Edouard Carmignac, founder and head of French investment fund Carmignac Gestion, is sitting in his elegant gilded and plastered 18th-century office overlooking the Place Vendôme, his desk flanked by two Andy Warhols: an icy-blue portrait of Lenin (1986) and a rather cheerier Chairman Mao (1973), which has a flash of orange. In February 2013, a Warhol Lenin sold at Sotheby’s for just over £2m, against an estimate of £1.5m-£2m. Carmignac points to the Lenin: “You feel the coldness, the electric brain, the unemotional character, the staring eyes. I see a man with an incredible will, unaffected by emotion or scruple. Inhuman.” He pauses. “I bought him first, then I thought he needed a companion, so I bought Chairman Mao; he seems more of a nice guy, but if you look at his eyes, he appears severe.”
It is here, with late works by the masters of the pop-art movement, that Carmignac’s collecting coalesces. For, as he has written on the website of the Fondation Carmignac, which he set up in 2000 to fund a variety of art projects, including a new private museum on the idyllic island of Porquerolles, “To escape from conformity and the conventional, I look to Andy Warhol, Keith Haring or Roy Lichtenstein. Their sensational colours, their powerful contrasts, their revolutionary departures, which have now become universal codes, are a clear source of inspiration and energy.”
In 2012, Carmignac brought art consultant Gaïa Donzet on board to oversee his foundation. Donzet, just 33 at the time, had already set up the Paris office of Bonhams and then run the Paris branch of Italy’s Tornabuoni Art Gallery for three years. The two had met at Art Basel, when Donzet was working for Tornabuoni. “We had a beautiful show of Boetti and I tried to sell a painting to Monsieur Carmignac,” she says (Aerei, 1989, is now in the collection). They discovered shared tastes and started to go to galleries together. Donzet now seeks “to challenge what Monseiur Carmignac likes. I try to surprise him.”
Her role has been to broaden Carmignac’s collecting dramatically, while still respecting his deep love for the idiom, colour and energy of pop art. They work as a team, with an annual budget of several million euros. The key priority has been to expand out from the nucleus of classic pop art into contemporary art that’s inspired by the achievements of the genre and is similarly engaged with popular culture. As a result, they have been actively acquiring pieces by contemporary artists from the Middle East, South Asia and South America, such as Marcos López, as well as by Europeans like Urs Fischer, whose work sells from $15,000 to over $3m. But the origins of the collection are never far away; a recent purchase was one of Roy Lichtenstein’s landscapes in the Chinese style, which is among the artist’s later works. “It’s amazing,” says Carmignac. “With these little dots he is able to render such a delicate style; I find it very moving.”
While on the whole theirs has been a journey of shared discovery, the relationship is not always plain sailing: “Sometimes he doesn’t listen to me,” says Donzet, “so I often have not only to find, but also to convince. One example is Douglas Gordon. Monsieur Carmignac didn’t like his past pieces but he did like the work I found [I’m Right, 2013].” Generally, Gordon’s pieces fetch from about $500 up to $122,500 at auction.
But Carmignac isn’t a fan of buying at auction (“Commissions have got ridiculously expensive. And the catalogues are so weighty”), so much of the joy of collecting comes from making discoveries on their travels. “Gaïa is the great searcher,” says Carmignac. “She discovers new artists.” Donzet visits galleries and artists’ studios all over the world, following tips from friends and colleagues, and arms Carmignac with lists of galleries to visit whenever he travels. Favourites include Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and Marianne Goodman. The duo’s aim is to identify emerging artists before they have become established names.
Donzet is hard put to select her most triumphant find. “The last is always the best. Guillermo Kuitca’s piece [Untitled 2011, an enigmatic map of pink and blue fragments on black] is beautiful. Or Cedars by Hanibal Srouji, from the Lebanon, which hangs next to the Kuitca. I also love Joe Goode’s Shark Bite.” American artist Goode is clearly a name to watch; his Cloud-Photograph Triptych sold at Sotheby’s last September for $203,000 against an estimate of $25,000‑$35,000. It’s a similar scenario with Argentine artist Kuitca: in 2014 in New York, a diptych sold for $87,500, but his record is Untitled (Los Angeles), 1992, which sold for $233,000 last May.
Many of Carmignac’s paintings are large scale. “I need to be able to dive into a painting,” he says. “I have very few small pieces because there are few with enough intensity to absorb me.” He looks up at the Mao portrait once again. “This may not be that large but it is very intense and powerful – you don’t need it any bigger.”
Although Carmignac’s first purchase was a picture by Max Ernst of a scene from Alice in Wonderland, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he began collecting seriously, focusing on artists who had influenced him when growing up, including Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Art must not only move me, but also express my perception of the world – artists help me to anticipate the shape of things to come.” He goes on, “That is why my collection today is very contemporary.”
Of the collection of 222 works, he says, humorously, “If there are holes in it, there are holes in my personality.” Donzet is more forceful: “It’s more interesting not to fill the gaps. Sometimes you imagine the painting you want, but it might not exist – so maybe it’s best not fill the gap, because the gap itself is significant. That said, we often talk about Twombly – and we are looking for a Twombly.”
More recently, with the announcement of the new museum opening in summer 2016, Carmignac and Donzet have been approached by artists eager to make or contribute work for the foundation. One key plan is to create a sculpture park with site-specific commissions in the gardens, among 100-year-old olive trees, pines and eucalyptus. The museum itself will be inside an old Provençal house, and Carmignac is especially keen to attract the many schoolchildren who visit the island, much of which is now a national park, into his exhibitions.
Indeed, linking the collection is a distinct thread of childlike playfulness and humour, which reflects not only Carmignac’s character but also his view of art. “One word sums it up: wonder. I think we should all try to treasure a sense of wonder,” he says. “Appreciate life as it is, and try not to become or behave like automatons – hyper-ironic, with rusted hearts. I like art that expresses that sense of wonder.”