Should I really own everything?

Agnese Čivle

An interview with Estonian art collector Riivo Anton


Riivo Anton would rather be called “a friend of art” than a collector. And not only because art collectors are usually associated with gentlemen in their fifties or sixties, thereby making Anton, who is only half that age, feel old. Mostly, it is because he tends to agree with Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that, for someone to become a phenom in his field, he must put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. In the activity of art collecting, Anton has only put in the first few thousand. And, even though the now-popular dictum -- that one doesn't need millions to collect art – is repeated ever more often, this hobby does require some investment. We're not talking about the investment of time here, but of money. Riivo Anton already took care of the financial part of the equation in his youth; sixteen years ago, when he was still a student, he founded the consulting company Innopolis. Now known as Civitta, and with offices in seven countries, it is the largest independent consulting firm in the Baltic region.

Evald Okas. Black dance, 1962. Drypoint

Anton's collection really does, however, contain some works that cost less than many of today's common mobile-technology devices. The collection is made up of two parts: a selection of international contemporary artworks, and Estonian print artworks created between the late 60s and 80s – a period during which the graphic arts were extremely popular in Estonia. The story behind the very first piece in this print collection begins with the Canadian-based Estonian artist Eric Pehap. Anton saw one of Pehap's works on eBay, and bought it out of sheer curiosity about its authenticity. Having confirmed it as genuine, Anton purchased the whole of Pehap's collection from the same seller – about 80 pieces in all. So began Anton's friendship with art, the relationship's endurance having been validated also by his support of local art activities and events. Spurred by his personal interests and an affinity for business, Riivo Anton has also founded the first art indexing service in Estonia (which is currently on hiatus, as it is undergoing the final stages of development). 

Kris Lemsalu. Phantom Camp, 2013. Porcelain

Although you don't like being called a collector, you do have a collection. How would you like to introduce people to it?

It is a sort of experiment. I’m still experimenting and trying to find my own niche. But it all started with the prints. Around ten years ago I discovered that during the Soviet era, from the late 60s to the late 70s, various Estonian cultural institutions were publishing yearbooks of Estonian prints. These books had texts in Estonian, Russian, and also English – and that caught my attention! It was the sixties, the Soviet Union was totally cut off – why did they have an English translation?  It is true that an English (and in some cases, a Finnish) translation was added since those books were actually used as gifts for foreigners – sort of a “corporate gift” to the ones who were allowed into the country at the time. On the other hand, it was a window into Soviet Estonia for foreigners.

I started to collect these books. And after I had procured a copy of all of them, I started to, obviously, collect the prints that had been published in the books. That’s how my collection really started. And I am still on the lookout for some of the prints from those yearbooks.

Where can one find and buy these yearbooks and prints in Estonia? Can they still be widely found and purchased?

Antiques shops are one source. They are not that rare, however, the latest edition that was published in the beginning of the eighties seems to be the hardest to find. It took me around a year to chase it down. Finding a yearbook, however, is just the beginning of the journey since once you see what was published, you can then start chasing down the prints themselves. Many of the artists that were published at that time are still alive. You can contact them, get to know the important aspects of their works, and also get to know the artists personally. I really enjoy this part of the experience!

Viive Tolli. Boy from Muhu Island, 1960. Etching

What are some of the more interesting occasions on which you met artists and heard their stories?

One of the coolest experiences I had was with a grand old lady of Estonian graphic print art – Viive Tolli. She is well over 80 years old, but I found her e-mail address. I did send her a letter, explaining my interest about a particular work of hers. I was really surprised to get a reply in which she explained that she thinks that she might still have that piece, but she is not sure where. She promised to get back to me once she starts organizing her drawers. I never expected to hear from her again, actually. To my great surprise, however, she got back to me around a year later and informed me that she had organized her drawers and now has the print available for me. And she even invited me to visit her home studio, for a cup of tea. It was super nice to discuss various prints (not only her own), and I heard many funny stories. To my surprise, she had kept notes on where she had sold or given away her works, which meant that I could find out who else had a print from the same edition I was after. Those stories become narratives of the artwork, and are of huge value to me. This is what I’m after. And for me, it is important to know the artist. I have a few works from artists I haven’t met myself, but usually, I do try to establish a personal relationship with them. Just to know what they think, what their background is. I think that collecting is very much about the experience, and I think you get a lesser experience with just the artwork, as compared to the combination of the artwork and the artist together.

Richard Kaljo. Cafeteria, 1961. Woodcut

Which of these artists have a special meaning for you?

Richard Kaljo (1914–1978) is a very well known artist to everyone born between the fifties and nineties. That's because he was an illustrator for many adventure books that were really popular among school children. I can also build a personal narrative with him since, among others, he illustrated The Three Musketeers – one of my favorite books from childhood.

How would you describe the intrinsic identity of Estonian print art?

My collection is from the Soviet era and from the era's last years, so there are actually several layers to it. But even if you aren't aware of these layers, you can still look at it appreciatively. The works can be understood straightforwardly, or, if you are aware of the layers, you can see other aspects as well. It really depends on what your point of view is. But I assume that they are not too conceptual.

Benjamin Vassermann. Evening Light II, 1987. Ofort 

And what about their aesthetics?

The aesthetic language in them is rather universal and realistic. Kind of a sign of an era.

If I may ask, what sort of prices do these kinds of works fetch today?

It can vary, but the typical price for such a print is somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand euros. I like to spread the message that collecting art does not have to be an exclusive, or an expensive, hobby. A museum-value Estonian print can be bought for less than you'd pay for an iPhone.

Leonhard Lapin. Oval X, 1976. Relief

Do you know what their original prices were?

Good question. Actually, I do know because some of them are still in their original frames, and on the back you can see the price tag. They were usually around 20 rubles; some of them went for 10 rubles... It depended on the size. I have a few pieces that were given as presents from one artist to another, so there are some handwritten notes and greetings on them. Another aspect of narrative.

Are you the only person in Estonia who focuses on prints?

I’m not sure. I would guess that many collectors have prints, but I don’t know of anyone else with a special focus on one particular kind of print artwork from the Soviet era – in my case, prints that were published in the yearbooks – as I do.

What is happening in Estonia’s print art today?

The new trend in which different mediums are combined, and in which artists do not focus strictly on just one technique, is a huge opportunity for printmakers. I think that prints are coming back. I remember a conversation I had with Paul Hobson (back then, the Director of the Contemporary Art Society) around five years ago, and he encouraged me to carry on with prints, suggesting that there will be a renaissance in print art.

Andris Vitolinš. Architecture and Morality, 2013. Acrylic on canvas

After having spent some time collecting prints, you switched to collecting contemporary art. How did this change in focus come about?

I think it must be similar with all collectors – they start out with classical or, let’s say, modern art, and then they slowly move on to contemporary art. I guess this is also true in my case. Although, I still am searching for prints from those particular yearbooks, and do not want to limit myself to any particular era or medium.

In my contemporary collection I have focused on Estonian art, but basically, I collect with my eyes, or with any links with works already in my collection, or in relation to some experience of mine. I believe that the pieces in a collection should somehow speak to one another. And this dialog does not necessarily have to be in Estonian, nor do the works have to be Estonian.

Can you expand on these dialogs – how do the works speak to one another?

These dialogs are often created by my own understanding of the narratives connected to the artworks, and they might not be widely known or acknowledged by others. For example, last year, I was at the viennacontemporary art fair, and I saw a painting by a young Hungarian artist who portrays various different structures in the landscape – he had done a piece with something like those Ferris wheels you see in amusement parks. It reminded me of the very first print with which I started my collection. In this case, of course, I maybe went less “with the eyes” and more in terms of structure.

Art can serve as a universal bridge between various disciplines. Recently I have been thinking about a project/exhibition in which well-known Estonian artworks would be renamed after Estonian technology companies. The project would aim to connect the new economy's entrepreneurs with the art scene, and the other way around, by telling the story of both through art.

Kaido Ole. Memory of CL, 2015. Oil on canvas

What would you say are some highlights of your contemporary collection?

Kaido Ole is someone that I really like. I know him a little bit personally, too. I know what is behind those works. I have quite an interesting series of works by Kiwa. He is more known not for his paintings, but for his happenings. The video artist Jaan Toomik. I like the Latvian artist Andris Vītoliņš. When he was doing his internship in Paris, I had the opportunity to see him working on pieces that I later bought.

What did it mean to you, personally, to be present during the artist's creation of the artwork?

It provides a very fresh experience; adds a lot to the narrative. It enables one to learn more about the actual narrative and background of the artwork.

If you could have in your possession any three artworks in the world, which ones would you choose?

That’s hard to answer. Lately, I've been struggling with the idea of what is even the point of having a collection – Does one really have to own everything? In a sense, there are other collections, other museums where you can enjoy art that is well displayed. You don't have to own anything. As I have tried to explain it to myself – it’s not about actual ownership, it’s more about supporting the art scene. Because if there are not enough buyers, then artists can’t survive; if artists cannot survive... Should I really own everything? Or can I just enjoy without buying?

Jaan Toomik. Family, 2014. Oil on canvas

That must be why you're starting a project supporting young artists. Could you elaborate more on this?

What I’m planning to do is open a space for an internship [an artist residency]. It is located in the middle of a nature reserve in Estonia, close to both the Latvian and Russian borders, where one can really “switch off” and just concentrate and create. I have heard from contemporary artists that currently, most residencies are located in lively metropolises – which is excellent for new ideas and experiences, but offers little opportunity to really focus on working. There are just too many opportunities to do something else. I would like to offer the exact opposite, because I'm guessing that that is just what they might be missing today. It is a farmhouse that I have bought and am currently renovating. Once ready, I will offer this opportunity to anybody interested. I hope it will also be an interesting opportunity for artists from outside of Estonia. 

In your opinion, how much influence do collectors have in today's art world, and in the processes shaping this world?

The influence is definitely there. I do not think that the influence of collectors can be overestimated. After all, art is also a business in which the demand side is dominated by collectors.

What do you think is the greatest source of inspiration for today's Estonian artists? What are Estonian artists talking about, what interests them?

I think there is no universal answer. Although, I’m really happy to see that many Estonian artists have also been recently acknowledged internationally; artists such as Kris Lemsalu, Kaido Ole, Jaanus Samma and Merike Estna, just to name a few. I’m hoping this is a growing trend, and that Estonian contemporary artists will continue to have even greater international ambitions.

In today’s global art market, does there exist the phenomenon of “national art”?

I tend to believe so. I guess that art still is a part of a particular culture, although the concept of culture is becoming ever more universal across the world. Still, the importance of a particular artist is very much felt locally. Even for globally-known artists, people still recognize and acknowledge where they come from.

You are a young collector. Experienced collectors tend to say that, for one to have the right “eye” for art, one must spend many years training this “eye” by looking at art. How would you comment on this?

I totally agree with that. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who estimated that around 10,000 hours of practice is needed to master any discipline. I think collecting art is not an exception. I still need to do my hours. That is why I'd rather like to call myself a friend of art than a collector.

Kaido Ole. Shit Happens I, 2009. Litography

Do you think that art has the power to change people? What has it changed in you?

I think so. For myself, it is primarily a hobby that has enabled me to see broader perspectives. But it is also a bit of a mission to try to support the art scene. I sincerely believe that culture (together with art as part of it) is the only tool to really unite people. This is more relevant than ever if one looks at what is going on in the World right now.

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