Art market
Art market
Art market

An insider’s guide to collecting

In her new book, the Venezuelan-born collector Tiqui Atencio talks to her peers about how they developed their tastes for buying art

by The Art Newspaper  |  4 October 2016
An insider’s guide to collecting
Tiqui Atencio’s Could Have, Would Have, Should Have puts the spotlight on collectors
Co-founders of The Broad museum, Eli and Edythe Broad, in the third-floor galleries. Photo: Elizabeth Daniels, courtesy The Broad
Co-founders of The Broad museum, Eli and Edythe Broad, in the third-floor galleries. Photo: Elizabeth Daniels, courtesy The Broad

Eli and Edythe Broad

Why we started collecting

The American billionaire entrepreneur Eli Broad, who once remarked that collecting “becomes a compulsion and an addiction”, is someone who came to contemporary art after buying older work—although he did so late in life and was inspired to begin by his wife Edythe.

As he puts it: “Edye collected before I started. She was buying prints and drawings.” She bought a Braque print and then a Lautrec poster. “I wanted to buy the Andy Warhol soup can and hang it in my kitchen,” Edye told the New Yorker. “But I thought if I come home having spent a hundred dollars on a painting of a soup can, Eli will have me committed!”

In fact, it was the prices that got Eli’s attention. “When the budget went up, that’s when I got interested. I bought my first work in 1974. It was a van Gogh drawing, and then I got a 1933 Miró and a 1939 Picasso. We went forward through history. We wanted to buy work of our times and so quickly moved on to contemporary art. It is so fascinating to be with artists, to see how they think. I was travelling the world and wherever I went I would go to museums, galleries, artists’ studios, other collectors. I was getting an accelerated education.”

In this, he was getting help from a number of friends and advisors, in particular Taft Schreiber, who was vice-president of MCA-Universal and a great collector of 20-century art. Through Schreiber, Broad was introduced to the major dealers of New York. “By the early 1980s, we had become very active and were friendly with Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.”

He is particularly known for his collection of works of art by Jeff Koons. “I was with Jeff today and yesterday. I have 35 of his works. The first one I bought was the floating basketballs, Three Ball 50/50 Tank. And I got the first works from his “Celebration” series. I was fortunate that I got them early on. I couldn’t afford them today”, he says.

Uli Sigg’s focus has been Chinese art © 2014 Patricia Chen
Uli Sigg’s focus has been Chinese art © 2014 Patricia Chen

Uli Sigg

Chinese art in context

Collectors need to apply head, heart and stomach, not necessarily in equal measure, but always together. I think the Swiss businessman and former diplomat Uli Sigg would agree with this theory. Uli has always been a pioneer, being the first Westerner to create a joint venture with the Chinese government in the late 1970s. He was then made the Swiss ambassador to China in the mid-1980s. But throughout this time, it was the art being produced around him that caught his attention and has subsequently dominated his life.

Over the course of almost 40 years, he has created the world’s largest and most encyclopaedic collection of contemporary Chinese art. While it has been his all-consuming passion, he has also been focused in what he was doing. For him, it was an intellectual process of understanding the new society he found himself in, but also an opportunity to witness first-hand the birth of an entirely new art scene.

As he told the Hong Kong-based art website Ocula: “I’m a researcher by nature and I was fortunate enough to buy the results of my research. I was in China as a businessman and diplomat, so I… was always able to contextualise the work, not just within art, but also in Chinese society.”

But he told me that to be an effective collector one needs to keep both emotion and reason in play at the same time. “Having a focus does not mean that it is all intellectual, that it is just a process of thinking things through. It may also involve instinct. In fact, if you don’t have good instincts, you will never build a good collection. Your gut may respond to specific visual symbols that relate to you, especially at the beginning. But when you are a mature collector, the mind must also come to the fore and you need to be more considered. Even what we call gut instinct should be analysed.

“Why do we like this and not that, for example? At a certain moment, you need to start reflecting on your instincts—pure gut reaction by itself can be a fault.”

Igor Tsukanov is scientific in his collecting. Courtesy of the Tsukanov Art Collection
Igor Tsukanov is scientific in his collecting. Courtesy of the Tsukanov Art Collection

Igor Tsukanov

Learning to be patient

Igor Tsukanov is one of the world’s leading collectors of post-war Russian art. His collection has more than 400 works by some 50 artists. He is similar to Sigg in that he collects like an institution and is entirely scientific in his methods. At first, though, he was hungry and impatient in his collecting.

“The first work of art I bought was in 2000 in New York from my friend Anatoly Bekkerman, a dealer who had moved from Moscow in the 1970s. I wanted to build up a collection quickly, so I bought 35 or 40 paintings in two years, all Russian art from the early 20th century. But I soon realised that the real quality stuff was in museums, and what I was buying was second or third rate in comparison.” So Igor switched his focus completely and decided to focus on Russian art of the second half of the century instead. He was quite rigorous in his approach.

“I am a former scientist and I tackled it from that perspective. I identified my objective and methodology, and defined my resources—how much could I spend to achieve the goal? I focused on buying so-called ‘underground’ art that was not being acquired by museums. Often this work had made its way out of Russia because foreigners, especially journalists and diplomats, had been taking it out of the country, even though it was illegal to take it abroad without permission.

“By the mid-2000s, there was a market for this art and the prices were growing. Most of it was in Europe, Asia and America.” While he would buy some things from the boutique MacDougall’s auction house, which specialized in Russian art, most of the important pieces were not available on the public market.

“I had to search for the owners, mainly retired diplomats who had been in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s, and make a deal with them. I met one lady in Boston who was expelled from Moscow twice because of spy scandals. She lived there for 15 years in all and had thirty or forty pieces that I bought.”

While Igor was a hasty collector in the beginning, now he is willing to be patient, sometimes waiting years for the right work. He is not only scientific in tracking down potential acquisitions, he is also disciplined in what he buys and what he lets pass. “I do not have a big space, so I am very selective. I buy what is at the core of the collection, which goes up to the 1990s. I will not buy something just because I like it.”

“Activist-philanthropist” Maja Hoffman. Photo: Patrick
“Activist-philanthropist” Maja Hoffman. Photo: Patrick

Maja Hoffmann

Mixed feelings about collecting

Maja Hoffmann, the Swiss pharmaceutical heiress, “art enabler” and founder of the Luma Foundation, still has the Polaroids that Warhol took of her when she was around twenty years old, but alas she missed out on her portrait. She puts it down to modesty. “He asked to do my portrait, but I didn’t think I was important enough. He also wanted my grandfather to pay—$25,000—it was a lot of money.”

Maja may have shied away from that particular acquisition, but it did not put her off owning contemporary art altogether, for it was at this time that her collecting began in earnest. As well Warhol, in New York she got to know and buy works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and some of the artists associated with dealer Mary Boone. Today, she is one of the most active patrons of contemporary art on the international stage, but she has mixed feelings about being a collector. “I don’t really want to own things,” she told W Magazine. “That’s not my focus. I want to make things happen.”

Describing her as an art-world maverick, W Magazine says she is the influential art-world mover-and-shaker that most people have never heard of. “An activist-philanthropist, she prefers to work behind the scenes, plunging into the nitty-gritty aspects of art making,” it writes. The magazine also quotes Jean Pigozzi, a close friend, as saying: “She’s a producer of extraordinary projects that wouldn’t get done without her help. She has the money, she has the energy, and she does everything herself.”

And Liam Gillick gave the artist’s view: “She wants to do more things than any one person really can, but that matches her personality. She’s in constant pursuit of ideas and conversation and usually wants to know ‘where does this work fit into your thinking and development?’ That’s very much a quality of collectors who buy time for artists.”

Timing was key for Fatima and Eskandar Maleki © Patrick McMullan
Timing was key for Fatima and Eskandar Maleki © Patrick McMullan

Eskandar and Fatima Maleki

A hard bargain

Eskandar Maleki employed some smart negotiation in 1996 to secure the prize piece in his and Fatima’s collection: Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (725-4), dating from 1990. As with so many things in life, timing was the key. “It was the last day of the FIAC art fair in Paris and Marian Goodman still hadn’t sold the work,” he remembers. And yet it was clearly a special painting with an exceptional provenance. Richter himself loved it and had held on to it to keep in his house.

After five years, he had decided to sell and consigned it to Goodman and Anthony d’Offay jointly. “It was the last minute of the last day and we went to speak with Marian. That’s always a good moment to negotiate, right at the end of the fair. I said to her, ‘just think of all that shipping you’ll have to pay to send it back to New York’.”

Fatima picks up the story: “He haggled and haggled and haggled, and I said to him, ‘you’re really showing your Iranian roots’. In the end, he got it for $220,000. It was a fortune.” It certainly was, but they had bagged a masterpiece. As Isabelle Paagman, Sotheby’s senior specialist in contemporary art, said in January 2016: “The years 1989 and 1990 are the most sought after in Richter’s works… More than half from that period are in museums.”

Paagman was giving her opinion after the Malekis had announced that they were to sell the work at auction the following month. It was expected to realise in excess of its £14m–£20m estimate, meaning it could have reached almost 150 times the price the Malekis had paid two decades earlier. In the event, they decided to withdraw the work from the auction shortly before the sale.

George Condo soon realised collecting was fun © Dave Benett
George Condo soon realised collecting was fun © Dave Benett

George Condo

The artist as collector

In contrast to Damien [Hirst], who has long sought to share his collection with the public, George Condo is rather private when it comes to his collecting. “I normally don’t talk about it except with friends. But I want people to understand how I got into this crazy market.

“The first piece I got was in 1985 or 1986. Larry Gagosian had his gallery on West 23rd Street. In the back room, he had a little row of Picasso pieces, some of which were from the collection of Helena Rubinstein. I said: ‘I love these crazy drawings.’ He said to me: ‘Really, do you like the drawing? Take it home with you. We’ll do a trade.’ So he grabbed it off the wall and I walked out with a Picasso drawing.

“I thought it was so cool. I’d never collected anything before. I’d wanted to. I was walking down the street with this Picasso under my arm. I got back to my hotel, propped the Picasso on a chair and called Keith Haring to come and have a look at it. It is a drawing from 1943. I still have it, a very nice drawing of a head of a sculpture. And that was my first work.

“Larry chose a fairly big cubistic painting I did about six months later in exchange. I was then living between New York and Paris, and I took the drawing back to Paris with me, in between the pages of a magazine. I had it reframed in Paris in a fantastic 18th-century gold frame. Keith had come to see it; Jean-Michel [Basquiat] came to my apartment in Paris to see it. We all loved this piece. And then in Paris, I thought I need to get some more things. This is a lot of fun.

“I managed to get a Picabia, a Warhol canvas of Jackie with a JFK head, which was signed twice and dedicated ‘to Florence’. I also picked up a Magritte drawing with a horse and a floating rock. So I was slowly building up a collection. I traded with Bruno Bischofberger for art. I once got a big Warhol painting that way, a beautiful Basquiat. And ever since then, I’ve been collecting.”

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