Elegant and persuasive, she embodies the discreet charm of private banking as the head of one bank’s art department. An hour with Mathilde Courteault of Neuflize OBC.
Former director of the Asian art department of Christie’s in Paris, Mathilde Courteault, thirty-nine years old, welcomes us into the muffled rooms of a big private bank. Holder of a master’s in art history on “the European influence on Mughal miniatures”, this lively, enthusiastic woman has been managing, for three years now, the art assets of a clientele subject to France’s ISF (wealth tax). We talk about culture and investment strategy, collections and assets. It’s also a chance to discuss major trends on the art market, the concept of pleasure-investment… All this with the discretion and poise that are characteristic of wealth-management companies.
What exactly does art-wealth expertise involve? What does this profession consist in?
The profession has existed in our bank for twenty-five years. We deploy our expertise in an integrated structure, wholly dedicated to consultancy and the management of art wealth. This, incidentally, is a specificity that is written into our company’s DNA. As the owner of a photograph collection and also as a sponsor of the Cinémathèque, a partner of the Palais de Tokyo, moreover holding ties to the Musée Jacquemart-André, Neuflize OBC is firmly anchored in the cultural domain. Let’s say that expertise is developed in three areas. First, the concrete management of collections which encompasses a full range of services for art assets, including storage of artworks in reserved strongboxes, offering museum-like conservation with controlled hygrometry. We of course offer insurance packages. We can also offer advice to clients wishing to make copies of their paintings or to get restoration work done. When we have collection-management mandates, we can also administer the loans of works to museums for exhibitions, or look after export or import licence formalities…
In this highly specialised niche, competiton is tough. Much is said about the Geneva-based wealth-management bank Pictet, or Société Générale Private Banking, associated with 1858 Ltd, a London-based international company… Does your expertise also extend to valuation?
This is the second area in which we are active, and an essential one. We carry out valuations, namely in inheritance contexts, when the issue is to divide up estates. The third area is advice on transactions, in the context of public auctions, with special negotiated prices with auctioneers, or else private sales. In this art acquisition or resale phase, we intervene in all segments of the art market, from old cars to collection stamps, via Asian arts, Impressionist painting and jewellery. Here I bring the strength of my network, having connections with auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but also Artcurial, and also direct contact with a few independent experts. This way, we choose the most appropriate opportunity. For Asian art for example, it’s preferable to sell at auctions as Chinese collectors are quite a playful public, and enjoy bidding. However, for an old, and perhaps more difficult painting, we might prefer to envisage a private transaction. In all cases, apart from our expertise, what interests clients is that we can also stand in for them as authorised representatives. This allows for discretion, which I believe is much appreciated. And then, our great strength is our neutrality. We are both inside and outside the market: “inside” in terms of expertise, “outside” due to our impartiality.
You hold a position which has played an increasingly large role in the private-bank universe in the last decade. Is “art and money” the new equation in terms of asset allocation?
First of all, I don’t see the artwork as an asset. For me, a painting by a master or a stamped commode is not a financial instrument. If clients say to me “I’d like to buy art” and sometimes have a million euros to do so, I’ll reply that I don’t know how to help. Incidentally, art-investment funds have revealed in recent years that they are not necessarily a good solution in terms of capital gains. We can’t – and our clients understand this reasonably well – promise yields of 20 % over two years. We prefer to tell them that because today’s market is volatile, the artwork should first and foremost please them. I insist on the notion of pleasure-investment, which sometimes helps avoid disappointment.
How is your activity seen by, let’s say “old-school” bankers?
Art-wealth expertise is traditionally a discreet service, taking place behind closed doors, and is hardly present in the minds of bankers. But due to increased internal communication on wealth-engineering issues related to the art market or cultural sponsorship, “old-school” bankers, as you say, have started listening more to clients, after having no previous inklings that they might have art objects in their homes. Gradually, things are opening up. I accompany them by in their growing awareness.
How is your approach unique, if we compare it to that of your counterpart Antoinette Leonardi at BNP Paribas Wealth Management, a bank that is a pioneer in this domain as it has been active in art expertise since 1975?
Having worked over a long period in an auction house (editorial note: Christie’s, in the Asian arts department), the skills that I acquired there are not only reassuring, but also allow me to position myself. Once again, I’m not here to sell a financial product, but to bring expertise. Here – and this is one of our new specificities – we are developing private sales on a “matchmaking” mode between bank clients, pairing them according to their affinities. The idea is to take advantage of our international network to offer this service to the whole of the group, whether in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany…
What are your clients like? We imagine them to be wealthy and concerned about improving their tax situations…
The clientele is very varied, ranging from family-office regulars to companies with holdings seeking to take advantage of tax breaks by carrying out cultural-sponsorship operations, hence their interest in acquiring an artwork. We also meet many families who wish to diversify their assets or to sell part of their art wealth to access liquidity. This situation is common when dealing with an estate, when it’s impossible to split a painting into four. We also have younger clients interested in contemporary art, whose collections are sometimes managed by art advisors, and a few foundations… About 80 % of our clientele is made up of private individuals.
Do you intervene regularly on the secondary market at public auctions? And with purchasing volumes of what size?
On the secondary market, around twenty sales were made in the last six months, for a global sum of over €2.8 million. By the way, we are not focused on the upper market because we’ve developed a partnership with the online auction house Expertissim, which deals mainly in lower-value pieces. You’ll understand if I refrain from giving figures for confidential private transactions.
Which investments, at the moment, can be said to be the most… propulsive?
Buying what’s best on the market is the piece of advice that has proved to be the most profitable over the years. I believe that there’s the possibility of real capital gains here, because a mediocre object will, on the other hand, remain mediocre. Even in classic furniture or European ceramics, two sectors that are a bit fragile at the moment, the finest pieces still offer a guarantee. The second rule is that artworks are not very liquid investments, so the purchase should be envisaged for the long term. On average, for an investment to be successful, the work should be conserved ten years. I try to look after my clients’ security. Today, buying a painting by Basquiat is certainly a good move (editorial note: the artist underwent a 700 % rise in the past fifteen years), but what can be said about his ratings in twenty years’ time?
And what’s new in the East?
Before, things were quite simple. There were sales of Asian art taken care of by a few big London antique dealers, the Eskenazis, the Marchants… historic figures who held the bulk of the market. London, New York and Hong Kong were the three main marketplaces at the time. In Paris, in 2000, we witnessed a rise in power of Asian objects. Dealing, namely in Hong Kong, was very active, with a focus on pieces from China. And then, these dealers gradually faded away, replaced by dealers from mainland China who came to Paris themselves without going through the Hong Kong intermediaries. Today, 90 % of buyers are Chinese, who sometimes push these prices beyond reasonable sums. European enthusiasts, collectors of porcelain, jade or gilded bronzes, no longer have the means to bid. In any case, in Europe, many sales have been carried in the last fifteen years. The pieces have gone to China, and then go back on resale via Poly Auction or China Guardian. And they’ll stay over there. So this market has become a little difficult, all the more so as the Chinese economy is getting tenser…
Holder of a master’s in art history obtained from the Sorbonne in 2000 (her thesis was on “the European influence on Mughal miniatures from the reign of Akbar to that of Aurangzeb”), Mathilde Courteault also has a DESS postgraduate diploma in management for the luxury industries and artistic professions. She spent fourteen years at Christie’s, in the Asian arts department in Paris, becoming its director in 2009. She has been managing the art wealth of collector clients at the bank Neuflize OBC since June 2015.