Whatever the extent of Govan's involvement, the billionaire said he has bought dozens of artworks, including several ambitious large-scale works. One, a 1989 sculpture by Nauman, brings together rows of caribou, deer and fox forms into an "Animal Pyramid." Another, a sprawling, primal-philosophical installation by Beuys, "Lightning With Stag in its Glare," was completed in 1985, the year before the artist's death.
But he also likes the idea of "buying in depth." So instead of just buying Burden's racetrack, Berggruen has bought eight pieces by the artist, from documentation of 1970s performances to a massive 1996 kinetic sculpture called "The Flying Steamroller" that actually sets a 12-ton steamroller into flight. For now he keeps most of the works in storage.
"My work is difficult to collect — it's sort of the opposite of the canvas you hang with two nails," said Burden. "It takes a brave person to buy something that complicated." The artist takes it as a sign that Berggruen is serious about donating the works and does not plan on flipping them at auction — a reasonable suspicion considering the volume he is buying. "They are awkward and difficult works. If he was a speculator, he wouldn't be buying my work."
But as Berggruen readily volunteers, he has not actually given any of the works he has bought to LACMA. Nor have any pledges been signed.
Could this be a repeat for LACMA of the debacle it suffered when Broad, after financing a new building on the museum campus to house part of his blue-chip collection, announced that he would not donate it to the museum?
Berggruen insists that's not the case. "I've been very upfront with Michael. I've been very, very transparent. I want this to end up with LACMA, but LACMA should not be one person's efforts; there should be four or five people who really contribute to give it the depth and critical mass and texture it needs to be really vibrant. If that happens, my donation makes sense. If it never gets there, it won't," he calmly explained that day at LACMA.
Govan said he shares Berggruen's thinking. "If you're going to make an investment on that scale, hundreds of millions of dollars, you want to see at least two or three times that size investment from other people. I'm on his side. I understood that from the day I began working with him."
For now, at least, the men seem to be in sync and clearly enjoy talking art and politics together. And they sound remarkably similar when talking about LACMA's strengths — its encyclopedic collection, its central location and its position within a cluster of museums like the Page, the Petersen and the pending Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which Berggruen imagines could one day could become a major tourist attraction like the five-institution Museum Island in Berlin.
"Museums in L.A. today are very dysfunctional," Berggruen said. "We have all these different museums spread out on their own: the Norton Simon, the Getty, MOCA, LACMA, the Hammer Museum and now Eli's museum. I think if L.A. can develop a couple of cultural nodes, where you really achieve critical mass, you could have a much more active public cultural life."
LACMA's other strength, according to Berggruen, is that it receives some public funding. "What I really like is that it's in essence a public and private partnership because it's supported by the county, so it has a better chance of having longevity than purely private institutions," he said, sounding every bit the savvy investor.
A 'very special' city
Even if his reasons for choosing LACMA are clear, it remains something of a mystery why Berggruen set his sights on L.A. in the first place. Born to a German father and French mother, he was schooled at École Alsacienne in Paris and Le Rosey in Switzerland. His first real landing pad in the U.S. was New York, where he completed his undergraduate degree at NYU in three years.
In New York, he also began building his fortune through what one writer called "classic value investing." He started by buying real estate before moving on to stocks, bonds and early private equity vehicles. Later, after founding Berggruen Holdings, he bought troubled companies like FGX, the eyewear company that he rebuilt and took public at an enormous profit.
Today, the investments that he oversees as part of Berggruen Holdings are highly diversified or, as its website says, "industry agnostic," including the Karstadt department store chain in Germany, the Keys budget hotels in India, the UEI chain of vocational schools in California, and assorted power and renewable energy companies.