The Collector's Collector

August 2007

In April, Mark Carter attended the opening of a group drawing show at the Limn Gallery in San Francisco. Some of the works caught his eye, as did some pieces by French artist David Gista, who does portraits of torsos using a blowtorch on paper. "It's very captivating because the smokiness creates a subtle diffusion where the cloudlike humans look to be of ether rather than of flesh," says Carter.
Carter spoke to the gallery owner about the works that he liked and the artists who created them, and he did the same with the owner of another gallery he visited that day. All told, he saw a half-dozen works that he wanted to pursue. "I don't normally expect to find that many interesting works in two galleries," says Carter. "If one gets purchased, that's really good."

Carter wasn't shopping for himself. Instead, he perused the galleries in hopes of finding artwork to present to clients who pay him to help build their private art collections. Carter is one of the growing cadre of art advisors, or art consultants, whose job entails helping wealthy collectors purchase, install and maintain works of art.

The contemporary art market has boomed in the past decade, fueled in part by the infusion of new wealth enabling people to expand their personal and financial horizons to the world of art. But regardless of whether someone is old wealth or new wealth, many people consider the art scene a strange universe that can be as intimidating and misunderstood as a Jackson Pollock painting. It has its own social contracts and idiosyncrasies, and of course there's always the fundamental question: What, exactly, makes for good art? For collectors, the name of the game is to find artwork that does more than just match the color of the couch. It should create beauty, make a statement and be a smart investment that provides immediate visual dividends and, perhaps someday, long-term capital gains.

Art advisors can help collectors and would-be collectors navigate through this confusing world. As with other intermediaries, these advisors attend to life's details to help create a lifestyle for their wealthy clients. A good art advisor often becomes a trusted consultant who adds value by building a worthy art collection. If improperly chosen, an advisor can be a well-intentioned fraud who wastes wall space and money. Not all art advisors are created equal, and not all collectors need their services. But for those who do, it pays to know what you're getting before hiring someone.

"The art advisor business still has a Wild West feel," says Lowell Pettit, an advisor in New York. "There are very few industry standards. There are art advisors whose reputations precede them, but I think there are scores of advisors with little or no background in art history who hang with the affluent set, go to a couple of auctions and get a business card printed up."

The International Association for Professional Art Advisors counts roughly 150 members, but executive director Kimberly Maier acknowledges there are many independents out there without proper credentials. "A lot of galleries push art through hucksters," she says, "and people need to be aware of that."

The IAPAA's guidelines for art advisors include possessing a thorough knowledge of art history, with at least one area of specialization. Other facets include work experience in a setting that teaches curatorial skills, knowledge of the art market and good working relationships with the art community. Collectors can find advisors on the association's Web site,, or as is often the case, through word-of-mouth recommendations.

"An advisor can take you on tours, show you a lot of different works and dealers and even provide an entrée into artist studios," say Maier. "Their job is not only to sell art, but to educate their clients about artwork."

Taste Tester
Advisors can assume different roles depending on their clients' level of art sophistication. Above all, the advisor needs to intimately understand their clients' tastes, as well as their financial comfort level regarding how much they're willing to spend on art.

"When it comes to clients with a developed sense of tastes and aesthetics, somebody once referred to my role as that of a personal shopper," jokes Carter, 56, who lives in Sebastopol, Calif., and services clients on both coasts. For those clients who know what they like but don't have the time or desire to kick around galleries or auctions, Carter does the legwork by browsing galleries, attending art fairs and going into open studios to find works he thinks his clients will like. Thanks to the Internet, he can download images from the Web sites of galleries and artists and show them to clients. Sometimes they'll purchase the artwork from these images. Other times, particularly for collectors with cachet, Carter arranges for artwork to be delivered to their homes for a trial run.

One of Carter's clients is David Shaw, founder and chief executive officer of D.E. Shaw & Co., one of the world's largest hedge fund management companies. Shaw and his wife wanted to expand their existing collection but didn't have time to do it on their own. Carter studied the works they already owned to gauge what appealed to them, which made it easier to present them with works he thought they'd like. He occasionally meets with them in New York, where they live, but most of his presentations are done via a Web page he created where they can browse high-resolution images at their leisure, or on a conference call with Carter. The works come with background information on the artist, along with other information such as dimensions and prices. If the Shaws need a further look at a particular piece, Carter either takes them to, or arranges for them to see, the work in the gallery. "That's essential for certain works," he says. "You can glean only so much from a jpeg image."

After a sale is made, Carter handles the nuts and bolts of the purchase, buys the frame and oversees any other prep work so it's ready to hang either in the Shaw's home or in his office. They'll gather for what Carter calls location meetings to discuss the pragmatics of where to put the artwork. "It's part of the entire package," he says. For Shaw, the collaboration expanded his collection in ways that probably wouldn't have occurred otherwise. "I had been purchasing art for several years, buying pieces I loved when I happened to run across them," says Shaw. "Mark Carter quickly figured out what it was that excited me, and managed to dig up a number of pieces that I immediately knew I couldn't live without. Some of the most remarkable work Mark found turned out to be from little-known artists or tiny galleries in remote locations, and was actually quite inexpensive. More importantly to me, these are pieces I could never have found without Mark, who somehow managed to understand what I was looking for even better than I did myself."

Clients new to art collecting often require a more hands-on approach. "I like to work as an aesthetic educator," says Carter. "Not in terms of teaching, but to work with them to develop a taste and their own sense of what they like. The essential part of a collection is that they have to love it, the works have to work for them."

In these cases, the first meeting is about clients leaving the checkbook behind and getting a shotgun introduction to the art world. Carter shows them myriad images of different styles and media to expose them to what's out there and to see how they'll respond. "I want to find out what's important to them and want them to discover their artistic truths," he says.

From there Carter can narrow the search and start bringing in artwork for their consideration. The early stage is spent determining the client's objectives and what the word "collection" means to them.

Look Beyond The Obvious
People ultimately purchase art because it moves them, but there are financial, critical and art history decisions to be made when it comes to building a lasting collection that maintains both its aesthetic and monetary value.

"The word 'connoisseurship' is used too liberally," says Lowell Pettit, the New York advisor, "but at its best it's the core of what a good art advisor does." Pettit strives to build diversified collections that stand the test of time. The mistake he sees some collectors make is buying today's fashionable pieces that quickly become dated. "I don't want anyone seeing any of my collections in the future and saying, 'Oh, that's 2006,'" he says. When a client is drawn to a particular artist, Pettit recommends sprinkling the portfolio with works that span the artist's entire career. Or perhaps include works from that artist's influences to imbue the collection with a logical sense of flow.

Pettit believes that the best art doesn't always lead to love at first sight, and he tries to expand his clients' artistic scope beyond what immediately catches their eye. "My first piece of advice to people new to this is to step away from the work that immediately appeals to you and to challenge the work that doesn't immediately grab you," he says.

A good advisor wears several hats, and Pettit describes his duties as that of art world booster, art historian and gallery tour guide. At times, he takes on the role of marriage counselor. "You often navigate dueling tastes and power dynamics of couples," he says.

Pettit, 34, began scouring the galleries in Chelsea as a youngster and says he still frequents New York's galleries on a regular basis, attends big art fairs such as those in Basel, Switzerland, and Miami Beach, and centers his travel plans on exhibitions he wants to see or artists he wants to check out. He's encouraged by the burgeoning interest in contemporary art, but he finds that many new collectors don't understand the intricacies of the art world. "One of the things I spend a lot of time doing, and I think other advisors also do, is to say, 'Here's how we ask, here are the things you have to say and do,'" says Pettit.

Pettit works on a retainer or on an hourly basis, the latter at $100 an hour for low-level services such as art tours or consulting. But most of his work is commission-based, and he commonly charges 10%. "That's usually covered by the industry discount that we negotiate," says Pettit, "particularly with galleries we have a relationship with." In the best cases, the advisor extends the discount to the client in the retail price after deducting their commission. If Pettit negotiates a 15% to 20% discount, he says the client ultimately gets a 5% to 10% discount on the price.

"A good advisor will actually save the collector a little bit because they can negotiate a better price," says Samuel Freeman, executive director of the Patricia Faure Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. "But they know they can't charge as much or more than the gallery because why wouldn't the collector just go straight to the gallery?"

The industry trade group, IAPAA, says the average hourly rate for advisors is from $80 to $350, with the average rate at $150. Roughly 60% of advisors charge by the hour rather than on a project basis.

Who Do You Know?
Money won't always get you what you want in the art world, particularly when it comes to big-time artists or those beginning to make a splash. "Access is key to building a collection," says Lincoln Schatz, a Chicago-based artist working in new media and sculpture. His specialty is large interactive video works that collect, store and display more than eight years of video memory; entry level prices for these works is $38,000. Some of his recent commissioned work has landed in Shanghai and Dallas.

"A lot of times what an advisor brings is increased buying power and leverage in gaining access to artists," says Schatz. Part of that comes from beating the bushes at art fairs and getting to know the artists. Schatz says he increasingly sees art advisors with their high-net-worth clients at the Basel and Miami Beach art fairs.

More importantly, the ability to gain access comes from an advisor's reputation for trustworthiness, the quality of his or her clientele and their connections in the art world. "A good advisor not only can help gain access to artists, but to collections as well," says Greg Thompson, an advisor in Little Rock, Ark.

Thompson, 41, had his drawings and paintings displayed in Little Rock galleries before he opened his advisory business in 1995. When a client in Philadelphia wanted to add a work from pop artist Tom Wesselmann to his collection, Thompson found someone in Houston with direct access to Wesselmann's widow, Claire, who had established a foundation to oversee her late husband's legacy of work. She's very selective about who to deal with, but Thompson's contact in Houston opened doors and made the transaction possible.

"My client is a savvy collector, but he needed someone to take him to Claire," says Thompson. "It wouldn't have happened otherwise."

The upper echelon of the art world is a tough nut to crack, making highly respected advisors a potentially vital ally. "Some advisors are so well-connected with galleries and collectors that gallerists want to work with them because it gives their artists access to the best collections," says Catherine Clark, owner of her eponymous gallery in San Francisco.

But Clark says most advisors she's dealt with aren't particularly well-informed about contemporary art and ultimately don't have much cachet. "Some are more of the decorator persuasion," she says. "If that's the case, I think collectors are better off going to museums, subscribing to good art magazines, attending lectures and getting to know curators."

So what makes a good advisor? "Someone with vast knowledge of the field," says Christine Duval, director of the Limn Gallery in San Francisco. "And that means someone who travels and knows different markets and is in touch with lots of different artists and contacts."

Patricia Faure Gallery executive director Samuel Freeman says collectors should work only with advisors who have transparent business models and who take the time to look at them and their lifestyle. "Find someone who'll spend the time researching you and what you'll be interested in and how much you want to spend," he says.

Conversely, collectors should research advisors by talking to gallery owners the advisor works with and getting referrals from their clients. "Any advisor who's honest and upfront will be happy to have you talk to their clients because they have nothing to hide," says Freeman.

Ultimately, the best advisors are those who combine a thorough knowledge of art history, a Rolodex filled with the names of gallery owners, artists and other contacts, and a passion for art.

"I like the notion of bringing people into a gallery or bringing something into their world they wouldn't have done by themselves," says Carter, the California advisor. "I like to help them 'get it.'"