in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript: Collector Sylvio Perlstein on Trading Diamonds with Man Ray

Guest Sylvio Perlstein

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

In Podcast Transcripts

“What does it mean, art? Anything. You can make it from shoes, from a nice bag, from a hat. It’s also art. Everything is art. Buy what you like.”

When it’s ugly it can be nice, too.”

“I see what I like, and I’m happy with what I see.”


Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today’s guest is the collector, Sylvio Perlstein, about whom the artist Robert Ryman once said: “In my early years, there was not much interest in my paintings, but Sylvio Perlstein believed in my work. He bought two paintings. And because Sylvio is courageous, I was able to buy more hamburgers to keep up my strength, and more paint to continue paintings.” Sylvio, thanks very much for being my guest today.

Sylvio Perlstein: Thank you.

Charlotte Burns: For those of you who haven’t seen, there are 360 works from Sylvio’s collection, which is a truly personal and passionate homage to the great art of the 20th century, currently on show in New York at Hauser & Wirth gallery until 27 July. If you haven’t seen it, you should run.

The exhibition features work by more than 250 artists: from Man Ray and Duchamp, to Carl Andre and Diane Arbus, Hans Bellmer, René Magritte, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Hannah Höch, Max Ernst, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, just to name a few.

Sylvio, your collection is very vast. I think I read somewhere there were more than 1,000 works in total. Is there one work that’s so pivotal to the collection, that it wouldn’t be the same without that work?

Sylvio Perlstein: For me, it was not even a collection. It was things that I saw, and I liked. I tried to acquire them. I think today they claim it’s a big collection. But, for me, it was a lot of items. Okay, when you have a lot of items, it starts to be a collection. But it was not done with a certain idea to have a collection. It was done because, I don’t know, accumulation.

Charlotte Burns: You just bought things over five decades, and now you have more than 1,000 works of art.

Sylvio Perlstein: To tell you the truth, I never count them. I’m not well organized. I need somebody who should organize for me; that’s what I’m missing.

The artists were not like today. You could easily meet an artist, and you would like him; he would like you. At that time, you could easily acquire works from the artist because the market was not the market like today. It was, you know, it was more friendship. Today it’s like, movie actors. You cannot meet them; you have to go through I don’t know how many assistants.

Charlotte Burns: An agent, yes.

Sylvio Perlstein: And the assistant gives you an assistant. Finally, the last word is: “Oh, I’m sorry. He’s traveling.” In the ‘60s or ‘70s, it was not like that.

Charlotte Burns: Do you feel a loss of those days and that informality?

Sylvio Perlstein: For sure. Everybody would because today, it’s not anymore so much art, it’s a real business. People buy only thinking about selling the next year. You know how many times I go, a lot—I like the fairs. I’m not going to all of them, but I go not to buy art, but to meet people that I didn’t see for ten years, 20 years.

Charlotte Burns: The social aspects.

Sylvio Perlstein: Because everybody goes to fairs. At that time, people would go to galleries. In the galleries, you could always have a contact. Somebody spoke with you. Today, the fair takes four days. Anyway, I may not criticize because everybody does what he thinks. Anymore, it’s not so much collectors or whatever you call them, people who like art. Today, it’s really a question of what it’s worth today and what it’s going to be. Do you know how many times I hear: “How much would it be worth next year?” Before, you never heard this.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Sylvio Perlstein: You bought because you like it, and when you like something, you’re not going to sell it like you see today.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. It’s a very different world.

Sylvio Perlstein: What does this mean? You buy something in 2016, and you sell it in 2017? Why did you buy it?

Charlotte Burns: For you, you’ve said that you pounce when you see something not normal. I wanted to ask you about that. The idea of buying work that is in some way strange and interesting. You’re talking about a kind of collecting that places the asset financial value over and above a personal engagement with the work. You come at it from a very different point of view where you’re much more guided by your instincts.

Sylvio Perlstein: I don’t know, when it’s ugly it can be nice too, or maybe not. The opposite of ugly is what, nice? But it can be ugly, but interesting. Not for everybody, but for some people, probably. Why not?

Charlotte Burns: Is there an artist that you didn’t understand at first, and then you gradually did, in your collection?

Sylvio Perlstein: No. Most of the artists—I have to tell you that I don’t have too much art from today. Most of what I bought, starting with the ‘20s, was a movement like Dada, which for me is fantastic. I tried, when I could, to acquire works from that period.

They used to… they were a little bit… today, people call them crazy, but they were funny, they were interesting. It was a really different art which was born. It was a movement, a period. Fantastic.

Charlotte Burns: It was very original. The first performances of Dada, I believe the artists were on a stage performing and also being obscene, as it was considered in those days. Burping and farting in the audience’s face as part of the art performance.

Sylvio Perlstein: A lot of theater, music.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. An interest in the grotesque, in humor, in being serious about art but not so serious about oneself. Even the word, Dada, the whole point was that it was a nonsense word. It was a total break from what had come before. Art had been for centuries very representational, and all of a sudden these artists were saying that standing on a stage and belching could be art, which was extremely radical at the time.

Sylvio Perlstein: By the way, Marcel Duchamp said: “Everything is art.”

Charlotte Burns: He’s one of those foundational roots of the contemporary art tree where that line of logic has been taken up.

You have works by Duchamp in your collection. I was walking around the gallery this morning and I thought, wow, look: there’s some Duchamp; there’s some Man Ray; there’s great Lichtenstein. There are so many great examples of works by artists who are now recognized as true greats of their periods.

There are also works by other artists who aren’t on that kind of hit list. You very much bought with your own eye. There are names in there that people may not have heard of. And there are names that people may have heard of but in different contexts. I was struck by the inclusion of works by Dora Maar, who’s better known to most people as Picasso’s lover and muse, but was of course an artist in her own right. There are a couple of works by her in the exhibition. It was great to see.

Tell me about the importance of knowing the artist. You’ve cultivated relationships with artists. Is that something you want to talk about? Are there any friendships in particular that you found to be foundational for you? Especially meaningful?

Sylvio Perlstein: At that time—in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s—it was easy to meet the artist. It’s not that I was looking to know them, but it was easy. I used to go in a place, I don’t know if you heard about it, Max’s Kansas City.

Charlotte Burns: I was reading about that. You would come to New York—

Sylvio Perlstein: I worked for a time, a few years in New York. I used to go out there in that place. How I met the people there, I don’t remember. That’s a long time ago. But I liked it. It was music. It was fun. You could have a small dinner. There, I met people from my age, like those artists. But at that time, an artist was an artist, but he was not yet artist. The word artist came much, much later.

Charlotte Burns: It meant something different.

Sylvio Perlstein: In the beginning, they did not even try to sell. At that time, I worked like a cutter, diamond cutter.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Your family business was in—

Sylvio Perlstein: Diamond cutter was not a fantastic business. It was not so well paid. But the artist, as they were not so important, they thought: “Maybe I can trade. I did something, and maybe this guy would like what I did. If he doesn’t want to pay me, I wouldn’t ask money. But maybe he gives me something, what he did.” Like this I started. Many times I traded what I had with what they had.

Charlotte Burns: I read somewhere that Man Ray was always looking for diamonds for his wife.

Sylvio Perlstein: Yes. This was much later. Then I was not more a cutter. After cutting for many years, I became a small jeweler. Cutting diamonds, you don’t have the diamond finished. It’s in progress. Then, nobody cares because it’s not finished. It’s not cut completely. So later, diamonds became a best friend. They wanted to exchange, to give it to their girlfriend, just to have something in return.

Charlotte Burns: Right, of course.

Sylvio Perlstein: You had galleries, but it was the beginning of the galleries and art was not expensive.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it was a different thing.

Your personal life is very interesting. You’ve lived in very many different places. You have homes currently in Paris, Belgium and New York, if I’m correct. When you were a child, your family fled Belgium in 1939 in fear of the Nazis and moved to Brazil for a period in time. How old were you at the time?

Sylvio Perlstein: I was seven, eight years old.

Charlotte Burns: So, you can remember that. Did that have an impact on your life?

Sylvio Perlstein: That was fantastic. The beach everyday.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, I can imagine.

Sylvio Perlstein: Sunshine. People are very nice. The music is nice. Football, not your football, but soccer.

Charlotte Burns: The English football, yes.

Sylvio Perlstein: Today, it became a little bit dangerous, what’s happening in the whole world. There, maybe it’s happening a little more than somewhere else. But still, it’s a beautiful country. I love the country.

Charlotte Burns: You made your first acquisition of art when you were a young man in Rio de Janeiro.

Sylvio Perlstein: Everybody talks about that. Everybody asks me about that, but I didn’t make an acquisition of art because I didn’t know it was art. It was something, a painting which was in a vitrine in a flower shop. I used to pass by every day going to the beach. There was a painting which I saw every day. I was—I don’t know how you say it—I was interested.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, you were curious.

Sylvio Perlstein: I asked once if I could buy it. They didn’t want to [sell] it. They said: “Oh, they don’t know what it is.” It was then later, insisting many times. I bought it for, I don’t remember also. I know only that the painter was Italian. I know I have it somewhere. It’s not a big painting. But it, I don’t know, I found it nice, and I still have it.


Charlotte Burns: It was very interesting seeing your exhibition in New York because obviously, there are quite a few American artists in there who are well known here, like Keith Herring, Warhol, Lichtenstein. And I think that reflects your relationship with artists in the ‘70s, like you were saying, at Max’s Kansas City.

You see works from earlier periods, and I’m very European, and I’m still never sure if all of those artists are entirely appreciated in America as much as they might be in Europe. There’s a different sensibility to the collection. What’s interesting about yours is that it has both. It has these major moments in art history, but it’s a very personal collection. It has lots of the great names, but it doesn’t feel like an exercise in collecting greatness.

It feels like there was a period when you were very interested in neon. It feels like you’re very interested in Surrealism and disruption and a kind of humor. There are a lot of works that are to do with the body. There’s a room in the exhibition that has a James Lee Byars, and there are a couple of other works. I thought it was very much a kind of phallic room. There’s a photography installation, which is a beautiful circular room—I think based on your home—of around 100 photographs of all different kinds.

So, it’s very wide-ranging and personal. If you had any advice for a collector starting out today—I know it’s a different world, you couldn’t probably do the same thing in the same way—is there advice you would give collectors?

Sylvio Perlstein: They should first go read a lot [of] books. Today, at my time you didn’t have so many books. Today you have fantastic books. Fantastic museums. Even private museums. Almost every neighborhood has a museum. I forgot the number of new museums every month in the world.

Charlotte Burns: It’s staggering.

Sylvio Perlstein: Young people should go to museums if they’re curious. It’s fantastic because you become friends. Today, it’s Facebook. But at that time, it was being an art lover because you could meet other people who love to do the same thing that I did.

You have to buy things when you travel, when you go somewhere. The best thing is everybody goes today on vacation. When you go on vacation, what do you do? You go shopping. The same thing you should do with a work of art. You walk, if you see something that you like, maybe somebody wants to buy shoes. The other one will buy art, or a bag or—

Charlotte Burns: Was it an obsession for you?

Sylvio Perlstein: No, I’m not obsessed. I’m not obsessed by anything. I like when I go, I travel, I go to a city that I know, or that I don’t know. By curiosity, I go walk in the streets, and when I see something which is different, is nice, is ugly, is whatever.

There was a dinner, so I didn’t speak at the dinner but I said to the people. They said: “Do you want to say something?” I said: “No. If you want to say in my place, tell them don’t go on vacation, buy art. Instead of going on vacation, buy art.” Today art, what does it mean, art? Anything. You can make from shoes, from a nice bag, from a hat, it’s also art. Everything is art. Buy what you like.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. I want to ask you a little about education through art. How did you learn? What did you learn in this life of buying art? What did art teach you along the way?

Sylvio Perlstein: Ten years ago, I would go to Tokyo, I would go to Mexico, I would go to another city. You always know another person like you are. Why? Because what I did, there were a lot of people doing. They walk in the streets; they like something; they buy it. It doesn’t have to be always something which is worth, I don’t know what. A lot of people want to buy only thinking what it will be worth, in ten years, in five years.

Charlotte Burns: Tomorrow.

Sylvio Perlstein: Will it remain good? Or will it be destructible? If you care, you can keep it and if you don’t touch it, it will stay like the first day you bought it.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sylvio Perlstein: I prefer to buy, you call it art, I prefer to buy a drawing. A small, I don’t know.

Charlotte Burns: I saw your—I thought this was quite funny—one of the most recent works in the exhibition is a work by you called, I think, Forgotten Keys or Missing Keys. Tell me a little bit about that.

Sylvio Perlstein: This is something that I didn’t buy.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it has your name on it, as the maker.

Sylvio Perlstein: What you mean, you have my name?

Charlotte Burns: The wall label says your name.

Sylvio Perlstein: Oh, because the curator thought he should show it, and he had to put a name because otherwise, somebody would think: “Oh, what’s that crazy item?” I had many keys, which I forgot to return to the hotel. Then I saw in the store, where Duchamp—

Charlotte Burns: It’s like The Bottle Rack? The Duchamp Bottle Rack.

Sylvio Perlstein: I was in front of the store where he bought also the—

Charlotte Burns: The first one, the first Bottle Rack.

Sylvio Perlstein: The first one. If you go today to Paris, the same store exists today. They sell the same thing. I said: “Oh, it’s a good thing to hang my keys.”


He wanted me to show it. There was another exhibition in France, many exhibitions in France where it’s the same curator. He says that this has a lot of interest. Everybody smiles. It’s funny.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it is funny. I like it.

Sylvio Perlstein: So, we said I’m going to show it also in New York. That’s the whole story about the keys that I forgot to give back.


Charlotte Burns: I read in an article, you did an interview with The New York Times recently about this exhibition. You were asked about how it felt to have the works removed from your home because you live with these works. They’re not in storage somewhere that you never see. They’re part of your life. You see them everyday. You were a little bit mournful saying: “I’m going to cry when the works are taken away.”

I was thinking about that because a dealer once told me if he could get a work from a client’s home, he could sell it. Because once a collector had realized they could live without something, then they could think about selling it. How is it for you now that those works aren’t there in your life? Do you miss them? Are you desperate for them to come back? Would you think about selling them? Has it changed the way you feel about them?

Sylvio Perlstein: You know, I went to Miami Basel—they ask too many people—I was invited to participate in a—

Charlotte Burns: In a panel discussion.

Sylvio Perlstein: Yes. The question is always the same, like you said: “What are you going to do later?” We were six people. The first woman said: “I don’t know.” The second one was the same thing about the same thing: “I didn’t think about it, I have no idea.” Third one, more or less the same thing. I was the fourth or the fifth. You know, I don’t think about it. Why should I think?

Right now, I like what I have. I see what I like, and I’m happy with what I see. More, I cannot tell you what’s going to happen. We’ll see.

Charlotte Burns: Would you like it to be kept together as one collection? Does that idea appeal to you?

Sylvio Perlstein: This is for sure. If I have to, I would like very much. You have to find the right people, the right place. I don’t know, it’s not easy. Especially if you born in the US, and you live in the US, you think it’s going to stay in the US. For me, it’s more difficult because I travel a lot. I live in different parts. What’s going to happen? I don’t know.

Charlotte Burns: It’s difficult, because you could donate it all to a museum, but then it wouldn’t always be together, or shown. It might be broken up.

Sylvio Perlstein: I have no idea.

Charlotte Burns: Is there a big regret? Is there one work that got away? Is there something you wanted so badly and didn’t quite manage to get?

Sylvio Perlstein: All of them that I missed—you have so many interesting things in life that what you missed yesterday, you will find tomorrow. Not the same thing, but you will find something else.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Sylvio Perlstein: Every day, every minute, every hour. Sometimes nothing. But sometimes every minute, every hour. If you walk on the street, you see all kinds of things which are interesting, at least for me. Maybe not for everybody.

Charlotte Burns: For anybody who hasn’t seen the show, it’s open until the 27th of July. It’s all three floors of Hauser & Wirth’s 22nd Street space.

Sylvio Perlstein: If you come to France, you are always welcome. I know one thing: that when you go out of my house, you laugh because everything is, not everything, but it’s funny. It’s nice. You have all kinds of art. You have a lot of artists in museums when you go out of the room you say: “Oh, it’s so sad. It’s so dark. It’s so…” I mean, dark, I’m not against dark. But—

Charlotte Burns: Then there’s the humor to the collection, a playfulness.

Sylvio Perlstein: When you go out of my house, you smile. It’s fun. It’s—I don’t know how you say in English—in French, you say c’est drôle. You speak a little French?

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it means—

Sylvio Perlstein: It’s funny.

Charlotte Burns: Well thank you so much for being my guest. This has been such a pleasure.

Sylvio Perlstein: Thank you very much.

You may also like...

Slideshow: Negative Space

By Matthew Thompson

Quarantined Cartoons

By Kaitlin Chan

Art Books and the Covid-19 Crisis

How the industry is adapting

By Christian House