Gilles Dyan's Opera galleries succeed by combining his art expertise and his marketing savvy

Gilles Dyan and his Opera art galleries are celebrating two major milestones

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:16pm

Gilles Dyan was very nearly a doctor - until he realised he wasn't too keen on the sight of blood. So he pulled out of his studies in medicine, switched to marketing and now, several decades down the road, finds himself in a more aesthetically pleasing environment than a doctor's surgery.

The founder of Opera Gallery in Paris, Dyan opened the first branch in Singapore in 1994, and today has 11 galleries around the world, including one on Wyndham Street in Central. With two significant anniversaries this year - 20 years since he founded Opera and 10 years since the Hong Kong salon opened - it's a good time to take stock of how far he and the gallery have come.

Right from the start, Dyan had dreams of developing globally and his concept was different from other galleries. Rather than specialising in one style or region, Opera Gallery's scope is broad, covering the 20th century from the Impressionists to American pop artists, contemporary artists and then some of the great masters thrown into the mix.

Established artists' works rub shoulders with those of emerging artists - it's a melting-pot approach that he says dealers don't much like, but his clients and collectors love. And the price point is equally broad, with works going from HK$100,000 to HK$8 million.

The location of the galleries is critical. "I come from a marketing side. For me it was important to establish in prime locations close to luxury brands," says Dyan, whose London gallery is on New Bond Street while the Singapore salon is on Orchard Road.

Along the way, he received an arts degree and became a member of the European Chamber of Expert-Advisors in Fine Art, which meant that for a while he did art valuations for insurance companies. But he doesn't have time for that now.

His art studies and marketing savvy are the cornerstone of the galleries' success. Dyan says he's fortunate he started at a time when demand for art was taking off. "There are more people who want to buy art - they like it and want to invest. Many people are putting part of their savings in art and investing in big names."

Stroll around the Wyndham Street salon and the names are impressive. "Timepieces", a special exhibition to celebrate the gallery's 10th anniversary that runs until December 4, includes contemporary pieces and masterpieces. A giant silver pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama greets visitors on the first floor of the four-storey gallery. Among the more than 50 pieces are works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, plus contemporary icons such as Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami and Fernando Botero.

I get a great feeling with many of the artists. It’s nice to take care of them – sometimes they are a bit crazy

The gallery feels more like a museum than a commercial space. "This is a location where even young people can come and enjoy. We say 'bonjour' to everybody. They can come and have a tour," Dyan says.

But people are buying, with 40-50 per cent of sales going to Hong Kong collectors and institutions and the rest to overseas buyers, including tourists. "Last year around the world more than US$65 billion was spent on paintings overall. There are more and more buyers and collectors and new museums opening. The market is in good shape," the Frenchman says.

To meet such strong demand, his network is vast - sometimes buying back from collectors, working with artists' estates and private collectors, buying at auction, even working with banks who get paintings when people can't repay loans.

Unlike many other galleries, Opera buys paintings it likes rather than just stocking them to sell. It's a risk, but in the long run makes financial sense as the gallery gets a better price by buying upfront. "I don't buy for a special customer. I buy because it is a good artwork, I like the artist and the period. For the masterpieces, I know I will sell no problem," says Dyan.

But it's the contemporary artists Dyan most enjoys working with, if only for the simple reason that they are alive and he can meet them. "I get a great feeling with many of the artists. It's nice to take care of them - sometimes they are a bit crazy."

His definition of contemporary artists includes street artists and he's convinced that five years from now at least three or four will have emerged from the street art movement as contemporary artists commanding huge prices. "To me, this market is undervalued, there is a big gap to go. But we don't do it for that, we do it because we like to work with these artists," he says.

Opera has run exhibitions with some of the big names in the street art world - think Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Dyan recently signed the graffiti artist who goes by the name of Seen (Richard Mirando), who is perhaps best known for tagging the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

Also new on board is Spanish artist Lita Cabellut, and Reza Derakshani, who fled Iran in 1983 and moved to New York. The advantage for these living artists working with a gallery such as Opera is the international exposure they get. "For me art is global and I want to be able to show our artists to the world and present to collectors what we like and think will be good value for them in future," says Dyan.

That dream will get even bigger next year with the opening of four more galleries - in Beirut, Azerbaijan's capital Baku, Aspen in Colorado, and New York's Madison Avenue. "There are 20 times more sales in the last 20 years with new museums and collectors. I work like a dog. I like what I do, I love it."

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