The sesame touch

Bertrand Epaud, who runs the Opera Gallery in Dubai, talks about his colourful life and career.

The carpet is purple and the walls are bright orange, but the first thing that catches your eye as you walk into Opera Gallery is a huge red samurai cat standing guard beside the "black room" where a brief, astonished glance reveals what looks suspiciously like a Chagall. And could that be a Picasso hanging close by, near what might even be a genuine Dalí sculpture? It's just all so, well? accessible. Surely art galleries are supposed to be grander and more forbidding and not for people who just wander in off the street - or even worse, from the mall - for a browse.

Not so, according to Bertrand Epaud, the debonair Frenchman who has brought the Opera Gallery franchise to Dubai. There has been a gallery in the Gate Village at the DIFC since 2008, but a new one opened this month in the Dubai Mall and Epaud is determined that even the most casual of browsers will receive a warm welcome. "There is a great deal of snobbery in the art world," he says. "When we decided to open here in the Dubai Mall some people were making fun of us. They said things like: 'How can you think of putting art in a shopping mall?' and they call us the McDonald's of the art world. They can't understand how we sell masterpieces alongside new artists. But at the end of the day it works very well."

The whole concept of selling high-end contemporary art alongside masterpieces and sculpture was formulated by Opera Gallery's founder, Gilles Dyan, who opened the first gallery in a prime location next to the Place Vendôme in the rue St Honoré, Paris, in 1994, backed by wealthy collectors and business people with an interest in art as an investment. The highly successful formula has been repeated in key cities around the world, including Monaco, Geneva, Hong Kong, London and Venice. Dyan and Epaud became friends more than 10 years ago when the latter was a customer building up his own collection and in 2008 Dyan invited his friend to Art Dubai with a view to opening an Opera Gallery in the city.

Epaud's experience designing and running the Paris Opera House shop, combined with a globe-trotting 12 years as a business analyst living in 35 countries and travelling in many more, made him the ideal candidate to open a gallery in a multicultural city such as Dubai, not to mention a period of Boy's Own adventure in his twenties, which saw him cycling through the remote areas of the Karakorams on a Chinese bicycle with one gear, disguised as a Turko-Mongol. But more of that later.

The 42-year-old Frenchman needed every ounce of his adventurous spirit after the DIFC Opera Gallery opened in 2008, a week before the global financial meltdown. "In August I started to supervise the construction of the DIFC gallery and one week later the global recession was announced. You could say it was something of a challenge," he says wryly. "Lots of people were being fired as the financial world was collapsing and all work was delayed.

"I thought if I stayed behind my desk and did the normal job we would close down. Since I was well-travelled and had worked with top businessmen I knew how to approach them, so I asked Gilles if I could take some of the masterpieces out to collectors in the region." His first major foray was to Oman in April, 2009, and the Muscat municipality became a local partner in the venture. Epaud was advised to stick to calligraphy and recognisable Islamic art, advice that he totally ignored.

"In the middle of the financial crisis when we opened, we sold 10 paintings in the first hour. I was shocked. It was as if I was giving them oxygen. The buyers bought everything that I was advised not to bring," he says. Next, he mounted an exhibition in Beirut which threw up other challenges, not least of which was security. "We had to have guards with Kalashnikovs. We did some good sales, but more importantly, we gained the interest of the Arab media and we started going out to schools."

Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar followed and then Abu Dhabi, with an exhibition featuring 25 masterpieces and 75 contemporary works at the Emirates Palace and a tie-up with the Make A Wish Foundation. Artworks included a 1968 painting called Le Grand Cirque by Marc Chagall worth $8million (Dh29.4m), a $7.5m Monet, two Picasso drawings and a portrait by Renoir of his son. For every masterpiece sold, Opera Gallery donated five per cent to the foundation with 15 per cent for contemporary works.

"Art holds its value in recessions and can do really well. Some people do not want to invest in property or gold and art provides an alternative," says Epaud. Clearly, the opening of a second Opera Gallery in Dubai proves his point. Within a week of its doors opening, Epaud has had three serious enquiries about the Chagall and the Picasso drawings. Epaud has also offered the galleries to high-end companies such as Cartier and Van Cleef for upmarket product launches, and he sometimes allows the galleries to be used for private dinners. His reasoning is simple: he wants the right people to be exposed to the art that they might one day be interested in buying.

He travels frequently to art fairs and conferences looking for new markets, and says Pakistan and Azerbaijan are two that are becoming interesting. Another innovation is an educational project that started at the American University in Kuwait to find original work among art students who were given a year to come up with pieces that could be displayed alongside the masters. Epaud is hoping to involve UAE universities in the project.

"The region is hungry for art and to have an identity. We want to support emerging artists," he emphasises. In every gallery there is a large catalogue of the works hanging in other branches around the world, and if a client is interested, a painting will be sent to Dubai. There are exhibitions every two months. Says Epaud: "If it's Latin-American art we will ship items from all our other galleries. Usually the artists themselves select the pieces. We sell more than 300 paintings a month around the world.

"At the end of the day, it worked really well putting completely different artworks together beside each other. When you walk into the gallery you see a lot of different artwork from around the world with unique techniques. None of them are copy paste of what has already been done. "We represent a very large spectrum of artists. We have 300 contemporary living artists from the very well-established to the completely unknown and emerging ones. It's unique. But if you are interested in buying a Picasso, there's no reason why you shouldn't be interested in an emerging artist."

The paintings are changed every 10 days and the current crop in the new gallery includes works by the Colombian artist Federico Uribe, made out of coloured pencils, and pieces like the Samurai Cat by Hiro Ando, a young Japanese artist who is part of a group of 10 artists all aged between 25 and 35, who call themselves The Crazy Noodle Group. Alongside a Picasso, there are a painting by Matisse and the Chagall, plus a painting by Fernando Botero.

Local collectors can be divided into three types, according to Epaud. First, there is the person who wants a piece of art to decorate his or her home; secondly, there are the collectors who like to buy a particular artist's work. "The third type are people who want to make an investment and are often interested in emerging artists. I have a Saudi customer who buys 10 pieces a time for $10,000 - $15,000 each piece," says Epaud.

"Last time he came, he looked at the price list and one artist that he bought several years ago from us cost him $15,000 and now each piece is worth $1 million. He bought three of them at the time, so his investment has been successful and he was very happy. Because he buys so much, we store his art works for him in our storage facility." Opera Gallery owns all the work it exhibits around the world and likes to seek out emerging artists, buying their work up front at a good price, although it occasionally takes pieces on consignment to test reaction before buying. Some years ago an art fund was created for purchases with a percentage of sales going back into the fund to generate income.

Epaud's previous career as a business analyst living in 35 different countries makes him ideally equipped to seek out and talk to wealthy investors and collectors. Born in Brittany, he studied international business management in Paris, London and Frankfurt after which there was a brief spell as a trader in non-ferrous metals working for a Belgian company in Brussels, but he quickly realised he disliked the "killer" atmosphere of the trading floor and, inspired by the adventurous spirit of his grandfather, set off on expeditions of his own in his twenties. "I wanted to visit Moscow and Leningrad but I had no money, so I went into a travel agency and they told me that if I brought 15 people I would get a free trip. After a few weeks I came back with 30 people."

That was the start of a five-year stint as a tour organiser and guide, and along the way he learnt several oriental languages including Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, as well as Russian. "My first trip was to take a group to China," he says, and recalls that they arrived on the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre. "It took me 10 days to get out of the country. We had our car overturned so we went from one place to the other, trains stopped in the middle of nowhere with people fighting to get tickets. I managed to get the group out safely and improvised a three-week trip to the Philippines."

He quickly established a reputation as a resourceful tour guide and one group laid down a challenge for him to enter a competition run by the City Hall of Paris, whose mayor at the time was Jacques Chirac, to come up with an idea for an expedition. "In sonorous tones I stood up and off the top of my head I solemnly announced that I was going to cross the desert of no-return and go to Taklamakan in the western part of China, cross the Pamir range of mountains, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakorams riding a Chinese bicycle with one gear. It was just for fun, but the next day I got a call from a student who went to the city hall to get a form and entered my proposal."

To his intense surprise he was one of the 10 winners of the prize and a month later found himself setting off on the journey of a lifetime with the aforementioned Chinese bicycle. "I suggested that because I'm the worst technician in the world, I couldn't fix a car if it broke down but I could fix a bicycle." He spent three months travelling alone in some of the most remote and dangerous areas of China, carrying only enough provisions for one day and often wearing a disguise. "I was flirting with death the whole trip, but this trip made me who I am today. It pushed my limits physically and mentally. I would wake up one morning surrounded by snow in a yurt with yaks all around. I would arrive in a place where there is no road, and some places were so hot that the tarmac was melting so I couldn't stop, otherwise I would get glued to the road. I would only take food for one day. I just wanted to trust my fate that I would meet someone who gave me shelter and I did. It was a fantastic experience.

"One day somebody stole my bicycle and it was a great relief, because I could then travel on local buses." When he returned to Paris, a friend offered him a job creating the shop at the Paris Opera House, whose president was then Pierre Bergé, the founder of Yves Saint Laurant. It was so successful that it became a template for other opera shops in France. Epaud persuaded wigmakers and costume designers to show their work in the tall windows of the opera building and worked with Rudolph Nureyev and other dancers, selecting photographs to be sold in the shops.

After three years he was offered a job doing economic analyses and country reports and his peripatetic life began afresh. For the next 12 years he travelled and lived in 35 different countries including Spain, Romania, Turkey, Russia, Kazakstan, Russia, the Philippines,Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, where he was living when he got the call from Gilles Dyan inviting him to Dubai. "I feel that all my travelling and adventures, as well as the work I did at the Paris Opera, were wonderful preparation for what I am doing now. It's just a different kind of adventure and it is wonderful to be able to make art more accessible to people."