What I Buy and Why: Swiss Collector Suzanne Syz Houses Her Artworks in an Actual Bank in Geneva and Once Returned a Warhol
The former jewelry designer has attended Art Basel for over 35 years—and will again this year.
Drawn to the exotic sights and sounds of the 1980s New York art scene, Swiss-born Suzanne Syz soon found herself moving in social circles that included Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente. At the same time, she and her banker-husband Eric Syz had the good sense to begin collecting the early-career art that swirled about them.
Back in Switzerland, with her art-world experiences as inspiration, Syz began making Pop-inflected jewelry that combined a whimsical sensibility with expert Swiss craftsmanship—think diamond-pavé toadstool brooches and dangling Life Savers earrings in candy colors. Dabbling turned into a business during a dinner party in the mid-2000s. Across the table, Elizabeth Taylor admired a purple-sapphire necklace that Syz was wearing. The actress bought it the next day, sparking a frenzy for the bold bijoux among jewelry connoisseurs. In 2010, Syz was bestowed the Design Miami/Basel Award for jewelry design.
Syz retired from jewelry in 2020, having made 1,001 pieces—the same number of works Basquiat is thought to have produced before his death in 1988. She told Artnet News she wanted to concentrate on cultivating her newly acquired vineyard in Tuscany, as well as her ever-growing art collection. Each of her homes—Geneva, Paris, and now Tuscany—is sprinkled with contemporary pieces from the likes of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and John Armleder.
Even so, the collection is primarily housed in the “bank.” In 2017, the Syzs chose the newly inaugurated Geneva headquarters of SYZ Group—a private financial firm founded by Eric Syz—to store and exhibit the Syz collection. Its tiers of glass balconies allow for unencumbered views of the works.
With the assistance of the couple’s art advisor, the curator Nicolas Trembley, the collection has grown considerably, now numbering north of 1,000 pieces. It boasts blue-chip names from her former New York cohort, in addition to Swiss artists Olivier Mosset, Fischli and Weiss, and Sylvie Fleury, as well as Valentin Carron, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Roe Ethridge, Yngve Holen, and Oliver Osborne. The collection does not conform to any one medium, movement or geography, however contemporary art sets the tone.
We caught up with the multi-faceted collector to discuss art obsessions past and present.
What was your first purchase?
One of my first purchases was a portrait of my son and myself by Andy Warhol. Andy painted everybody sealed-lipped and when I saw the result I dared telling him I’d like my son to remember me the way I was: always humorous, not taking myself too seriously. He was somehow amused as no one was ever not enchanted by his portrait. He gave me three for one in the end—and we became friends.
What was your most recent purchase?
A small drawing by Walter Robinson [a former editor of Artnet]. It was for my son’s last birthday. I also bought a small drawing by Larry Stanton; his show during the last Venice Biennale was wonderful. I love and defend young artists, but I also love to rediscover artists who were under the radar for a long time!
Tell us about a favorite work in your collection.
I have many, but one of my favorites is very amusing, a life-size camel by Lutz Bacher. We display it in the atrium of our family bank alongside many pieces, including a dragon’s head by Lutz and a huge Wade Guyton painting that I love. His new show at Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris is so interesting.
Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
I’ve also collaborated as a jewelry designer with artist Conor McCreedy for Art Basel this year. It’s a painting of a falcon whose eye is a brooch I’ve designed. Can I buy my own collaboration?
What is the most valuable work of art that you own?
I was introduced to Jean-Michel Basquiat when I was living in the early 1980s in New York City. We had dinner from time to time. We shared great laughs around dirty jokes, which we both enjoyed! During one dinner and another giggle, he drew my teeth on a napkin and signed it. I still have it and framed it. Not sure it is Jean-Michel’s most valuable works of art, but it is definitely my most cherished one!
Where do you buy art most frequently?
I’m friends with gallerists like Gisela Capitain, who I trust a lot, and also visit some artist studios while traveling. Otherwise I go to Art Basel with our curator Nicolas Trembley, and we exchange ideas all year round.
Is there a work you regret purchasing?
None. I am happy with all the purchases that I’ve made and support all the artists that I collect.
What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?
I have no sofas against a wall at home, but regarding sofas, I want to quote my dear friend John Armleder. When he went to the homes of some collectors, he noticed that they tended to hang his paintings above their sofas. To make it easier for them, he decided to offer them the sofa with the painting. It’s from his furniture-sculpture series that is so interesting.
In my opinion, the bathroom is not the best place for artworks with the humidity, so a few drawings from my grandchildren will do.
What is the most impractical work of art you own?
What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
I had the opportunity to buy Red Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons a long time ago and did not. I wish I had it in my garden in Tuscany now, where I produce organic wine and display a few sculptures.
If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?
I’d “steal” anything by Elaine Sturtevant—an amazing, gifted artist who I had the chance to meet and spend time with.
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