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For François Pinault, the French tycoon known for avoiding the public eye, the hoopla seemed out of character.

Photographers were massed on the wharf, snapping furiously as he arrived by motorboat on a gray April morning in front of his new museum of contemporary art, Palazzo Grassi, on Venice’s breathtaking Grand Canal. Paparazzi tailed close behind in another boat, their flashes creating a blinding wall of light. As Pinault disembarked, panic swept through his security ranks as photographers jostled to capture the billionaire with one of his most emblematic artists, Jeff Koons.

After years of avoiding the limelight, Pinault was reveling in a moment of glory, unveiling the first showing of his vast collection of modern and contemporary art after five frustrating years of wrestling with authorities in Paris to try to build a museum there. (Those plans—including an impressive $200 million building designed by Tadao Ando—were dropped last year in a tumult of red tape and Pinault purchased the Palazzo Grassi, a Venice icon that used to belong to Fiat.)

But within minutes, the billionaire businessman had disappeared with Koons. The photographers were dismissed and reporters who tried, futilely, to pepper Pinault with questions above the whir of the photographers’ flashes folded up their notebooks.

Pinault, it seems, prefers to let his art do his talking—all of which contributes to his mystique. He is the ultimate self-made man. After starting out in the lumber business in his native Brittany, he created a massive retail empire, picked up Gucci Group’s stable of luxury brands and today sits atop the cultural summit as one of the world’s most important—and active—collectors of contemporary art.

What drives his passion? Koons has his own theory: “In his business life, François is very practical. Art is his vehicle for impracticality, because art is a place where impracticality rules.”

“It’s true,” says Pinault. “I’m rational in business and irrational when it comes to art. In art, I’m driven by emotion and my passions. I don’t think one can have a normal, rational relationship with art. You can’t rationalize art.”

The collecting bug bit Pinault 30 years ago; the first painting he purchased was a Paul Serusier, a Pont Aven artist known for his contemplative colors. Later, Pinault grew enamored of Piet Mondrian’s color block paintings and soon branched into more daring avenues, from minimalism and Pop Art to Arte Povera and everything in between.

In his uncluttered, almost clinical quarters at the palazzo, Pinault, 70, guides a visitor to a David Hammons sculpture of three microphones titled “Which Mike Would You Like to Be Like.” Pinault nods with satisfaction, then turns to his desk and thumbs through the catalogue to locate the piece, as if seeing it in print imbues it with a deeper reality.

“When I look back at work I liked 30 years ago, it sometimes astonishes me,” he says, sitting on a black leather sofa in an impeccable blue suit and striped tie. “My eye wasn’t formed, and there are things that today have very little interest. I didn’t receive an artistic education, so, of course, I’ve made errors over the years—and lots of them. But that’s normal when one is interested in living, unknown artists. That’s my passion.”

Pinault’s first exhibit at Palazzo Grassi—Where Are We Going?—curated by American Alison Gingeras, is a dizzying survey of some of the most representative art of the last 50 years and includes major pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, Cy Twombly, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Pierre Huyghe and Urs Fischer.

The 200 pieces in the show, which runs through October, are spread through the airy, 18th-century palace, which was restored by Ando. But while the exhibit provides a first look into Pinault’s treasure, it is only a small glimpse of a collection that spans more than 2,000 works. Video and photography, for instance, are not widely represented in this debut show, even though Pinault has the largest collection of Bill Viola in private hands.

Thaddeus Ropac, the Paris dealer, says the Pinault collection will continue to surprise people with its daring and scope. “Mr. Pinault is one of the great collectors of our time,” asserts Ropac. “His collection makes a fantastic bridge between European and American art, and also between modern and contemporary art.”

One thing is certain: Pinault has no intention of reining in his acquisitiveness. “I’m still collecting very actively,” he says. “As long as I’m alive and healthy, I will continue to collect and be interested in emerging talent.

“I’ve made discoveries very recently,” he continues. “But I won’t share the names. As soon as the market finds out François Pinault has bought such and such an artist, the prices aren’t the same, as you can imagine.”

One of the particularities of Pinault’s approach to collecting is his strong desire to know artists personally. Judd, Richard Serra and Koons are among those with whom he has cultivated relationships. It is his deep tie with Hammons that convinced the elusive New York artist to travel to Venice to install his work for the exhibit. “Artists have this capacity to perceive the vibrations of the world. They have a way of imaging the future that most of us don’t have.”

He adds, “I’ve always tried to collect an ensemble of an artist’s work. I’m not interested in a sampling of a few works by a lot of artists.”

Pinault, who owns the Christie’s auction house, is known for his taste for minimalism and abstraction. For example, he holds the largest collection of Judd’s work, besides the artist himself.

He quantifies his approach to collecting as driven by an “emotional and visceral reaction to art. It’s not a mental process, though that is part of it, too. It’s more the emotional shock that a work gives me than the reasoning of the mind that motivates me when I buy.” To that end, he says he buys individual works for their strength and not for how they fit into the whole of his collection. “The love of a collection is inseparable from each work in it. A collection shouldn’t become a rhetorical construction; it should remain something alive. That said, each piece needs to have a place in the whole. When a ‘bachelor’ arrives, I move quickly to give it company.”

Though Pinault says there’s little crossover in his approach to collecting and business, he admits art has shaped his wider perspective today. “My contact with artists has allowed me not to close myself in certitude,” he explains. “In business, sometimes, you succeed, and you think that you’re always right, that nothing can happen to you and that things are solid. Artists teach you fragility, the ephemeral nature of things. They show you a more profound approach to the fragility of life.”

Pinault, who now spends most of his time on his collecting, leaving the business to his son, François-Henri Pinault, has plenty of plans. A project is under way to renovate the little theater next to Palazzo Grassi. It will be dedicated to video, experimental film and conferences.

This fall, the palace, which is run by former French culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon, will unveil a second show, Picasso and the Joie de Vivre, followed next year by an exhibit on creation in 1967 and a show dedicated to Arte Povera. Pinault also is involved in talks about renovating the Dogana, an old customs building, in Venice. If Pinault’s ambitions bear fruit, the Dogana would provide him with an even more massive space in which to showcase his collection.

“It would be for my bigger pieces,” he says. “For me, the Palazzo Grassi isn’t the end of something, it’s the beginning of a long adventure.”

This article appeared in WWD Scoop, a special publication to WWD available to subscribers.