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February 14, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:40pm

How to Buy Contemporary Art

By Spear's

The Art of the Sale
You’d think buying art would be as easy as Auerbach, Bacon, Clemente. But, says Freddy Barker, you need to watch out for museums, dealers and (worst of all) your interior designer

are being trampled in the Contemporary art gold rush. While you’d hope that they would have passed on the nuggets of information they’ve picked up or fallen over, they haven’t. No one likes to give away the secrets of their success or admit their mistakes, especially not UHNWs. So, naturally, Spear’s brings them to you.

The first and most significant quandary is quality. Even with a new fortune, nothing in the first rank of Contemporary art is available to you. The best that the new wealthy can aspire to are the rejects of major institutes and mega-collectors: the law of the jungle operates whereby the biggest feed first at every exhibition. Who can blame the dealers for acting thus? Placing a Hirst or an Emin in Tate Modern or Charles Saatchi’s Chelsea villa does wonders to attract those HNWs who buy with their ears and not their eyes.

To buy a masterpiece, then, you have to prove your provenance, or at least deep-pocketed intentions. That’s fastest done by looking at your invitation pile, in particular Sotheby’s and Christie’s biddings. Are you invited to the February and June private views, or to the private dinners with Tobias Meyer and Brett Gorvy, or, at VVIP level, to Arnault or Pinault’s retreats?

Clearly, there are layers, and jumping a tier requires good advice. Ponder the problem that many faced at the recent Raqib Shaw show: turning up to White Cube sufficiently early that the main room of eight works was still being hung — yet had already been sold. The impatient would have given up, exasperated, but as Tania Pos, the art adviser behind the £40 million Monet at Christie’s in 2008, says, you can get in through the secondary market: ‘With some artists, like Raqib Shaw, exhibitions happen every two years, which means that although the current exhibition may be sold out, one may be able to find works from two years ago. Generally this requires market insight, though, as new collectors won’t know who bought the art in the first place, but it’s worth the effort as it’s undeniably a way to get a first-tier work fast instead of waiting for the next show.’

Another way to beat the competition is befriending benefactors and curators at Tate Modern, MoMA or the Pompidou. ‘After you donate, these power players will introduce you to dealers and artists,’ says Manfredi della Gherardesca, another leading London adviser. ‘For example, I know American clients who play golf with Jeff Koons and then spend afternoons with Richard Prince. It’s a big melting pot; the corporate approach to life has encompassed everything, including the art world. You travel to art fairs, like Miami, and you get invited to dinners and suddenly you’re sitting in Moscow with Dasha Zhukova discussing her latest exhibition, and then you share an art adviser with her who she picked up from Steve Cohen, and the world is your oyster.’

Gaining access to the right artists is one thing, but paying the right price is another. Dealers conjure an atmosphere of reverence around their shows so it’s seemingly non-U to barter, but the truth that even seasoned collectors forget is that the margin for negotiation is anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent. Shopping for art is not like shopping for designer labels. If you walk into Cartier and see a wallet you like, you buy it. But with art, real research has to be done into the pricing, even at the top dealers.

Illustration by Russ Tudor

Assessing worth is a tricky concept, though. There’s no theoretical framework with which to value taste, so when you see a banana dangling from the ceiling at Gagosian’s stand at Frieze, it’s fair to question the difference between price and value. To the gallery girl it might be Urs Fischer’s latest masterpiece, but to you it might be too fruity to take seriously.

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Ironically, though, London’s most astute financiers are drawn to such offbeat art. By their very nature, these contrarian characters have been vastly rewarded for saying to the world: ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and I’m going to starve in the name of my beliefs until proven right,’ so their mindsets are magnetised to those artists who similarly sit at the periphery of society, testing accepted wisdom. Investing in them, however attractive, is highly risky, though, as history consigns 99 per cent of safer art to the bin.

So in a world where you can’t even trust yourself, what good is the advice of professionals? Many new collectors come to Contemporary art through their interior designers — one simply must have something to go with the new wall colour — but it does have its costs, and not just the 20 per cent that some designers take on art purchases. It’s more that their highest priority will be finding abstract works to complement classic-contemporary interiors.

Think of Candy & Candy’s One Hyde Park. The layering of materials there — from lacquer to stone to textiles — cries out for works by the likes of Jason Martin, the Lisson Gallery’s monochromatic surface artist, or Ian Davenport, Leslie Waddington’s painter of vertical rainbows, as one art adviser suggested. Just be sure you like them as stimulating works of art, not (undeservedly) as wall decoration.

Art advisers’ roles in all this are debatable. On the one hand, some proliferate identikit collections — the Damien Hirst Spot painting, Andy Warhol silkscreen and Jackson Pollock drip-work combination that is de rigueur in Knightsbridge. The fact that Eighties New York penthouses needed just a few names like Eric Fischl, Francesco Clemente and David Salle to reach the stars, whereas modern collectors need a hundred from the US to Iran, means that collecting in the 21st century is increasingly time-consuming and expensive, and guidance is progressively welcome.

‘I add value in helping collectors to define their aesthetics,’ says Pos. ‘An art collection can quickly grow to represent a considerable portion of a collector’s overall portfolio so, like any other investment, it needs to be monitored by someone knowledgeable and at the centre of the industry. In the same breath, my ultimate goal is to widen the collector’s level of education, as I did recently by taking several on a private tour of the da Vinci show, as that helps me to advise them in the long run.’

Money may be tight and HNWs may be loath to add another layer of employees, but they really do put the value in valuables. This is more important than ever with Hirst and Freud trading for $25 million-plus. Think how you’d feel in the position of the late Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito, who, having spent $82.5 million on Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, was hit with a restitution claim seven years on… Or in Charles Saatchi’s position in the Nineties, when he watched Hirst’s shark, the most iconic artwork produced in Britain for generations, deteriorate before his eyes. Remember: as the one holding the purse strings, you have more power than the deities of the Contemporary art world would like you to think.
Freddy Barker is head of the Spear’s research unit

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