Art Collector Questionnaire

Here's How Nicola Erni Assembled One of the World's Largest Private Photography Collections

Peter Lindbergh, Nicola Erni, Paris, 2014. All images courtesy of the Nicola Erni Collection.

She has one of the largest private collections of photography. Her Warhol hangs next to a monumental work by Rashid Johnson. In her private Steinhausen, Switzerland-based museum, the walls are littered with pieces by Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Annie Leibovitz. All in all, Nicola Erni is one of the country’s foremost collectors.

Based in Zug, Erni is just a short drive away from Zurich, whose annual Art Weekend opens today. She’s also a quick jaunt from next week’s Art Basel. Having a plethora of international events, museums, and galleries a short distance away is something Erni contends can scarcely be found elsewhere in Europe.

“Whether in contemporary art, photography, modern art, or any other field of fine art, we are so privileged to enjoy this,” she tells CULTURED. Ahead of the month’s jam-packed schedule, the prolific collector shares her thoughts on the scene’s most exciting creatives, and what criteria she considers when contemplating a new purchase.

What do you think makes the local art scene distinct?

The vast array of museums, galleries, foundations, and collections you can visit in such little distance, whether you travel between Zug, Lucerne, Zurich, Winterthur, or Basel, it’s something you do not find anywhere else in Europe … On top of that, Art Basel and Zurich Art Weekend give it all an international shape. These institutions make it possible to have such an active, fascinating, and thriving local art scene. I am proud to be able to contribute just a tiny part of it.

Where does the story of your personal collection begin?

Alongside a portrait of Linda Evangelista by Peter Lindbergh, I first bought two portraits by William Klein, as well as a few works by Robert Rauschenberg and then Julian Schnabel. Shortly afterwards, my love of portraits was followed by an interest in landscape photography. Around 2005, I then began to acquire photographs from the ‘60s and ‘70s on the subject of the jet set. I wanted pictures of Brigitte Bardot, Gunter Sachs, and others to live with at home. I fell in love with that time! Such exciting people and that “easy living.” When the opportunity arose to make a selection of photographs from a press archive with over 500,000 press photos, I bought several.

Which work in your home provokes the most conversation from visitors?

From the works that are exhibited right now in the two museum buildings, visitors are in awe when seeing the extensive shows on fashion photographers Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel. The “Last Supper Room” with Andy Warhol’s monumental painting Sixty Last Suppers and Rashid Johnson’s version on this theme, The Broken Thirteen, leave many speechless. Our exhibition “Dirty Martini — Photographs from the 1960s and 1970s” gives our visitors a detailed insight of that period, with close to 300 photographs of portraits, fashion, film, music, artists, and paparazzi photography every one of us can relate to in one or the other way.

On center wall: Rashid Johnson, Erni's Cubes, 2020. On back wall: Julian Schnabel, Untitled (Geisha), 2004. Photography by Flavio Karrer.

Which artist are you currently most excited about and why?

I have been closely following Rashid Johnson’s career, an artist who fascinates me, most probably because there are elements in his work that remind me every time of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist I have been collecting from the start. However, there are so many artists that have touched me these past years that I cannot leave it only to Rashid. The work of the artist Hassan Hajjaj and fashion photographer Elfie Semotan have been on my mind lately. Wonderful works by Doug Aitken, Mark Bradford, and Cy Twombly have joined the collection as well.

What factors do you consider when expanding your collection?

First and foremost, the works I add to my collection have to speak to my heart. As I often say, [they] need to give me goosebumps. My collection is mainly focused, next to fashion and portrait photography, on contemporary art. Within that field, where I mainly started with Basquiat and Schnabel before buying works of other pop artists, it then expanded to hyperrealism with works by Duane Hanson or Elmgreen & Dragset. Addicted to design, color, textiles, fashion, I have always been attracted to artists that bring those elements in their work. In that line, Sylvie Fleury and Yinka Shonibare CBE, amongst others, are present in my collection.

All artwork by Sylvie Fleury. Photography by Flavio Karrer.

What was the most challenging piece in your personal collection to acquire?

The moment I could buy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers is one I will definitely never forget. This masterpiece I had been aspiring to add to my collection was not an easy one to get. Word of mouth that other collectors wanted it badly as well gave me sleepless nights, but in the end, being assigned this monumental painting left me with tears of joy and made me happier than ever.

Early this year, fashion photographer Steven Meisel delivered us a somewhat different version of the Hollywood editorial he had realized for Vogue Italia in 2004. After [going] back and forth discussing this commissioned work with Meisel’s studio, I am delighted now to be able to show this series of 35 photographs together with an extensive group of prints in a large space dedicated to the artist’s career.