‘Acquiring art is in the Belgian DNA’: why the future is bright for Christie’s in Brussels

The birthplace of Van Rysselberghe and Magritte, Belgium has the highest number of art collectors per capita of any nation in the world. Specialists Astrid Centner and Peter van der Graaf explain why they believe our new base in Brussels will become ‘a cultural hub’ for collectors

The Magritte Museum in Brussels, adorned with a monumental apple, one of Rene Magritte's recurring motifs, for its reopening in October 2023

The Magritte Museum in Brussels, adorned with a monumental apple — one of René Magritte’s recurring motifs — for its reopening in October 2023 following an extensive refurbishment (with the adjacent tower of the Church of Saint James on Coudenberg). Photo: Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels

As well as being the capital city of Belgium, and the de facto capital of the European Union, Brussels has long been a hub of the visual arts, too. It boasts one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious art fairs, BRAFA, which launched in 1956 and returns at the end of January for its 69th edition, as well as Art Brussels, now in its 40th year. Also worthy of note is the city’s vibrant gallery scene and, among various other attractions, WIELS, a five-storey centre for contemporary art that opened in a former brewery near Brussels Midi/Zuid train station in 2007; and the Magritte Museum, founded in 2009, which houses the world’s largest assemblage of works by the great Surrealist, including many on loan from private collections.

At the end of next year, the KANAL-Centre Pompidou — a branch of the Pompidou in Paris — will open its doors in the city. Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, it is set to be the largest cultural institution in Brussels.

Paul Delvaux, La ville lunaire, 1944, on show with Boon Gallery at BRAFA 2024

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), La ville lunaire, 1944, on show with Boon Gallery at BRAFA 2024. © Foundation Paul Delvaux, Belgium / SABAM, 2023-2024

‘Belgium is also well known for its collectors,’ says Astrid Centner, director of Christie’s Belgium. ‘Acquiring art is in the national DNA. We’re renowned for having the highest number of art collectors, per capita, anywhere in the world — and their interest stretches across periods from Old Masters to contemporary art.’ Not to mention other areas of Christie’s expertise, including luxury goods, design and rare books.

One reason for this propensity is Belgium’s relative youth as a nation (it came into being in 1830) and the fact that it is a federal state split into three very distinct regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north; mainly French-speaking Wallonia in the south (also home to a small German-speaking community to the east); and multilingual Brussels roughly in the middle. ‘There isn’t really a tradition of state-owned art in Belgium,’ says Centner, ‘and as a result, a culture grew of private individuals making purchases.’

‘Brussels lies right in the middle between Paris, Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Basel. There’s no doubt that brings to the place a certain energy and dynamism’

In recent years, some Belgian collectors have chosen to open spaces in which to put their collections on public view. These include Walter Vanhaerents and his children with the Vanhaerents Art Collection in Brussels; Anton and Annick Herbert with the Herbert Foundation in Ghent; and Fernand Huts with the Phoebus Foundation, which will get a home in Antwerp later this decade.

‘When you’re talking about the success of the art scene in Belgium — and Brussels in particular — you have to consider location, too,’ says Peter van der Graaf, senior specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘Geographically, it lies between Paris, Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Basel… all these great cultural cities, and Brussels is right in the middle of them. There’s no doubt that this brings to the place a certain energy and dynamism.’

Astrid Centner, director of Christie’s Belgium. Photo: Alison Anselot

The new Christie’s office in Brussels: ‘We want clients to feel welcome in a warm atmosphere when they come here’. Photo: Vincent Everarts de Velp

Christie’s has had a presence in Brussels since 1976. It opened its first representative office here a decade later, on Boulevard de Waterloo in the city centre. The company recently moved into a new office: a larger space on elegant Avenue Louise, one of the country’s most famous streets. Named after a Belgian princess of the late 19th and early 20th century, and sometimes referred to as ‘the Brussels Champs-Elysées’, the avenue is dotted with international embassies and runs for roughly two miles south-east of the city centre.

‘The new office is in a quieter, more accessible area than before,’ says Centner. ‘It’s very close to important galleries [in the Ixelles neighbourhood] such as Xavier Hufkens and Almine Rech, and — crucially — nearer to many of our clients’ homes.’

The building itself is an hôtel particulier, an old townhouse, in which Christie’s occupies two floors. Centner says that she and her team ‘have tried to make the interior welcoming and modern, with designer furniture and a spacious feel. We want clients to feel welcome in a warm atmosphere when they come here, so they can be entirely relaxed as they read our catalogues or ask us questions.’

Martial Raysse (b. 1936), Bien sûr le petit bateau (Of course the little boat), 1963, sold for £693,000 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London, was one of nearly 400 works offered across a series of sales from a Belgian collection — that of Jacqueline and Mark Le Jeune and their descendants. Artwork: © Martial Reysse, DACS 2024

As well as hosting clients, the office will be used to exhibit artworks, stage talks, host events and, in Centner’s words, ‘hopefully become a cultural hub, where — over time — we also engage with young artists and designers, and bring in the next generation of collectors’.

Centner has led the Brussels office for the past three years, having headed Christie’s Old Masters department in Paris before that. Van der Graaf has worked at Christie’s for more than two decades, initially in the Amsterdam office in his homeland, and for the past seven years in Brussels.

‘The art market may be global, but we believe the boots on the ground must be local,’ he says. ‘We don’t have salerooms in Belgium, but the pieces we consign to auctions around the world are no less important for that.’

A townhouse on elegant Avenue Louise is the new home for Christie’s in Brussels. Photo: Vincent Everarts de Velp

Peter van der Graaf, senior specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art. Photo: Nathalie Gabay

Works from Belgian collections consistently feature in the annual Art of the Surreal auction in London (Christie’s currently holds 15 Surrealist artist auction records). Van der Graaf also highlights Le Jeune, A Collecting Legacy, a series of sales in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Milan in 2022, which offered nearly 400 works from the contemporary art collection of Jacqueline and Mark Le Jeune and their descendants.

For her part, Centner recently helped consign one of the Flemish master Joachim Beuckelaer’s beloved market scenes. Painted in the 1560s, it will feature in the Old Masters sale in New York on 31 January 2024.

Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1573), A fish market with the Antwerp harbour and the Miraculous Draught of Fishes in the distance, 1568. 43½ x 64⅛ in (110.5 x 162.7 cm). Sold for $567,000 on 31 January 2024 at Christie’s in New York

What of the argument, though, that in an ever more digital age, where sales and client communication is increasingly carried out online, there is no longer any need for a physical office?

‘We view things differently,’ says Centner. ‘We believe specialists should meet collectors in their own country, speak to them in their own language, understand their interests and needs, and help them with advice about buying or selling art based on a special personal bond that has been built up.

‘Behind each collection, there is a story which a client will only share if they trust you, and trust comes with face-to-face contact.’

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Numerous Belgian artists have contributed to Western culture over the centuries, from Brueghel the Elder and Rubens to James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and Magritte. Fast forward to today, and Brussels is replete with artist-run spaces, such as Société and K.L.8.

‘The opening of our new office fits neatly into that balance between past and present,’ says Centner. ‘We are looking forward, but will always maintain our respect for tradition and heritage.’

The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale, part of Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art auction series, takes place on 7 March 2024 in London

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