Here are some of the best-known artists and themes, and how he came to collect them.
Like many collectors of contemporary art, Mr. Perlstein prizes his relationships with artists. He met the man whose work arguably forms the core of his collection at a gallery in Vence, in the south of France, in 1969, when he and a friend decided to salvage a rainy day by driving to an exhibition that bore the intriguing title “Les Invendables” (“The Unsellables”).
When they arrived, they saw a man leaning against the door. “What are you doing here?” he asked them. “What do you want?” He had such a strong American accent that Mr. Perlstein offered to switch to English, but the mysterious stranger insisted on French.
It was the American expatriate Man Ray, whose drawings, gouaches and watercolors made up the exhibition. Mr. Perlstein bought several works. Man Ray invited him to pay a call when he was back in Paris, and so began a friendship that continued until the artist’s death in 1976. Mr. Perlstein said, “He wasn’t giving lessons, but when you see somebody every third week, you learn.”
Among other things, Man Ray explained the process of making what he called “rayographs,” where he placed objects on photosensitive paper and produced a photographic image without the intervention of a camera. Mr. Perlstein acquired many of them. “No one wanted them,” he says. He also acquired a selection of Man Ray’s iconic images, such as a woman’s bare back decorated with the f-holes of a violin, and an arresting portrait of the iconoclastic (and psychologically tormented) theater artist Antonin Artaud.
When traveling on business, Mr. Perlstein would make detours to visit pioneers of Dada and Surrealism, who were now well advanced in years and not otherwise receiving much attention. “With Hannah Höch, I went to Berlin, and I didn’t have an appointment with her,” he said of the Dada artist known for photomontages she made during the Weimar period. “It was an old house, and she was a very old woman. She said, ‘What do you want?’ ” When Mr. Perlstein told her, she invited him inside. “She showed me everything she had. From the real Dada, there was not a lot left. I bought two works.” One is a crowing rooster cut from newspaper clippings. The other, like a Barbara Kruger print (she is another artist in the collection) more than half a century in advance, displays the words “looks beautiful” in German, in bold letters emblazoned across a fractured landscape.
Mr. Perlstein indulges his enthusiasms. For a while, he was enamored of neon and acquired sculptures that incorporate neon light bulbs: pieces by Bruce Nauman, Mario Merz, Dan Flavin, Joseph Kosuth, Keith Sonnier, Martial Raysse and Jason Rhoades. Wordplay delights Mr. Perlstein, and many of his works by Mr. Nauman (an inveterate punster) toy with lingo: “None Sing Neon Sign” reads the lettering on an early neon sculpture from 1970. A later Nauman collage reads: “White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death.”
As befits a devotee of Surrealism, Mr. Perlstein often seems to be guided by his subconscious. For example, he has a curiously large number of works that feature women’s hair (or hair look-alikes), by such artists as Tunga, Pierre Boucher, Harry Callahan, Magritte and Maar. Although Maar is best known these days for her relationship with Picasso, she was a highly original artist. Her photograph in the Perlstein collection of a three-sailed ship in a sea of hair, and another one of a tiny chair in a bare sunlit room, are memorably strange.
Artists’ Early Works
Mr. Perlstein likes to buy early work, before an artist’s fresh impulses have ossified into a reproducible style. He owns Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein and Brice Marden from the mid-60s, and his youthful pieces by the downtown New York artist Keith Haring, notably a 1981 Mickey Mouse with a sexually suggestive snout, feel exploratory and vital.
“It’s the point of view of an anarchist, who looks at the 20th century totally from the radical expression of its time,” says the dealer Daniella Luxembourg, a friend who has sold him art. “That makes it a great collection that is not about him. Certain collections are done to glorify their owners. In this collection, he was really interested in the radical gesture — it might be with artists who never made it or with artists who made it a lot.”
The French Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, who goes by BEN, appealed to Mr. Perlstein because he produced paintings in the early ’60s that consisted of written words. “He was the first to write on canvas,” the collector said. Whether he was truly the first is arguable, but what is undeniable is that BEN never fulfilled the promise Mr. Perlstein saw in him. “Today he is repeating,” Mr. Perlstein said, somewhat sadly, because he still likes the man.
The Perlstein fortune — which is modest compared with the assets of prominent modern art collectors like Eli Broad, Mitchell and Emily Rales, Steven A. Cohen, Peter M. Brant and David Geffen — derives from gemstones. Mr. Perlstein is the third generation of his family to own a diamond-cutting firm in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1939, when he was a child, his Jewish family fled Belgium in the face of the Nazi menace, finding refuge in Brazil. There, Sylvain became Sylvio and learned Portuguese.
He loved growing up in Rio de Janeiro, spending much time playing soccer on the beach. In a flower store on the way to the ocean, he became smitten at age 15 or 16 with a painting that was “colorful and strange.” The proprietor didn’t want to sell it, but he persisted. It was his first art acquisition.
A few years later, Mr. Perlstein reluctantly followed his parents to Antwerp, where he eventually took over the family diamond business. Ronny Van de Velde, a venerable modern art dealer in that city, was an important adviser. His collection contains many Belgian modernists — Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers, Pol Bury, Leo Dohmen. Brazilians also have found their way into his holdings: Ernesto Neto, Vik Muniz, Miguel Rio Branco, Marepe.
But he attributes the growth spurt of his collection to the frequent trips he made to New York in the ’70s to call on the firm of the jeweler Harry Winston, for whom he cut and polished rough diamonds. Hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, he met many artists, who would invite him to their studios and would give him works or offer to trade. (In Paris, Man Ray was always looking for diamonds for his wife, Juliet.)
“The artists were not interested in selling, and you could call and speak to them,” he said. “Today, you have to go through the secretary who gives you another secretary. You speak with 10 people to learn that they’re not in town.”
His pace of acquisition has slowed in recent years. “Lately I find nothing interesting,” he said. “Maybe I’m getting old.” Although he has purchased some recent works — by Rudolf Stingel, Damien Hirst and others — he relinquished his warehouse spaces in Paris, New York and Belgium. He wants to see what he owns.
In an oval room in his Paris home, he has 100 black-and-white photographs by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy on the walls.
Elsewhere, on “my Minimalist wall,” he displays drawings from the ’60s by Douglas Huebler, Mel Bochner, On Kawara and Agnes Martin. The house is a contemporary version of Ali Baba’s cave.