When you begin to collect you don’t tend to know you’re doing so,” says the Paris-based dealer Diane de Polignac, who specialises in postwar abstract art. “It only starts to make sense when you look back and see how the works you’ve bought connect.”
Certainly, casting one’s eye around the London flat of Stephan Wrobel, the French CEO and founding partner of Lausanne and London based asset management firm Diapason Commodities Management, one senses he is a man of eclectic tastes, ranging from African tribal sculpture to photographs by Peter Beard and a captivating portrait, probably from the 19th century, of a tousle-haired boy. Look harder, though, and a logic emerges. The striking painting of a disconsolate figure above the fireplace is by John Armstrong, who started as a surrealist but became an early exponent of British abstraction. The sculpture on the windowsill is a Calder. Then there are two colourful experimental paintings by the architect Le Corbusier. And in pride of place above the sofa hangs a superb canvas, Opus 7K, by the Swiss-born pioneer of “lyrical abstraction” Gérard Schneider, another of whose works Wrobel has just bought.
“Eventually, you realise that you’re beginning to buy art from a certain period,” he says. “And then suddenly a theme develops. You start to understand why you’re attracted to certain works; that it has to do with the time and the place they were made, and what the artists were trying to achieve.”
Wrobel has loved art since he was a teenager, and when he came to London at the age of 23, in 1996, to work at Société Générale, he had a flat in Marylebone just behind The Wallace Collection, which he would visit frequently.
In time, he began to buy art, too; his first abstract was a 1928 painting by Auguste Herbin. But “the first postwar painting I bought – my first piece as a ‘collector’ – was, paradoxically, a figurative work by Bernard Buffet” – a “very harsh, uncomfortable” oil of a matador; the head recognisably human, the torso and cape a vast, polygonal form.
It was, however, a chance encounter with a painting by the Danish artist Egil Jacobsen in de Polignac’s gallery that prompted him to develop his interest in postwar abstraction, a body of work he describes as “much freer” than what had been created pre-1939, and “closer in spirit to Tintoretto than Kandinsky”.
“Stephan was a very tough negotiator,” remembers de Polignac. “Well, that’s how you make a first deal,” he responds. But it was a purchase that went on to inspire a friendship. “It’s key when buying art to open a dialogue,” he says. “That’s the real work of the gallery; the conversations about the artists, the works, the period. It’s what makes buying art so enjoyable.” And it’s what convinced him to focus on postwar European abstraction and artists such as Schneider, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung and Huguette Arthur Bertrand.
“In the art world it often takes 60 to 70 years for artists to find their position in history,” he says, “and I think the time for this period is now coming. People are beginning to look into the academic side of it. And there have been some major exhibitions,” he adds.
“Most of the artists I deal in are now dead,” says de Polignac. So the number of works is finite, and scarcity is always a good thing in a market. “The period is only being defined as we speak.” Prices, therefore, have yet to become over-inflated. Opus 17, for instance, an oil on canvas not dissimilar to Wrobel’s, sold at Sotheby’s in Paris last December for €66,750, while the record for art of this genre is held by a Soulages, sold at the same place, also last year, for €2.3m.
But Wrobel denies that he buys with an eye to investment. “Buying art should not be a matter of going shopping,” he says. Rather it’s about study (his library of art books is immense), thought and discourse. Hence his long conversations with de Polignac, with whom it turns out he has much in common.
Both grew up in northern France; Wrobel in Lille, de Polignac in Champagne, where her father ran the champagne house Pommery. (She comes from a distinguished line of patrons of the arts: Prince Edmond de Polignac and his wife, the fabled sewing-machine heiress Winaretta Singer – whose salon was frequented by Monet, Cocteau, Proust, Diaghilev and Colette – were her great-great uncle and aunt; and her childhood family holidays were spent at Kerbastic, the Brittany chateau that belonged to another great aunt, Marie-Blanche de Polignac, daughter of the famed couturier Jeanne Lanvin, which was filled not just with art but also with art-deco furniture from Lanvin’s collaboration with Armand-Albert Rateau.) She, too, spent a decade in London, as a master’s student at the London School of Economics and then as a financial analyst. She’d also begun to collect by this point, principally 1950s Scandinavian furniture. Initially, she was motivated by the need to furnish her home but soon began to buy “corresponding” paintings. By the time she and her husband returned to Paris in 2005, she’d acquired more than she could house; hence the decision to establish a gallery, which opened in 2009.
She and Wrobel “touch base” about once a month, meeting for lunch when he’s in Paris, often with experts she thinks he’ll find interesting: figures such as Domitille d’Orgeval, curator of next year’s big show of optical and kinetic art at the Grand Palais. Next she’s planning to introduce him to Gérard Schneider’s octogenarian widow, with whom she’s been working on the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s oeuvre. “She is a fantastic source of information because she knew all the main artists of this period: Hartung, Soulages… And obviously she knows a lot about her husband’s work. They’ll be talking for hours.”