Turin museum to display telephone book magnate's art collection

This work by artist Giorgio de Chirico is part of the private collection of entrepreneur Francesco Federico Cerruti, who died in 2015.
This work by artist Giorgio de Chirico is part of the private collection of entrepreneur Francesco Federico Cerruti, who died in 2015.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON •He spent Sundays in his villa outside the city. Surrounded by orchids, he would eat a solitary lunch prepared by his housekeeper and silently contemplate the collection of rare paintings, sculptures, furniture and books he had discreetly amassed over the decades of his successful business career.

This vision of fin-de-siecle refinement seems like something out of the pages of Proust. But such were the Sunday lunches routinely enjoyed by Francesco Federico Cerruti, an entrepreneur in Turin, Italy, who founded a company that specialised in producing perfectly-bound telephone books.

A reclusive bachelor who hated to travel, he died in 2015 at age 93, leaving an exceptional but little- known collection valued at about US$600 million (S$825 million), including masterworks by Francis Bacon, Giorgio de Chirico and Jacopo Pontormo.

The Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, a former residence of the Savoy royal family outside Turin, announced this month an agreement with the Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l'Arte to safeguard and display Cerruti's 13th- to 20th-century treasures.

The collection, on permanent loan to the Castello di Rivoli, is a rare case of a contemporary-art museum incorporating an encyclopaedic and historical art trove, and it will be the centrepiece of a museum expansion scheduled to open to the public in January 2019.

Noting that Cerruti came from a family steeped in the skills of bookbinding by hand, Ms Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum, said: "He specialised in the concept of perfection. His collection is very personal and doesn't have any particular geographical or historical boundaries. He wasn't a socialite. He didn't buy art for prestige."

This work by artist Giorgio de Chirico is part of the private collection of entrepreneur Francesco Federico Cerruti, who died in 2015.
This work by artist Giorgio de Chirico is part of the private collection of entrepreneur Francesco Federico Cerruti, who died in 2015. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Cerruti's collection, compiled over seven decades, contains about 300 paintings and sculptures, 200 rare books and 300 pieces of furniture and other decorative objects.

He owned some outstanding paintings. Bacon's 1957 canvas Study For A Portrait IX is a postwar highlight, while the 1918 portrait Woman In A Yellow Dress (La Belle Espagnole) by Amedeo Modigliani and a group of five rare Metaphysical oil paintings by de Chirico from the 1910s are among his early 20th-century Italian works.

Sotheby's valued the collection at US$570 million to US$600 million in 2015, considerably more than the US$443 million raised in 2009 by the Christie's auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, which, at the time, was called the "sale of the century".

Cerruti kept his art and ate those Sunday lunches in the villa he commissioned in the late 1960s, just a 10-minute walk from the Castello di Rivoli, then a war-damaged ruin.

The restored Castello opened as a museum in 1984 and the Cerruti villa will be renovated and incorporated as an annex.

A rotating selection of works from the collection will also be shown "in conversation" with contemporary art at the Castello di Rivoli Museum itself.

"We're hoping the collection will be a catalyst for cultural developments that reconnect the art of the present with the art of the past," Ms Christov-Bakargiev said.

What appears to be a growing disconnect between present and past is a concern of those invested in historical art. Paintings by old masters, for example, are not as popular among wealthy private collectors as they once were, prompting auction houses to come up with increasingly inventive ways to make the old feel new. Last week, Christie's sold a Francesco Guardi painting of Venice with help from a video of it sailing on a barge down the Grand Canal; last month, Sotheby's used New York street artists to promote a sale of old masters.

Admittedly, Cerruti was from a generation that did not buy 21st- century art. His last major purchase was an 1897 Renoir, Jeune Fille aux Roses, at Sotheby's in June 2014 for £842,500.

Mr Giovanni Sarti, a Paris-based dealer who first encountered Cerruti in 1992 at the Paris Biennale, said: "He was very unusual in the way that he collected art from the 13th century to contemporary."

Over the years, Mr Sarti and his wife, Claire, were among the small group of trusted advisers with whom Cerruti discussed potential purchases.

"He was not an easy person," Mr Sarti said. "In the morning, we would make plans, then in the evening, he would change everything. He was difficult, but once he had decided, he would pay within 24 hours. Financially, he was very solid. His life was work and collecting. He was a true collector."

Cerruti had trained as an accountant and went on to found a commercial binding business.

When buying in Italy, he benefited from a Mussolini-vintage regulation prohibiting the permanent export of artworks more than 50 years old officially designated as having cultural interest. These works could not be sold on the international market.

But does the Cerruti collection have the potential to open eyes that seldom stray beyond the white cubes of contemporary galleries?

The Castello di Rivoli Museum intends to integrate works from the Cerruti collection into its changing contemporary displays, rather than keep old and new separate, as would have been the case in a Metropolitan Museum of Art wing devoted to modern and contemporary works - had plans for it not been postponed.

Thanks to the solitary lunches of a reclusive telephone book magnate, Turin may become a city where the art of the present and the art of the past talk to each other.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Turin museum to display telephone book magnate's art collection'. Print Edition | Subscribe