· Art · · T. Maria Cruz · P. Igor Martins

Luís Alegria – Galeria Luís Alegria

«A piece’s value depends on how rare this piece is»

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He studied at the Colégio dos Maristas and attended the Liceu Garcia de Orta school. Luís Alegria would dream about architecture. He was in Year Seven at school when the April 25th Revolution took place and his whole life changed. For two years, the one-year course in architecture, at the School of Fine Arts, ceased to exist; his father’s bank accounts were frozen and the business he had almost collapsed. All these events changed the course of his life. He forgot about architecture. He wandered ‘aimlessly’ for a number of years in the Mechanical Engineering course at the University of Oporto. Disillusioned with engineering, he abandoned the course and chose to study Business Administration and Management at the Instituto Superior, with his future in mind – that of setting up his own company. Which he did, as he opened a company with an international dimension. It is true that «the lines of our life are not always drawn the way we want», but more important than this is knowing how to «change the lines», to see what truly completes us and «makes us happy». And this is just what we felt when we visited the Luís Alegria gallery, in Oorto, and its creator, who has never-before-seen pieces of art and antiques. Luís Alegria has ruled the art world in Portugal for over 40 years. He has toured the globe with exhibitions and has even been decorated Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, in France, by former President Jacques Chirac. And Luís Alegria races, and continues to race, including at the wheel of his rally car – another of his passions, as it is in races that he seeks balance and serenity and where he recharges his batteries. He was already Mountain vice-champion, in 2006, and won three National Speed Championships (CNVC), in 2007, 2017 and 2020. 

«I was lucky enough to be born into a house full of things that made me sensitive to the arts.»
Tell us how about this journey of yours, through the magnificent world of arts, which starts in Portugal and runs around the world? 
My journey in the art world began at the invitation of a friend, who also did rallies and was an antique dealer. Whenever he had to leave his shop to buy pieces, I would stay there. I started by going to the shop with my university books and I would stay there to study. That’s how I learned a lot about this business. He had several books on Porcelain from China, furniture, silver, etc. After several months, I had read them all and was discussing various subjects with him. I refined my knowledge of styles, painters, silver and porcelain and realised it was a wonderful world, always discovering pieces I was seeing for the first time. The urge to know more made me study harder and fine-tune my whole relationship with art.
At the end of the course, he invited me to be his partner, and with my father’s help this was able to happen. But after a while I wanted to go further, to go to other worlds. He didn’t like the idea and got scared. No antique dealer had ever left Portugal to exhibit before. We split up. We each went our own way. I started my international career with my first exhibition in Bruges, Belgium. At that exhibition, the organisers from Brussels, who went to Bruges, loved my stand and invited me to exhibit in Brussels, at the Palais des Beaux Arts. Then the London organisers came along and were impressed with the size of the stand and the quality of the pieces on show, and invited me to the Ceramics Fair on London’s Park Lane; and then to Grosvenor House – the most prestigious fair in Europe at that time. From that moment on, many others followed. I would do one a month - Biennale des AntiquairesBiennale de Monte CarloInternazionale MilanoTefaf BaselTefaf Maastricht -, all in different countries - France, USA (New York), Brazil, Mexico, Spain (Madrid) and China (Hong Kong, Beijing and Macao). I used to come to Portugal to change suitcases and, in the gaps between, I still had time to do some rallies, which was my other great passion.

First and foremost, you are an art lover. 
I was used to going with my parents to antique shops and museums. They had a large collection of paintings, furniture and silverware, which came from my grandparents’ inheritance, and they continued to collect pieces of art. My maternal grandfather, Agostinho da Fonseca, was an architect, a professor at the School of Fine Arts and a painter. He is mentioned in the book Pintores Portugueses (Portuguese Painters). My paternal grandfather, Henrique Ferreira Alegria, was the Artistic Director of Invicta Filme in Oporto and later opened the company Pátria Filme, in Lisbon. My father donated to Nacional Film Library, through António Lopes Ribeiro, a lot of films from Invicta Filme. My grandfather was honoured in a book and on television, as well as having a street in Oporto named after him. I was lucky to be born in a house full of things that made me sensitive to the arts. At that time, I didn’t think of it as a business, but I realised from a very young age that I couldn’t live without these things.

In your view, what is your opinion of art in Portugal? 
Portugal has a great tradition of buying works of art, it’s an ancient country with a lot of history and where people cultivate the art of receiving. I have made some beautiful collections in large houses; where the pieces blend into a well-cared for and curated decoration, which gives a refinement and cosiness that only antiques can give. There are some good galleries, exhibitions are scarce and with the pandemic nothing could work. Let’s hope the future looks brighter.

«I have pieces that you don’t have to be rich to acquire (...)»
What kind of pieces can we find in your gallery? What values can a piece have? 
My stock covers a very wide market, from Flemish and Dutch painting by the great 17th and 18th century masters to some French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese painting until the beginning of the 20th century. In furniture, I prefer D. João V and D. José furniture, in Pau Santo wood, as well as Indo-Portuguese furniture, with ivory inlays from the 16thand 17th centuries. In Porcelain from China, from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the 18th century, including Portuguese commissions and those from other countries. The value of a piece depends on its rarity. I have pieces that you don’t need to be rich to acquire, and very rare pieces of which very few were made or even one-offs. Regardless of the value, the pieces I most enjoy selling are those that the customer is interested in knowing about, or that piece where he even knows what he’s getting and recognises the effort I made to get it, because I know that the client will value it and preserve it throughout his life. 

After a difficult year for all sectors, how has Luís Alegria reinvented himself, in his work? 
Our work has been at a standstill all this time. The exhibitions have all been cancelled, since March 2020. I took the opportunity to do valuations and to study. I am preparing an exhibition in a large house in which I will invite clients individually, without crowds, to see the latest acquisitions this past year. I get calls from Belgians and French people who want to come and visit us because they are tired of being in their city and they really miss going to an exhibition, seeing beautiful things. So, I think this business is going to pick up again.

You’ve travelled the world looking for unique pieces.
 When they send me information about a piece that is in a faraway country, and that is of interest to me, I get on a plane and go and try to buy that piece. I don’t always manage to. Either because someone else beat me to it, or because the piece doesn’t match the period indicated by the seller. It can also be that it has been restored too much, or the price they ask is so high that I can hardly make a profit on it. On the other hand, during exhibitions, people come to buy, but people also come to sell.

«People have no idea, but the Chinese will dominate the world.»
Do you have clients from all over the world?
We really do have clients from all over the world. At international exhibitions, we have the privilege of meeting people and making clients who want to start or increase their collection or simply invest in artworks. We mustn’t forget that works of art do not have to be sold in their country, they can be transferred to other countries that value those works more. If there is no market in Portugal, they can be transferred to other places, unlike a property, whose location we cannot change. This is one of the advantages of this investment. 

How do you maintain a 40-year-old company? Tell us about your project, its history, the evolution of times, people, markets, product...

Nowadays, with the markets evolving at an incredible speed, either you have a solid company, with a great knowledge of the market and able to adapt to the way people live today, which is different from how they lived 30 years ago, or the company has great difficulty in surviving. Many clients live in smaller homes than before, where a piece of furniture or a very important, large painting may not have room. That’s why the smaller or medium-sized pieces are proportionally more valued. We have to take into account what has a national price and what has an international price and demand. This is the case of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and other faience, which are in demand in their countries of origin but little demand outside them; while export porcelain from China, commonly known as East India Company Porcelain, because it has had the same and similar commission for various countries around the world, is in demand worldwide. By having a company geared towards the international market, with pieces for Brazil, Mexico, North America, Holland, France, Spain, England, China, etc., I’m not dependent on any one country. 

The Chinese market is also one of your focuses.
People have no idea, but the Chinese will dominate the world. Here, people want rights, they want to make, earn as much as possible, doing as little as possible. Not there. It doesn’t work like that. There was a year when I arrived in Hong Kong and I didn’t have my goods, because they left here on a lorry for London and only from London would they go here. There was a setback and the lorry didn’t arrive on time. The first three days of the exhibition other people lent me pieces, so I wouldn’t have an empty stand. But as soon as the lorry arrived in Hong Kong, on Saturday night, we managed to clear customs on Sunday – customs are open on Sundays. This is impossible anywhere in Europe. They work there on Saturday, on Sunday, any day. Can you see that happening here; with these democracies, with these laws; this is impossible. So, look how much that economy grows, and here it doesn’t.  

«We have clients all over the world»
How did you feel when you were made Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, in France, in 2002?
The decoration that Jacques Chirac gave me in 2002, through the Minister of Culture and Communication, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, was for the things I have done in Paris. I put on many exhibitions in Paris, I took Portuguese art to Paris, I held major exhibitions, I also exhibited international pieces from the East India Company, made for France, including things from Louis XIV and Louis XV. I held the biggest exhibition of Portuguese azulejo tiles that has ever been held outside Portugal. Because of all this, they were so impressed that they came to greet me and said they were amazed by everything and that they were going to decorate me. In Portugal, this order is given to Amália and about four other people. In a way, we are decorated outside Portugal for what we do here in our country. It’s sad. I have always taken the name of Oporto, and Portugal, in exhibitions (Luís Alegria, Oporto, Portugal). But I never managed, in these 40 years, to get any mayor of Oporto to visit any of the international exhibitions. When I was honoured, at the Palais Royal in France, there were television stations from all over the world, except for the Portuguese one. Unfortunately, people in Portugal don’t appreciate it. 
Oporto, for example, is a city that is European in nature, perhaps even more so than Lisbon. Foreigners love to come to Oporto because of the Port wine, the historical part, which is older than Lisbon, and has a very special character. In other words, it would be possible to hold an international exhibition here, as it would only involve taking the idea of what they already do abroad and improving it, but the mayors, who I have even already invited and to whom I suggested the idea, never showed any interest. It’s a shame. You know, people can be educated, people have a degree, but they don’t have any culture. They have no sensitivity for art, nor for culture. Everything is learned, because nobody is born taught. For example, the great fault of Oporto is that it has almost no museums. The museums are all made in the capital, Oporto practically doesn’t have any (it has the Soares dos Reis Museum, very outdated, and which has no international interest, and the rest are a few collections of no interest at all). I was ready to make a museum, working for free, and leave it to the city, but nobody wants to know anything about the museum, nor do people want to work for free. What people want, you see, they want things that give them votes. You see, we don’t even have a porcelain museum. And we were the first country to bring porcelain to Europe, in 1500, in the Ming period. The Dutch came more than 100 years later. We should have the most important porcelain museum in the world! 

Going back in time, would you stake everything on this universe of art? 
Of course, I would. It’s my great passion, I can’t live without being in the middle of these things. It’s exhausting work, which is often not understood, but when you really love it, you get through it.
Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
P. Igor Martins
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