The man who sold his collection to MoMA (New York): ‘La collection qui n’existait pas’ tells story of remarkable Belgian art collector Herman Daled


A man sitting at an old desk. Three stacks of index cards. He puts a rubber band around them, and puts the stacks away in the lower drawer of his desk. ‘That’s my collection’, he says. It is the great opening scene of a wonderful documentary, about one of Belgium’s most remarkable art collectors. Herman Daled, now in his eighties, a friend of many conceptual artists. In 2011 he sold a big part of his collection to MoMA, New York. ‘Among the most significant acquisitions in the museum’s history’, MoMA director Lowry described the deal back then. La collection qui n’existait pas (The collection that didn’t exist), by Joachim Olender, tells Daled’s story. It premiered last week at Bozar, Brussels. In the audience: Tate director Chris Dercon, choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, MoMA’s Christophe Cherix, and of course, lots of people (young and old) from the Brussels’ art scene.

In his speech just before the screening, Herman Daled told the audience that he had dedicated the film to his granddaughter. So she would understand the folly of her grandparents a bit better. It is, as is told in La collection qui n’existait pas, a wonderful story. It all started when Herman Daled, a radiologist, became friends with the late Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. Whenever Broodthaers invited fellow artists over, he told them that he knew someone they could go to, where they could eat, drink, smoke and stay. And so Daled, and his wife Nicole, got to know many artists of the conceptual art movement. Not only did they become friends, Daled and his wife (now divorced) decided to buy their art as well. A strange thing to do, at that time, because those conceptual artists were an unusual bunch of guys; outsiders in the art world. ‘Ian Wilson was probably the weirdest. Buying one of his works, meant that you bought a conversation with him. You got to talk to him, and that was it.’


The first work Herman Daled bought: ‘La Robe De Maria’ (Marcel Broodthaers, 1966)

In the film you see Daled, Nicole and Belgian artist Jacques Charlier reminiscence about those days, at Nicole’s apartment, where they used to meet. They regret now that at that time they had decided not to take pictures of those meetings, film part of those gatherings, or record the conversations. Over the years, Daled and his wife collected some 800 à 900 works of art. ‘I don’t consider myself a collector’, Daled says. ‘Someone who loves literature, buys books and puts them in a book-case. Is he a collector? No. The same applies to me.’ It’s intriguing to see how, throughout the film, he downplays his role. He wants no credit. He just happened to be the right man at the right place, he says. ‘Compare it to standing on a surfboard: I just happened to catch the right wave.’

Over the years quite a few museums had asked Daled for an exhibition of his collection. In 2010 he finally yielded, when Haus der Kunst director Chris Dercon (now: Tate Modern director) asked him for his museum in Münich. The exhibition attracted the attention of MoMA (New York). They asked if they could buy all the works, and the Daleds agreed. The 300 or so works (letters and other objects) never returned to Belgium, but were flown over to New York right away instead. (In the film Dercon reads a fragment of an article in a Belgian newspaper, stating that none of the big Belgian museums expressed any interest in Daled’s collection. Daled says: ‘Thank god, because it meant that I didn’t have to choose.’)


‘I Got Up’ (On Kawara, set of 108 postcards sent to Herman Daled between May 18 and September 3, 1972)

It’s clear that Daled (with his inseparable Magritte pipe) is a quizzical character. Somewhat mysterious, rather stubborn, but down to earth and clearly not interested in so-called art speak and art theories. One of the finer moments: Dercon visits him and brings a Jean-Luc Godard movie, they watch it together. At the end Dercon asks: do you understand why I wanted you to see this movie? Daled answers, deadpan: No.’ One of the great things about La collection qui n’existait pas, is that Daled remains ever so mysterious. Not all the answers are given. (Is that empty, old house he invites Dercon and Daniel Buren to, the paint peeling from the walls, really the place where he lives?) Sometimes you wonder why Olender hasn’t interviewed more artists from those days. So you would have had more information about Daled or those times. But in the end, it’s maybe for the better. By keeping some of the mystery, Daled is a character that stays with you. You keep thinking about him, and this wonderful film.

The last scene is a beautiful one as well. Daled is said to have stopped collecting art. Difficult to believe, French artist Daniel Buren has said earlier on in the film, and he tells the story of how he once struck a deal with Daled. For a year Daled wasn’t allowed to buy anything. The only thing he could do was buy one new work a month by Daniel Buren. The deal they made was part of that work of art. When the year was over, Daled went to an exhibition with works by Lawrence Weiner. ‘He bought the whole show’, Buren tells smilingly. ‘That’s how frustrated he was.’ In the film Daled shows Buren the last work of art he has ever bought. Buren isn’t allowed to watch as Daled hangs it on the wall. It’s a work by Rebecca Quaytman, featuring a black and white picture of them, back in the days.

‘La collection qui n’existait pas’, was produced by Man’s Films Brussels. There are no other screenings planned yet, but tv channel Arte Belgique will be showing the documentary on February 11 (10.35 pm) & February 13 (10.30 pm), during Quai des Belges.
More info:
You’ll find an extensive interview with Mr. Daled here (from 2011). More details about ‘The Herman And Nicole Daled Papers’ at MoMA here.




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