“I like this,” says Karel De Gucht, the European Union’s trade commissioner, as he admires an AK-47 assault rifle bristling with rusty nails.
The EU’s senior trade negotiator is in London snatching a quick tour of Tate Modern between meetings. De Gucht likes art, and “Fetish VI” by Johannesburg-based Michael MacGarry has caught his eye. “Africa has a lively art scene, if not good infrastructure and governance,” says the former deputy prime minister of Belgium and law professor, moving purposely from work to work.
The silver-haired commissioner, 57, is a stocky, combative presence in a gray pinstripe suit and a loosened blue paisley tie. Over the years he has collected as he has traveled. While visiting Africa, he bought work by Tanzanian artist George Lilanga, who also designed scarves for Hermes.
He’s particularly proud of a Masai robe made out of bark that he snapped up in an African market under some cheap tourist trinkets.
“I paid less for that than the price of the artworks on top of it,” De Gucht says with a grin.
He strides past the concrete space recently occupied by Ai Wei Wei’s “Sunflower Seeds” installation. “That was a wonderful piece by a brave man,” he says. The dissident artist was released in June after being detained by the Chinese authorities for more than two months. De Gucht met Commerce Minister Chen Deming in Beijing in July to encourage deeper trading links between China and the EU.
“People think China doesn’t have any weaknesses or problems,” says De Gucht, who has a reputation for airing forthright views. “Their golden age won’t go on forever. Sooner or later they’ll have to switch to another model of development and over time they won’t be able to sustain the restrictiveness of their political system.”
The commissioner also has his doubts about some of the Chinese art on which wealthy Western collectors have been spending millions. “The prices paid on the American markets are very high,” De Gucht says. “There are good artists like Ai. Others are like a production line. They might not prove to be the best investment in 20 years.”
In between rounds of trade talks, he tries to find time to visit exhibitions and commercial events such as Art Basel and the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris.
What would he buy if he wasn’t a politician and had the spending power of a billionaire collector? “Maybe a Jean-Michel Basquiat, or an early Flemish painting, or an Anish Kapoor,” he says. “Wire me the money and I’ll tell you.”
The commissioner is just in time to catch the last week of the Tate Modern’s Joan Miro retrospective. He lingers in front of a minimalist blue abstract made by the Spanish surrealist in the 1930s. “I have a Miro,” he says. “I bought a print by him in Paris in 1980 to celebrate becoming a member of the European Parliament.”
De Gucht remains upbeat about the 27-state EU, even amid the continuing sovereign-debt woes. “I recently took part in a debate in France,” the commissioner says. “People were too pessimistic. The EU still has an economy that is almost three times as big as China’s. Companies are in much better shape than they were in 2008. Sure, we have too much debt. It’s just going to take time.” He looks at his watch. The next appointment beckons.
He was appointed EU trade commissioner in February 2010, having been in charge of Development and Humanitarian Aid since July 2009. De Gucht is currently representing the EU in 10 separate sets of negotiations. The latest round of talks to secure a free-trade agreement with Ukraine starts on Sept. 19.
“Sometimes it almost overwhelms me,” he says. This is why, when he can, he takes time out to see Miro at the Tate or Kapoor at the Grand Palais in Paris. “Art reconnects me with life,” says De Gucht. With that remark, he tightens his tie and resumes his whirlwind schedule of meetings.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)