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The Benefit
October 19, 2017

How to Start Your Art Collection – A Chat With Art Advisor Barbara Harberger

About the Author
Ruthie Abrams

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The 2017 InLiquid Benefit: Everyone is a Collector is right around the corner, encouraging all to start, enhance, and celebrate their art collection. As an aspiring art collector and art advisor, I took it upon myself to interview one of Philadelphia’s most prominent art advisors, Barbara Harberger. Barbara Harberger is equipped with eleven years of experience working with major interior design firms as well as with private collectors. Ms. Harberger gave me great advice regarding savvy buying techniques and a few tips for a budding art advisor. See below for the inside scoop and a step-by-step guide on how to get started!
Ruthie: Why do you think art collecting is a worthy activity?
Barbara: By definition, a worthy activity is one that brings someone respect.
People collect out of their love of the artwork, their connections to the artist and the artist’s evolution of ideas and the manner in which living with art affects their lives. Collecting art can be more than owning a loved object. Some collect to be supportive of an individual artist or perhaps to enrich a collection of an institution, in that way collecting can become an act of philanthropy. I don’t consider people who do this to be self-serving and I haven’t had clients who work this way put their own egos in front of the art or artists.
Ruthie: What do you have in your personal collection?
Barbara: I would ask the question differently. Something like: “do you collect art?” and then that gives the collector the opportunity to reveal what they wish.
Most of the collectors that I work with like to keep the contents of their collections confidential.
I assume that across the board with clients. There are other collectors who will talk to you for hours about what they own — I don’t discuss what’s in my collection. What I will tell you is that I have collected art over time, some artist’s work more in-depth than others.
R: Are there ‘must-have’ type pieces that you think every collector should have?
How can a collector on a budget get these pieces?
B: For a seasoned collector–or a person just starting to collect–the answer is always the same: the must-have pieces are the pieces that stop you in your tracks and take your breath away the first time you see them. Those are the pieces that will never lose their power with you. Now, one piece may be a better purchase than another and that discussion can be had when viewing works with a client; the bottom line is that the artwork needs to speak to the client.
Figure out what you are connecting with. Collect in a way where each piece has meaning to you, and that moves you.
Art can be very seductive, I can fall in love in an instant with a piece, I usually take some time and see if it stays with me. There are some pieces that won’t leave my mind after a week or months, those are the pieces I know I should have. Of course taking that time means risking that the piece will no longer be available.
Some suggest that for a new collector you don’t buy anything for a year. I don’t hold to that so rigidly, buy something that speaks to you see how living with art changes your ability to see things differently.
– Start building your art fund, establish a discipline of putting away a certain amount of money that you are comfortable with each month for a year. There are some galleries that accept what’s called “Art Money.” With Art Money, you are cleared for essentially a loan from the Art Money corporation. You then make payments to Art Money rather than the gallery, which allows you to take the purchase home prior to it being 100% paid for. Some galleries will work with you using a payment plan from the gallery. The best thing to do is to establish a budget, and figure out how to fund that within your means.
– Go to galleries, exhibitions, museums and panel discussions.
– Meet gallerists, artists curators and talk to them about how they go about making their selections to exhibit.
– Join a young professionals art circle, PMA, ICA and the Barnes all have these groups where you’ll have opportunities to speak with the curators, meet the artists and visit private collections.
Philly Stewards also have consistent programming of these types of conversations.
– As you go to these exhibitions and events take notes on what speaks to you, don’t ignore the pieces that you’re not attracted to ask yourself questions about the difficult pieces. Do a little research to try to understand that work on a different level.
– Meet the artist’s and talk to them about what they’re working on, what their objectives are and what issues are important to them ( Herb and Dorothy would go to the bar where they knew artist’s hung out in order to meet the artist’s and find out more about the contemporary art world.)
– Don’t spend too much time looking at little icons of art online, Instead, experience as much art as you can in its actual physical presence. There are nuances that you’ll never experience in a JPEG.
After doing this for a year you’ll probably already have a bucket list of pieces or artist’s work that you’d like to live with. You’ll also have a better sense of pricing.
– Then there’s the decision of collecting vertically or horizontally:
– Vertical Collecting is developing a collection where you are collecting an artist, a period or style or theme in-depth understanding the evolution of the artist’s work and developing a carefully selected group of meaningful pieces by the artists in that category.
– Horizontal Collecting is collecting more broadly with no particular focus on a period, artist or medium. Once a collector determines which way to develop their collection then that ‘bucket list’ can be expanded.
– Serious Collectors with an expansive budget use similar lists that they’ve developed,expanded and refined over time. They look for the best pieces by the best artists for their collection not simply pieces by a hot name. Even the best artists create second-rate pieces—know the difference.
R: Tastes and trends change over time, do you have a rule of thumb for selecting a timeless piece?
B: Connoisseurship cares nothing about novelty. Life is fleeting, art endures,
The art will outlive us and our current culture. The reverse of that is that our current culture is changing so rapidly, will the art still be relevant or will it become an artifact that is representative of something nostalgic.
If the pieces are selected carefully in a disciplined way as we’ve discussed then the artwork will remain timeless to the collector. Sometimes over time our own tastes and interests change, that’s fine too. There’s a difference between trendy and an artist who is pushing a media, material or subject in ways that others have never done. Pieces where the artist is challenging themselves to ask new questions, not creating pieces that follow a trend. Look for pieces that are compelling, that are original that have content and power, these pieces will always be timeless to the collector, to the culture over time, maybe not, the collector has to determine if that’s one of their goals.
R: As a new collector, it’s easy to get jipped, any advice for making sure you’re getting the right price?
B: Galleries are required to post price lists, know that these prices may change over a few months or a year due to positive changes in an artist’s career. Many artists’s are now represented by multiple galleries, prices at the galleries may differ. This isn’t because someone is taking advantage of the collector, there are different bodies of work by an artist, and the specifics of individual pieces may differ. There are prime pieces by individual artist’s and second-rate pieces, know the difference.
My advice is to research, research, research. In 2016 -2017 I watched a particular print from the same edition come up for auction (6 times). The print sold at 3 different auction houses
Once with a premium for $49,171. Once for $32,400. Once for $30,000.
R: So, who got the best deal?
B: No one in each of these cases the same print could have been purchased at 2 different galleries. One listing it for 25,000 and one listing it for 30,000. so were the auction purchasers
R: So were the auction purchasers jipped?
No, they didn’t do their research.
R: If you purchased at a gallery would one be being jipped over the other?
B: You never know you need to check the condition, the edition number in the series etc. If you’ve done your research you shouldn’t be a victim of being overcharged.
R: Some artwork that is most interesting is at times gruesome and ‘not pretty’ how do you go about collecting this work and placing it in a home? How do you work with collectors when also working with this type of work?
B: First, again it always comes down to the client’s goals. There are people like Barella who only collect pieces that are disturbing.
I think for placement in one’s collection it’s important to give each piece space so that it’s compelling aspects can be considered. I don’t have a problem placing these types of work in a primary more public location, I know some collectors who tend to hide pieces that can be deemed offensive in more private locations of their homes.
How about Art Fairs?
Absolutely on both accounts, art fairs can be overwhelming, however, they are a great venue to be able to see an extensive variety of works on all levels. It’s ok to begin by making modest purchases.
R: In art advising and in working with collectors what are the greatest pitfalls you have encountered and what have your toughest lessons been?
B: I wouldn’t call anything a pitfall, we all continually learn. The most important thing is to
help the client identify and establish their goals if they haven’t already and then to listen.
Have patience, find the pieces that are best suited to their collecting goals pieces where you can personally stand behind the integrity of the work, establish mutual trust.
With both residential, corporate and public pieces it’s important to listen carefully and engage with multiple decision makers and influencers.
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