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Top 200 Collectors

Walter Vanhaerents

Walter Vanhaerents


Real estate and construction; nonprofit organization (Vanhaerents Art Collection)

Contemporary art


Walter Vanhaerents is not interested in the past. “For me,” the collector told Initiart magazine, “it’s a principle not to go back in time! I oblige myself to look at the future not the past!” That might account for part of why his collection doesn’t contain any works created before 1970. His focus is directed, instead, toward emerging young artists—artists so new to the scene that 90 percent of those showcased at his museum in Brussels can’t be seen in any of the local public institutions. While many collectors who work with contemporary artists develop an interest in the artists themselves, Vanhaerents prefers to keep his distance. “It is important,” he has said, “to judge an artist by his work and not by who he is. I know it’s not a pleasant thing, but you have to do that.” 

An artist he has only favorable judgements for is James Lee Byars, the American conceptual artist who died in 1997. “He was one of the rare performance artists at the time, a magician, an alchemist,” Walter Vanhaerents told ARTnews of Byars. The collector’s devotion culminated in a huge, elaborate installation piece by Byars presented at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione as a collateral event surrounding the 2019 Venice Biennale. The Death of James Lee Byars, which the Brussels-based Vanhaerents Collection owns the right to re-create, is a boxlike space entirely covered in gold leaf, centered by a golden sarcophagus, in place of Byars, who in the 1994 original, lay like a corpse on the floor. Byars conceived it when he was dying of cancer. The piece proved popular (and Instagrammable) in Venice. It took Vanhaerents almost two years of discussion with Byars’s gallerists to acquire the work, which he did in 1996. “This installation had nothing materialistic but was only ephemeral,” he said. “I have just bought an idea, but one of the greatest ever.”