Fake or Facsimile: Part 9: The Handbags of Two Households: “Both Alike in Dignity”

As I hope has been clear from the beginning, this series, entitled Fake or Facsimile, is about designer handbags and art galleries, and how both of these cultural institutions can be seriously damaged by high quality “off-brand” substitutes—sometimes derisively referred to as “knock-offs”.

I admit that that such a juxtaposition might appear whimsical, but even I have been eclipsed by a recent headline in the London Times of June 29th (2017), which ran: “Les Handbags: fashion billionaires fight for art museum supremacy”.[i]

Apparently, there is a bitter Parisian rivalry between Messrs Bernard Arnault and François Pinault; and here, for context, are a few helpful statistics (as of July 31st, 2017):

Name Bernard Arnault François Pinault
Position Chairman, LVMH Founder, Artémis
Age 68 80
Forbes Billionaire Ranking[ii] 8 42
Handbags Louis Vuitton

Christian Dior



Yves Saint Laurent

Alexander McQueen

Handbag Empire LVMH reduces 23.1% stake in Hermès[iii] Christie’s Auction House
Wines Dom Pérignon Château Latour
Collected Masterpieces Mondrian



Mark Rothko

Andy Warhol

Damien Hirst

Jeff Koons



de Kooning

Mark Rothko

Andy Warhol

Damien Hirst

Jeff Koons[iv]

Paris Museum Fondation Louis Vuitton[v]

Bois de Boulogne

Open: October 2014

Conversion of 19th-Century

Bourse de Commerce

Projected Opening: 2019

Architect Frank Gehry Tadao Ando
Actual (Projected) Costs


Vanity Fair: $143 Million[vi]

Forbes: $200 Million[vii]


(€108 Million)[viii]

City of Paris Lease Fondation Louis Vuitton:

55 Years; 2062: Paris takes possession of FLV[ix]

50 Years; €10 Million every year during the 50-year lease; without “tax breaks”[x]

The French, European and global mission of both Messrs Arnault and Pinault is to collect, and then to find a way to display their vast collections—especially of modern art.  And to that end, the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) was opened to the public in Paris’ famous Bois de Boulogne in October 2014; now, on Monday June 26th, 2017, François Pinault announced the projected 2019 opening of his own Parisian museum in another spectacular site: the soon to be renovated Parisian Bourse de Commerce.  The renovations of the Bourse are meant to be “reversible”, even though the project includes the insertion of “a giant concrete cylinder”,[xi] into the structure, which is designed to form “a new exhibition space”.[xii]

No doubt there are lots of negative things that can be said about both the “Arnault-Pinault competition”, and the huge publicity coups that may attend these stunning, major news-worthy initiatives.  But the Parisian Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is not inclined to share the reservations of others.  The Mayor skilfully perseveres according to an even-handed approach,[xiii] and insists on thanking both Messrs Arnault and Pinault for reviving the Parisian public spaces available for the display of art—especially modern and contemporary—through the rivals’ largesse.  Ms Hidalgo sees the renovation of the Bourse de Commerce as an “immense gift”[xiv] to Paris, not least because the proposed redesign has the immediate consequence of offering the public actual access to an otherwise “closed” landmark.

Groupe Artémis is now in the hands of François-Henri Pinault, the son of the Groupe Founder, and three generations of the Pinault family were present to unveil the plans for the Paris Bourse.

The Groupe Founder François Pinault made it clear at the June 26th press conference that the Bourse Museum must be received both as a family enterprise and a 50-year family commitment.  The suggestions, therefore, that this gracious gesture should be disparaged as just another “pharaonic”[xv] vanity project would be lacking in an appropriate spirit of generosity, in my opinion.

Of course, it is perfectly correct to point out that the Fondation Louis Vuitton—before its official opening on October 27th—was first employed on October 1st, 2014, for the presentation of the Louis Vuitton Spring 2015 Collection, which confirms all the publicity suspicions we had already.   But then François-Henri Pinault has also pointed out, correctly, the “obvious link between art and fashion”[xvi]—and in this on-going series we shall continue to try to explore how one influences (and inspires) the other.  By the way, on that 1st day of October, 2014, the Gehry fabrication looked absolutely brilliant—as did the fashion stars themselves—all of which can be seen at the Louis Vuitton website.[xvii]

So setting aside some of the obvious criticism of the superficiality of fashion (and its pop art inspirations) just for now, here are some ways in which these massive acts of philanthropy might be able to inspire all of us:

The 2014 Fondation and the 2019 Bourse are intended to display extensive collections of modern and contemporary art for public consumption, in hugely original premises. And François Pinault has underlined that: “the renovation and transformation of the stock exchange would be as much of a work of art as the pieces displayed inside it.”[xviii]

These two architectural sensations are not only sited in Paris, but they will also ultimately become fully the properties of Parisians. Both the Houses of Montague and Capulet are then committed to maintaining these monumental treasures for another half-century; and, in the case of the Pinault family, on clearly defined terms, and without reference to potential tax advantages.

Admirably, I think, François Pinault has made it clear that whatever else the Arnault-Pinault skirmishes bring with them: “In the field of art, we don’t speak of competition … The more places to present works, the better. Each collection is the history of a singular view.”[xix] In other words, you do not have to make an agonizing decision between your Louis Vuitton and Gucci accessories; feel free to see the advantages of each, and then enjoy both!

At the June Bourse press conference, Pinault fils made an allusion to the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who in his own day also belonged to the class of the “super-rich”.[xx] I am unclear as to the exact reference, but the gist[xxi] seems to be, great happiness can be had by sharing one’s wealth with others.  And in countless interviews, this is the theme that Pinault père has repeatedly managed to communicate.  Whatever exactly was said, Pinault père is certainly aware of the Buddhist principle that “happiness never decreases by being shared”.  I hope the Parisians will ultimately take pleasure in the benefits of this insight.

Pinault fils & père are here very much on the same page; Pinault père has been trying to find a suitable home for his vast masterpiece collection in Paris for at least 15 years,[xxii] and in 2005, in frustrated surrender at a massive failure to find a Parisian location, Pinault wrote in Le Monde: “Eternity is for art, not for the projects that aim to serve it.”[xxiii] But more telling, I believe, are Pinault’s observations that, despite his retaining a vast private collection, the point has come where: “I feel an obligation to share my passion”,[xxiv] so that his “desire to possess—born at the moment I first came in contact with art—has been transformed into a profound need to share.”[xxv]

There is in this magnanimous attitude, a real dedication to both the production and enjoyment of artistic enterprise as a living, vibrant, inspiring, enabling, empowering rejuvenation of the individual personality, whatever the age. And, therefore, Pinault is clear that he is not building either a pyramid or a mausoleum,[xxvi] but is engaged in making possible “the spearhead of contemporary art, a path to the future in the heart of Paris.”[xxvii]

Significantly, this whole discussion of the Parisian aspirations of the Pinault family offers a suggestion that there is a real “moral” dimension at work here—as has earlier been indicated by the Matisse family (see Part 7)—both as to the possession and the display of masterpieces; and this lifts our discussion of the Parisian museums to an entirely more sublime plane. There have been repeated suggestions of great urgency surrounding this project, and this sense of highest priority appears to be a response to the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015.  The question is posed: what might serve as an adequate response to this violence, or at least provide some measure of alleviation?  Always with his eye towards the future, Pinault père has spoken of a “museum in movement, not a museum in stagnation”.[xxviii]  For Pinault, only a museum which conveys a sense of “a living space” and which honours, in particular, the art of our own times could do the work of connecting the artistic endeavours of our contemporaries with our often inchoate struggling and groping towards a persuasive future.

As indicated, the Parisian mayor has no doubts about the value and the importance of these amazing initiatives for the welfare and stability of her city. At a press conference last year to say that the Bourse project was now firmly proceeding, Anne Hidalgo was reported as saying in part: “I was very moved when after the terror attacks in 2015, François Pinault expressed his will to support.  Like him, I think art won’t completely save the world but art is one of the best weapons we have to halt and reverse obscurantist ideas and barbarism.”[xxix]  It is, of course, possible here to fall into propositions that become overly sentimental, but I take the Mayor to be suggesting that when we ourselves come to value whatever other citizens and fellow human beings hold dear; when we are not inclined to burn and blow things up which belong to other heritages and other expressions of our common humanity, then we might—through the art and artifacts of others—enlarge our sense of the richness and diversity of our ever so precious world and our individual lives.

The French as a nation are a singular people, and it is hard not to admire them on every level.[xxx] Particularly admirable, in my opinion, is their ongoing dialogue with their own past, as they try to forge a common identity which also opens up the future.  To that end, it is worth making reference to André Malraux (France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, 1959 to 1969), just as Pinault père has done in advancing his project.  In (inspired) exchanges with The New York Times, Pinault wrote: “In the face of this barbarism, the only possible reaction is to move forward… As André Malraux said, ‘Art is the shortest path from man to man.’  That is what prompted me to accelerate the completion of my project in Paris.”[xxxi]  And the project, as Pinault has made clear repeatedly, is “to share my passion for contemporary art with as broad an audience as possible.”[xxxii]

I hope that my preceding remarks make it clear that, whatever else needs to be said, I admire this magnanimity, this degree of cultivated passion, and this extraordinary philanthropy—and I also admire this engagement with contemporary events, and how to respond to them without surrendering to cynicism, despair and an overwhelming sense of futility.

In just the same spirit, the United States Ambassador in Paris at the time of the 2015 terrorist attacks, Jane D. Hartley, was deeply engaged in finding an appropriate American response or gesture to express concern for, and solidarity with, the citizens of Paris.  According to The New York Times, Ambassador Hartley approached the world-famous Jeff Koons—a favourite of both the Montagues and the Capulets.  The Ambassador described Koons as “the most prominent American living artist”.[xxxiii]  Koons came up with the idea for a massive sculpture entitled Bouquet of Tulips, envisioned as an American riposte to France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty.  All the same aspirations already expressed by the Pinault family are also present in Koons’ invention; the bouquet, held out by an enormous hand, is meant to “communicate a sense of future, of optimism, the joy of offering [and] buoyancy…”  Mayor Hidalgo, in November 2016, echoed these sentiments at a news conference: the message has to be “that it’s not true that tomorrow’s world will be worse than it is today”.[xxxiv]

So far so good.

But now, eight months later, it has become much clearer:

a) that Koons’ gift to the city of Paris is not, in fact, a sculpture, but something that has been described as “superconceptual”.[xxxv] Koons’ actual gift to Paris is a concept, a design, and a Parisian location (Koons chose the plaza between two museums, a location which also offers the public a view of the Eiffel tower). However, the sculpture itself is being constructed in Germany under French auspices; and the cost of both construction and installation of the sculpture is estimated at €3.5 Million—money that needs to be raised in Paris for the concept to be realized;

b) that the Plaza in front of the Palais de Toyko (museum) may not be strong enough to support this enormous sculpture, which will be more than 10 metres high. Since the Bouquet is to be constructed from “bronze, stainless steel and aluminum”,[xxxvi] the fear is that the designated plaza cannot sustain its weight without further difficult and extensive renovation;

c) that some Parisians have come to the conclusion that the gift that Jeff Koons has given Paris is not, in fact, a work of art—but that as “a businessman … [Koons] was offering Paris to himself as a present”.[xxxvii] That is going too far; I think the correct formula should have been—one that seems to accord with the principles at work here—Koons was offering himself to Paris as a present.

And why not?  As an inspiration of “the most prominent American living artist” surely there is something of significant value being offered here.  One may have trouble appreciating the gift if one—like me—has a distinct lack of enthusiasm for hanging hearts, balloon dogs, and huge representations of Popeye.  But this “conceptual” artist does, nonetheless, have something to say.  In November 2016, Koons informed us that the tulips sculpture is meant to convey: a “symbol of remembrance, optimism and healing in moving forward from the horrific events that occurred in Paris one year ago”.  The tulips “are a symbol that life goes forward”.[xxxviii]  These sentiments are all bang-on, and totally aligned with what I admire most about the Pinault family; the execution here, however, may be slightly lacking in substance and heft.  The Bouquet of Tulips may be an inspiring “concept”, but the hand apparently holding the flowers seems to be a bit empty.

  • photo by Kara Holm
    In the Field: Louis Vuitton, Caesars Palace, July 201

    These reflections began with the intimate relation that obtains between handbags and the displaying of art. But once again it seems to be life imitating art; it’s supposed to be the other way around.  In April 2017, one learned from The Los Angeles Times[xxxix] that Jeff Koons is now designing handbags for Louis Vuitton, and that these new “masterpiece” creations will be sporting representations of some of the world’s most famous works of art, including, of course, the Mona Lisa.  Other greats will also get a look-in (or, more properly, a shout-out): Rubens, Fragonard, Titian and, naturally, also van Gogh.  Are you still in a position to cavil at my juxtaposition of handbags and art galleries?  On Tuesday April 11th, there was the most perfect fusion of the designer handbag and the art gallery: the Louis Vuitton dinner announcing this extraordinary collaboration with Jeff Koons actually took place in the very Parisian home of the Mona Lisa herself, that is to say at the world-renowned Louvre.  Vanity Fair has offered the most amazing photographs of the event;[xl] the new Jeff Koons handbags are perfectly displayed in the Louvre gallery beside its classical sculptures.  To the best of my knowledge, no member of the Matisse family was in attendance.

Next Time: The Mona Lisa Handbag: Virtual Consumer Choices


[i] The Times (European Edition), June 29th, 2017 (Adam Sage): p. 37

[ii] Forbes: “The World’s Billionaires: Real Time Ranking” (as of 8am EDT, July 31st, 2017)

[iii] The Telegraph, September 3rd, 2014 (Ashley Armstrong): “Truce in LVMH—Hermès Handbag Wars” & The Fashion Law, July 1st, 2016: “Hermès vs. LVMH: A Timeline of the Drama”

[iv] The sources here are just too voluminous fully to enumerate; for instance the Groupe Artémis Website allows us to make a good start: “François Pinault is one of the top contemporary art collectors in the world.”  The Pinault collection is often assessed as in excess of 3,000 works of art; cf. The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016 (Doreen Carvajal): “Plans take Shape for François Pinault Museum in Paris”; Ms Carvajal also mentions the $143 Million cost for the Bois de Boulogne museum.  An excellent first website (sorry) is CelebrityNetWorth.com.  I also found highsnobiety,com very enlightening: June 16th, 2015 (A.J. Gwilliam): “The 5 most valuable Art Collections in the World”: #5: François Pinault

[v] The Guardian, October 21st, 2014 (Oliver Wainwright) flags an issue we want to address more directly in Part 10; viz. “Built on public land, with private funds, it will be given as ‘a gift to the city’ in 55 years’ time.”  See Wainwright’s “Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton…”

[vi] This is the figure most often bandied about; cf. Vanity Fair, September 2014 (Paul Goldberger): “Gehry’s Paris Coup”: Vanity Fair refers here to: “The reported $143 million Fondation Louis Vuitton…”

[vii] Forbes sometimes pitches a figure of $200 Million USD; cf. Forbes, March 31st, 2011 (Hannah Elliott): “LVMH moves forward with Gehry Art Museum”; October 7th, 2014 (Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle): “The long-awaited Fondation Louis Vuitton will open its Doors in Paris on October 27”

[viii] Vogue, June 26th, 2017 (Tina Isaac-Goizé): “Pinault presents future Museum in Paris”

[ix] “Letter: January Apollo” in Apollo: The International Art Magazine, January 10th, 2015 (Fatema Ahmed); Apollo has also released the most stunning photographs of the Ghery structure; cf. November 4th, 2014 (Caroline Rossiter): “A Cloud of Glass in the Bois de Boulogne…”

[x] Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016, reports the “generous tax deductions” that France allows for philanthropy; in The New York Times, June 27th, 2017 (Rachel Donadio): “Christie’s Owner unveils Plans for private Paris Museum”, François Pinault is quoted as saying that neither he nor his family would be asking “the state for funding” to assist with the project; see also The Times, June 29th, 2017 (Adam Sage): op. cit.: “without demanding the tax breaks…”

[xi] The Guardian, June 26th, 2017 (Angelique Chrisafis): “Former Paris Stock Exchange to be reborn…”

[xii] The stunning Pinault plans for the Bourse de Commerce can be viewed on the website: designboom.com, June 30th, 2017 (Philip Stevens): “Tadao Ando to transform Paris’ Stock Exchange…”

[xiii] wwd.com, April 27th, 2016 (Laure Guilbault): “François Pinault finds Venue for Art Collection in Paris”

[xiv] The Guardian, April 27th, 2016: (Agence France-Presse): “New Paris Museum to house Billionaire’s Modern Art Collection”

[xv] Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016: op. cit.

[xvi] wwd.com, April 27th, 2016 (Laure Guilbault): op. cit.

[xvii] louisvuitton.com: “The Fondation Louis Vuitton hosts the Show” [Spring 2015 Fashion]

[xviii] The Guardian, June 26th, 2017 (Angelique Chrisafis): op. cit.  Ms Chrisafis aligns this sentiment with the principles established by the architect (Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières) of Paris’ Corn Exchange, that is to say the original version of the 19th-Century Bourse: “It is not enough to please the eyes—you must touch the soul.”

[xix] The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016 (Doreen Carvajal): op. cit.

[xx] The Guardian, March 27th, 2015 (Emily Wilson): “Seneca, the fat-cat philosopher”: Seneca falls “easily in the top 0.1%”—so very much in the same league as these Parisian patrons.

[xxi] Vogue, June 26th, 2017 (Tina Isaac-Goizé): op. cit.

[xxii] The New York Times, May 1st, 2006 (Alan Riding): “The Debut of Pinault’s coveted Art Collection, originally bound for Paris”

[xxiii] The New York Times, May 10th, 2005 (Alan Riding): “Billionaire cancels Plan for a Museum near Paris”

[xxiv] Forbes, December 8th, 2006 (Susan Adams): “The Artful Billionaire”

[xxv] The New York Times, May 1st, 2006 (Alan Riding): op. cit.

[xxvi] The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016 (Doreen Carvajal): op. cit.

[xxvii] Observer, June 28th, 2017 (Alanna Martinez): “François Pinault to turn former Paris Stock Exchange…”

[xxviii] The Economist, April 27th, 2016 (S.P.): “A new cultural Gem for Paris”

[xxix] wwd.com, April 27th, 2016 (Laure Guilbault): op. cit.

[xxx] A recent example of the unique way the French have of doing things is the publication in January 2017  of Histoire mondiale de la France; a review (by Robert Darnton) in The New York Review of Books judges the book as dedicated to “a France open to the rest of the world” (May 11th, 2017); pp. 40-41

[xxxi] The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016 (Doreen Carvajal): op. cit.

[xxxii] The New York Times, June 27th, 2017 (Rachel Donadio): op cit.

[xxxiii] The New York Times, November 21st, 2016 (Rachel Donadio): “Jeff Koons is giving Sculpture to Paris to remember Terror Victims”

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] The New York Times (International Edition), June 29th, 2017 (Rachel Donadio): “Jeff Koons’s wilting Bouquet to Paris”

[xxxvi] The Guardian, November 22nd, 2016 (Kim Willsher): “New Jeff Koons Sculpture is Tribute to Victims of Paris Attacks”

[xxxvii] According to Isabel Pasquier: “an art critic at France Inter, one of the country’s leading public radio stations”; cf. The New York Times (International Edition), June 29th, 2017 (Rachel Donadio): op. cit.

[xxxviii] The Guardian, November 22nd, 2016 (Kim Willsher): op. cit.

[xxxix] The Los Angeles Times, April 11th, 2017 (Joelle Diderich): “Louis Vuitton collaborates with Artist Jeff Koons on new Series of Bags”

[xl] Vanity Fair: “Fairground”, April 12th, 2017: “Louis Vuitton celebrates its new Jeff Koons Collection at the Louvre”

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