But a gallery is still only as strong as its weakest link – it can have good artists, look after them well, but you get some snooty girl at the desk and you’ll walk away and not go back because it’s very, very unpleasant. Some gallerists now are so wealthy themselves that they don’t have to sell.”
Roberts buys at auction and art fairs, though only in Europe (he rarely flies, and never long-haul); from dealers, degree shows, and directly from artists “who of all the people in the art world are the ones I like best”.
He will spend part of this summer on the Isle of Mull with the Scottish artist Charles Avery, a friend whom he collects in depth, and has just met Anthony Caro, “he’s absolutely wonderful, I’ve bought a couple of pieces, I didn’t get into the work before, and now I have – so it can happen at any end of the spectrum.
“I’m always learning, not just intellectually, historically, following what the artists do next, but in terms of the business side – in my case so I don’t get caught out. The art business is the most hierarchical business there is, all about getting on the ladder, some get up it then fall off, some never get on the first rung.”
As someone who “could not curate for toffee, even hanging paintings in a room is a gift which I don’t have”, he takes advice from Honoré but has developed his own “catholic, fairly eclectic taste”, encompassing figurative, abstract and conceptual work, and all media, “including a lot of video and photography, though it took me a while to get my head round this photography thing”.
At home – he has lived in London full-time since his divorce – mainstays are a Cecily Brown painting and an enormous photograph by Andreas Gursky: “we had to take out the banisters to get that in, so it’s not moving.”
The collection he most admires is the William Burrell in Glasgow – in 1944, shipping magnate and philanthropist Sir William Burrell donated to the city of Glasgow more than 6,000 treasures, from antiquitiy to the moderns, and continued to add to the store of riches until his death in 1958 at the age of 96. “This guy was pretty successful in business, and acquired the most eclectic things.”
Is David Roberts a 21st-century Burrell? Since he never trades up, his is a collection without limits in size or scope. “I have a small Richter and I’d love a larger abstract, I’d love a large Bacon, but the only way realistically would be to sell some things, and I can’t bring myself to do it, it’s too emotional,” he muses. “Whatever I mentally allow myself is always the wrong figure. I do however have my own value formula: plainly if I buy something for $500,000, that means there are five things for $100,000 I can’t buy. Some artists’ prices get to a level where unless you absolutely love them, you don’t buy. I’m unlikely to spend £10m on a piece. But I’m a bull in a china shop: if I really like something, I buy it without thinking ‘will I like this in 15 years?’”
‘A House of Leaves’, David Roberts Art Foundation, London, opens September 21. www.davidrobertsartfoundation.com