Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Was Your First Collection ?

Many years ago I was asked to give a course on collecting at the New School in New York. When I arrived at the school after I had worked months on how I was going to teach my first course, I was told, “You know, if you don’t get more than 15 students the course will be cancelled. “” Wait a minute, you tell me this after all this time!”

Well, to my surprise and delight it was standing room only and there were over 30 students. (I lucked out when they moved us to a larger classroom and it turned out to be the one that had Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today ‘murals (1930-31). These were subsequently purchased by AXA, the insurance company and installed in the lobby of their building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City, where they can be seen today).

To break the ice, I asked how many collectors there were in the class, expecting only a couple of hands to go up. Was I surprised when most of the class raised their hands! I had made the mistake of thinking of collecting only in terms of art. My students were collectors of stamps, baseball cards and even barbed wire.

Most of us start out collecting what our parents collected and then we realize we like better what our grandparents had, or we have our own ideas and go off in a completely different direction. One of our best-known clients began collecting French 18th century furniture as her parents had. She bought a few pieces and then came back to us saying that her friends put their feet up on the furniture so she needed to find other areas of collecting. She bought a Canaletto!

My personal interest had always been photography. I was an amateur photographer, spent long nights in the dark room was co-photo editor for my high school yearbook etc. I loved going to photo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art or at the early photography galleries such as the Witkin Gallery.

When I remarried in 1975, my new wife, who I dragged to many photo exhibitions, said, “Why don’t you buy something?” I was totally taken aback. I had never collected anything that was not in my family’s vocabulary, ie something that I had lived with at some time in my formative years.

Admittedly I was confused. I had already been selling art to collectors for almost a decade and I had been guiding them. But now I needed to apply similar rules to myself. What part of photography did I respond to most? The early years? between the wars? post war? What represented quality in photography? Was a vintage print better than a later one? I felt the former must be better when I applied the rules of some of my fields such as Renaissance sculpture, but I remained unsure. Believe it or not in the 1970’s the image was still considered to be all that mattered. No one thought about vintage prints or investment. Great photos could be had for a few hundred dollars and original prints could even be found for $25.

Coming to the point of a first purchase is a very strange sensation. You become nervous, and worried about making the right decision, but you just have to make the plunge!

Believe it or not, as I handed over a check to Lee Witkin I realized that my first purchase was a mistake: two famous Edward Western still lives, printed by his son Cole. I should have waited to get vintage prints by the father. Today, my prints are probably worth 10 plus times what I paid for them, but the images printed by Edward Weston himself would be worth a hundred times more. Even more importantly, I would have gotten greater pleasure out of living with them. But I won’t de-accession them. They were my first lesson as a collector in my own right!