On Friday evening, the Athens, Greece–based collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos was sipping coffee in a suite on the 32nd floor of the Four Seasons, where he has stayed on visits to New York for the past three decades, and getting ready to plan his weekend. On Monday night he would receive Independent Curators International’s Leo Award for his philanthropic efforts, at ICI’s annual gala, but he had blocked out two days for art viewing, and had a long list of Chelsea shows to possibly see on Saturday.
Sunday would be for museums. “I have the special privilege of seeing the Gober show just after closing, because I am a collector there,” he said, referring to the artist’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “I have two works there.” Those would be a 1991 sculpture of a headless torso made of beeswax that looks a bit like a bag of cement and a full room from 1989 with a bag of donuts in the center and black wallpaper with white drawings of genitals. (He had asked Gober to be in touch if something particularly ambitious became available for sale, and the artist and his gallery, Matthew Marks, delivered the latter work.)
Daskalopoulos has made his name with similarly large-scale buys—snapping up the kind of cumbersome works that only the most daring collectors and institution even have the space (to say nothing of the will) to show. He told me that a dealer once said to him, a few years after an especially formidable purchase: “When you were leaving the gallery and you said, ‘I’m buying this,’ we were opening Champagne and dancing.”
Daskalopoulos is 58 and speaks in a deep, considered tone—you can imagine him as a pretty tough businessman (he made his money in the Greek food industry)—but he takes on a schoolboy’s enthusiasm when he starts talking about his collection, which numbers about 500 pieces by some 170 artists, like John Bock, Sarah Lucas, Matthew Barney, Lynda Benglis, whose new ceramics he recently picked up, and Louise Bourgeois. (On his last visit to New York he stopped by Bourgeois’s home, which will soon be open to the general public. “I saw it with the dust,” he said. “It was a magic experience. You can feel the presence of this great artist.”)
What’s the appeal of the hard-to-handle work he favors? “If artists do those things, why should we avoid them because they don’t fit in the living room?” he said with a smile. “I say I was liberated quickly from the restrictions of thinking about home decoration, thankfully, because I’ve been able to follow more artistic creativity as it is and as it happens.”
(That said, his wife and children don’t always go along with his home-decoration choices. One of his daughters vetoed showing his copy of Duchamp’s Fountain, which he cites as the pivotal work in shaping his collection when he purchased it in 1999.)
He estimates that he adds about 20 works most years, and has recently been focusing on expanding his holdings in artists he has long supported, deepening his collection. “In the beginning, when I was just a big collector, a lot of people looked at me just as money, and I’d get a lot of disparate things that I was not interested in,” he said. “Now they know the theme, what the collection is about. I get only very relevant things as offers to consider.” He’s been enterprising about promoting the art he owns, publishing catalogues and securing not-uncontroversial shows of his holdings at the Guggenheim Bilbao and London’s Whitechapel Gallery, both of which he supports.
He sorts through the art offers he receives with a small team. “We have those collection meetings with a lot of swimming in the Aegean and some good wine,” he said, laughing.
As it happens, he’s also a wine collector (“I like red Bordeaux, mainly—I think half of my cellar is that”), and a collector of 18th-century smoking pipes, of which he owns about two-dozen.
Are there dealers for 18th-century smoking pipes? “Yes, of course, there are dealers for everything!” he said. Does he smoke out of them? “Well, I’m sure you can. But they’re too precious for that, and I don’t smoke a pipe anyway.” He prefers cigars.
Last year, Daskalopoulos created a foundation called Neon to fund various Greek cultural projects. “In Greece, if you’re going to avoid another crisis in the next generation, we need a significant change of mentality,” he said. “I also think contemporary art can be a driving force for that.”
Seeing art at a young age—Rubens paintings at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek—was a formative experience, he said, emphasizing that his time with art has made him more “creative, innovative, flexible.”
“That has helped me develop my own skills,” he said, “and I think that that has something that everyone deserves the opportunity to be exposed to.” (No surprise, given his business background, he questions, in his words, “the leftist mentality that says there are some things that should be better left to the state.” He and a group of like-minded Greek collectors are working “to change the mentality of our social environment to accept more public-private cooperation,” he told me.)
Many of his ultra-wealthy collector-peers—François Pinault, Mitchell Rales, Bernard Arnault—have been building deluxe accommodations for their art collections. Will there be a Renzo Piano or Frank Gehry building in Daskalopoulos’s future? “I hope to avoid that,” he said.
“I don’t really feel like I am the owner of these works,” he said. “I am, legally, but these are great works created by some artists. They gain more meaning when they talk to other artworks or when they are confronted with people’s minds.”
He admits to sometimes having moments of cynicism about contemporary art, of being skeptical about “the amount of money we pay for indecipherable concoctions. I think that’s very healthy to have.”
“Whenever I go to a museum,” he continued, “I buy postcards of a Raphael painting and send it to the team, and say, ‘Remember, be humble!’”