Art collecting with Barbara Guggenheim
Interview of Barbara Guggenheim who shares her experience and guides us through the art of collecting art.
Barbara Guggenheim is founding partner of Guggenheim, Asher, Associates, Inc., one of the best known international art advisory firms. For the past 35 years, Barbara Guggenheim, Abigail Asher, and their team in New York and Los Angeles have served individual and corporate clients all over the world. The company focuses on Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary Art, but also has expertise in 19th Century, Old Masters, and American Art.
Can you take us through the major events in the contemporary art calendar and how collecting art can change and add to the lifestyle of a passionate new collector?
Collecting offers a cornucopia of benefits to those who participate. Collectors get to live surrounded with beautiful and inspiring works of art, they get to meet interesting artists, collectors, scholars, curators, and other people in the trade. It also forces an education as making informed decisions leads collectors to learn more about art and how the art world works.
For collectors of contemporary art, events are happening somewhere in the world every week. Close to a dozen major art fairs are a must, the two Art Basels, in Switzerland and Miami, the two Friezes, and the Armory shows in NY among them. Dealers bring their best material hoping to meet and sell to clients who might never drift into their galleries back home.
In the late 19th century, if you were in New York society’s “400” (the number of people who could be seated in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom), you’d follow the social circuit from NY to Paris, London, Newport, Saratoga, etc. Today, the social world revolves around art collecting, and the pilgrimage is like a moveable feast from fair to fair, biennials to auctions. Art has become the “lingua franca” of the global rich. If a German tells a Frenchman he just bought a Mike Kelley, and the Frenchman replies that he too has one, it’s a secret handshake. They both had 2million to spend on a work, they both got to the head of the line, and so, they can be friends.
Some collectors love the tumult around being recognized out of their own business. A man in Cincinnati who made a billion dollars in plumbing supplies can buy some art and find himself at the epi-center of the art world if he so desires. Everyone will want to meet him, he’ll be genuflected to when he enters their booths at fairs or galleries, and hopefully he’ll gain the respect of everyone. If he decides to build a big museum, all the better, as everyone wants to be part of something big.
What is a great private collection to you?
The best private collections are those that reflect the individual putting them together. For many, it requires discipline. For example, we have a client we met when he was starting a business as a management consultant. Process seemed important, so we came up with the idea of collecting drawings by 20th century sculptors—from Rodin to Serra. The client later went on to buy radio stations and wanted to limit the number of drawings to the “Top 40.” For a while, if he bought a forty-first drawing he loved, he’d have to sell one. Since, his collection has been the subject of two museum shows and he’s collected many of the sculptures for which the drawings were preparatory. He’s had a big bang for the buck. How to buy art? If the work is on the primary market, there’s little due diligence to do. If you love it and the price is what you consider to be fun money, go for it. If the work represents a serious investment, you want some assurances, if possible. You want to know if the artist has shown in museum shows, been collected by other good collectors, has any shows planned, etc. As for material on the secondary market, there may be more due diligence to do, including checking condition, price, rarity, provenance, etc.
What does being a “serious or credible art collector” mean for art professionals?
Art professionals respect collectors who take their time and who are doing more than simply furnishing a house or buying for status and creating collections that neither reflect them or or their connoisseurship. If they engage an art advisor, that generally signals that they want to do something thoughtful.
Why can’t I always buy what I want if I have the money?
For artists in demand, galleries get to pick and choose where they want to “place” a work (an upscale way to express “sell” to.). They generally favor longtime, loyal collectors and the advisors they work with. It’s the galleries job to build the career of their artists and place their works in important institutions and private collections. Often, to get work, even well-known collectors have to buy two works by an artist at the same time: they get to keep one if they give one to an institution where the dealer would like the artist represented. Alternately, collectors who can’t get what they want from the galleries resort to bidding against each other at auction when the work comes up, often causing prices on the secondary market to zoom far ahead of the primary market prices in galleries.
What advice would you give to a new collector to limit his risks?
I would advise against diving into deep water and making a big purchase without taking time to learn about the art and the art business. Of course, there are unscrupulous dealers in the art world who should be avoided, and there are plenty lots coming to auction in which the situation is far more opaque than you could imagine. In the art business, it’s “buyer beware”. Nonetheless, if you take your time or get an art advisor to do the due diligence, you can get great things at good prices from most dealers and auctions.
Dealers try to move up the prices of artists’ work slowly as shows sell out and demand grows. Some galleries have a policy of offering zero discounts except for advisors (10%). In general, for a primary work, the discount is dependent on the demand for the work. If the artist is hot you might be lucky to get 10% off, but if the gallery has more flexibility, you may be able to get a discount of 15-20%. On resale works, try to determine the value of the work by using comps at auction or with other dealers. Once you’ve established that, negotiate accordingly.
On the issue of art work conservation
Some artists create work using traditional materials in sound ways, made to last centuries. Others use fugitive materials and expect, or even desire, the pieces they make to crumble over time (inherent vice). You should ask dealers to get statements by artists as to if and how they want the works repaired. A written explanation of how the works were made can help a conservator later rebuild. If the piece is about to disintegrate, perhaps the work should come with a disclaimer, “Do not resuscitate.”
What signals should I look at to have a feel of whether I am overpaying or paying a fair price?
If you’re spending an amount that’s your idea of fun money, whether it’s 10,000 or 1,000,000 you don’t need to do any work before pulling the trigger. You can make an offer and may get it for less—or not. Before significant purchases, due diligence is required. This includes trying to establish the work’s quality and the correct amount to spend. If your work is on the primary market, you may not need to check condition and the dealer knows the price structure better than anyone.
If the work is on the secondary market and has already been out in the world, you do need to have an independent conservator examine the work’s condition. You need to understand how authentication was arrived at and understand if there could be an issue. To establish whether it’s the best of it’s kind and whether the price is fair. Artnet and other internet auction sites are useful to check prices and see how often other similar works come up.
How do you know a major player (museum, private collector) has interest in a piece, an artist, and that it is the right time to buy?
It takes a village to make an emerging artist an art world star. Ask a dealer who’s showing work you’re interested in if the artist has been in any museum shows, been bought by major collectors, etc. I know it sounds like buying with your “ear” when everybody knows you should be buying with your “eye,” but the two together work.
What is an art consultant and when should I use one?
An art advisor is an independent knowledgeable expert, whose job is to be your advocate only and to be paid by you alone. Dealers and auction experts will, no doubt, offer to advise you for free, but they have their own agendas to sell what they have. Someone at Christie’s may dissuade you from bidding on one work but they’ll point you in the direction of another. They’ll never send you to Sotheby’s any more than Macy’s would send you to Bloomingdales. Curators may not have a financial motive, but they may gain power or respect squiring you around and may expect you to give works to the museum.
Art advisors are useful every step of your collecting life – from teaching you about art and the business, finding and buying works, building cohesive collections, doing the administrative work of lending, etc., to selling and donating later on.
Since the best collections are those which reflect the individual putting the collection together, it’s up to the advisor to analyze the goals of the collector, put themselves in the collector’s shoes, and help the collector accomplish those goals. Clients of ours who were filmmakers had no idea what to collect. Once we introduced them to Social Realism, American art between the wars that told stories, the dye was cast. Another client who led a tumultuous business life and wanted calm at home was drawn to Minimalism of the 60s. A woman client with a flair for drama wound up collecting violent Baroque paintings we showed her.
What is the perfect client like for you ?
A dealer once told me that his ideal client was one who looked at a work and said, “I love it – I’ll take it.” To me, as an advisor, a great client is one who doesn’t expect to make an “instant collection” and understands that collecting is a journey. The idea of accompanying a client on his life’s collecting is about the best thing I get to do in life.
Have you ever had to face conflicts of interests where one art work was of interest for several of your clients?
Surprisingly, in the 35 years we’ve been in business, we’ve never had clients whose collecting overlaps. Every work is unique, and what one would love, another wouldn’t.