One of the first corporate art collections in the Lowlands was built between 1950 and 1975 by the banker Maurits Naessens for the Belgian division of the exclusive Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas. The collection solidified local pride, associating the bank with the glorious past. After a series of mergers, the collection now belongs to the much larger Dexia Bank, which has stopped collecting Old Masters and only buys contemporary art. Whereas the Banque derived prestige from its purchases, Dexia conveys prestige on the artists it buys.
“Is this an art collection?" Philippe Romagnoli, the director of Paribas Bank Belgium, asked this question in 1997 about the art owned by his bank, holdings that I have always thought of as the mother of all corporate collections in the Lowlands. The occasion was the first museum exhibition of highlights: 195 pieces of tapestry, sculpture, graphic art, books and painting, from the 12th century to the end of the 20th, made in art centers within present-day Belgium. The high point was formed by two Rubens oil sketches that any museum in the world would put on permanent display.
Why should Romagnoli doubt whether such a distinguished accumulation of works answered to the description of an "art collection" in the modern sense of the word? With surprising frankness, he himself offered some reasons. In the “ideology" of the bank, he states, art was for “prestige and presence. Like aristocrats of old, the Bank wished to emphasize its prestige through houses furnished in period taste … in which art and splendor formed an indispensable element; aesthetic considerations were coupled to utilitarian ones.
The man who conceived and implemented this plan, between 1950 and 1975, was Maurits Naessens. Under Naessens, Paribas took domicile in aristocratic town palaces in Li1ege, Courtrai, Ghent and Bruges, with the Osterriethhuis on the Meir in Antwerp as the jewel in the crown. In each center, Paribas acquired art from the region, with pieces of international importance going to Antwerp. In this way it injected itself in cultivated form into and fortified sentiments of local and national chauvinism.
The project was underpinned intellectually by a high-status publishing house, Mercatorfonds. The list consists of readable books by well-known art historians, mainly on Flemish art, published in large-format, luxurious volumes with lots of color plates. Copies of the books, which sold for high prices in the bookshops, were presented to the best customers of the bank, making Paribas a conversation piece in the drawing rooms of the better half of Belgium.
This all started when Paribas, a 19th-century offshoot of the Rothschild empire, was the exclusive Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, catering to the carriage trade. The name change to Paribas was a sign that the bank was now going after the business of the coachman as well as the coach owners. This development intensified after a merger with Artesia Bank, and the acquisition of Artesia by Dexia. Earlier this year, Dexia sold Mercatorfonds to management and friends. Only three of the historic houses are shown off on the Dexia website, in the section on Dexia Belgium Corporate Banking.
The art collection still embellishes the closed premises of the Osterriethhuis, but for the “ideology" of Dexia as a whole, with a thousand branches for the hoi polloi and for local government, it has necessarily been marginalized. Interestingly, new acquisitions are now limited to new art rather than Old or Modern Masters. Whatever the reasons for this, it has the effect of reversing the direction in which prestige is being bestowed. The Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas acquired status from its art, Dexia bestows status on the objects of its patronage. Which attitude is more elitist? Which, if either, more realistic?
Arnout Balis and Piet Coessens, Kunst in de bank: een keuze van Rubens tot Magritte, Antwerp (Mercatorfonds) 1997
© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad: Persoonlijk, Amsterdam, 12 November 2005, in a special issue on corporate art collections.
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