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how to collect contemporary art


1% of the 1%: What Collecting Means to Each of Us

For five years I dealt American paintings and prints that the majority of us can't afford. We're talking tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for art work. I've handled everything from William Merritt Chase to Alexander Calder to Robert Rauschenberg. The point of my sharing this isn't so that you can gawk at the list (although sometimes I still do), but to let you know that there are different stakes in every level of collecting. Recently, I've run into a couple of experiences where people wanted to sell or trade in their works. Unfortunately, it's difficult enough to sell a painting that has a known name, much less a contemporary unknown. When I say "known", I mean an artist that has been traded, sold, dealt as a commodity. Yes, it sounds crude because in many ways, it is. There's no real intrinsic value to a painting (besides the intangible and invaluable sense of enjoyment one gets out of it, but you and I live in a real world, not a fantasy one), so each work by an artist must be treated as such. Until it's been sought after or fought over, it's not going to bring you a return. Plain and simple.


Let's say you attend an art fair on the street. Each artist brings their blood, sweat, tears and hope that you will support them for their talent and craft. But you're also going to be buying at a premium. Consider the convenience, the ambiance and excitement of the fair. Take the set up time, the booth fee, the hotel, gas and food. These are all percentages that add up in the artist's mind and are offered to you, as the patron, to support someone's lifestyle. It's not an easy feat and an incredibly humbling career choice.

If you buy a contemporary piece of art work, you better buy it because you love it. That's what I always tell people. Bottom line: love it or move on. Because unless you just bought it from the next Gerard Richter and you just don't know it yet, purchasing low to middle end art is not a good investment for return.


Many wealthy people collect art. It's a rite of passage that tells people that you not only have a lot of money but that you have enough culture and taste to know what to do with it. It's also a commodity for them that can be folded into their investment portfolios.

Let's say you have money to burn. In a time when a movie like (Untitled) is more reality than farce, you have to ask yourself, how much of this art game do you know and how much do you really want to get into? Once you buy an original piece from an artist (NOT barter, trade, get a break from a friend but actually buy it outright), it's hard to stop. You start surfing for more pieces like it by the same artist or others like him/her. You set a financial limit and break it immediately. You start to think about framing and make considerations about the hue of the matte that you never thought you would. You attend art fairs where they serve champagne like water and dealers' faces brighten when they see you enter the booth. They call you by first name and tactfully insert your children's/pet's names as if they've been thinking about you during your absence. It's a relationship building exercise at every level of this game and you have to think about how much you want to be told/coerced into buying pieces. Because like it or not, you don't make many of the decisions at this point. You've probably been tainted a bit by rules and criticisms and you might have a room of things you don't even hang or look at or think about.

COLLECTING FOR 1% of the 1% (or really 10% of the top 1% according to the New York Times)

This is a wholly different game. These types of collectors collect installation, video, sponsor performance art that you may not even think is art. Art Basel Miami took place last week and just closed out its 10th year. There was a New York Times article about Eli Broad and his philanthropy, collecting and activity in the artworld over the last forty years or so. But the most valuable part of the piece was this line:

"And like many representatives of the 0.001 percent here, the Broads showed little sign of easing up on their longtime habit of getting and spending, or of easing up, period."

Besides the fact that during this recovery of the Great Recession many of the elite rich are still collecting, the percentage of the elite rich that collect at this level is even more minute. ".001" That's probably the most succinct and accurate representation of collecting at this level I've ever seen printed. Those that have the knowledge and the means to collect at that level are not walking among us unless you're standing outside Sant Ambroeus on Madison. It's a quick-paced game and dealers have to keep up appearances at this level in order to appeal to the next buyer. That being said, if you won the lottery tomorrow, you still probably wouldn't be able to walk into any high end gallery in New York City and buy a painting. Dealers want the provenance, the list of where the piece has been, to be renowned, pedigree, preferably celebrity. Longtime British dealer, Charles Saatchi, recently commented on Basel in a scathing article in The Guardian. I highly recommend it as required reading.

"Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year's spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another.

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck."

I had to keep from giggling out loud too many times while I was reading because there was so much truth in it. There's little rhyme or reason to the artworld and yet I still hold on to the Utopian fantasy of a just vetting system. That shows will introduce content and concept that will blow my mind instead of confuse and frustrate out of lack of representation. (Check out the finalists for this year's Turner Prize and comment back on your choice).

Perhaps supporting the local art fair isn't such a bad thing after all. At least you get to choose what you buy.