Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Should I Collect ?

What should I collect? How do I know what is good?  What is the right price?  All these questions come to art professionals on a regular basis.

The first question cannot be answered by anyone aside from your self.  If the question is asked from an investment point of view no honest art person will answer because they do not know.  I have collected in some areas that have gone down in value, while one has risen dramatically, and  that was photography. Even there I will have to sell at the right time if I wish to profit from it, which is never my goal, though one can be seduced by the concept.

I thought by way of example of what goes through our heads from the professional and collector’s point of view. I will take some concrete examples and explain why we bought the art.  Since it is our most recent collection this will be about Native American Art, though the concepts apply to all areas of art.  We went to a silent auction to benefit the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe.  People crowd in and have a half hour to decide what they like and can bid until the director says stop and the top bid written on a sheet “wins”.  The guide to the pricing is usually done on the basis of the valuation given the piece upon donation.  Since these are often from dealers they have the sales price as a guide.

A couple of years ago we took my son-in-law to Indian Market and on my wife’s recommendation he bought a ceramic jar by a Navajo Artist, Alice Cling.  I loved it because of its smooth texture mottled deep brown color and delicate curves.  Still in our family it is my wife who is in charge of ceramics and her interest are in the Hopi pieces.  Now, however, at this silent auction was a Cling jar that I found equally attractive to the one I saw when my son-in-law bought it.  The starting bid was $300 and Buy Now Price (if you paid immediately it would be taken out of the auction and it was yours) was $650.  I soon learned why upon turning the jar over I saw a price tag that said $570.  So the Buy Now price was 10+% more.  I thought, not much to lose if I put down a minimum bid of $300.  Then, of course, I worried, if someone put their number on the next increment, would I put in another bid?  I kept changing my mind on that.  On the other hand there was a Katsina doll I left a minimum bid on and never looked back.  I knew I did not want to compete for it.  I had decided, however, that I would not chase the Cling to the full price.  To my total astonishment no one else bid and I got it for the minimum.  I have examined the piece several times and I can find no defect in the pot.  I guess, that for whatever reason, no one who was interested in Navajo ceramics was there that day.

That was the end of my bargain hunting for this season.  At one of the fairs we went to this summer a dealer who we had bought from in the past, Philip Garaway from California.  He had a Katsina doll with a surprise underneath its breechcloth.  Traditionally at Hopi these dolls are given to little girls to teach about the tribe’s religion and familiarize them with the hundreds of different Katsinim.  Though several tribes have made dolls the Hopi are probably best known for theirs, partly because they have made them for trade as well.  This has allowed, though not with universal approval, the doll makers some latitude, in that not all the dolls are representative of the Katsinim.   There was a tendency starting around mid 20th century to make the traditionally stylized dolls more anatomically correct action figures to appeal to the Anglo market.  As you can imagine, though this concept reached a high in the 1970’s and 80’s few were carved with such details and they were not widely distributed since there would be a limited market.  I remember that we saw one being carved on the reservation in the 90’s with a big fuss being made about showing it to us.  Like Philip Garaway’s doll, it was a Kokopelli, the fertility Katsina.  What added to the seduction for me was that Garaway had bought it back from a vice-president of Hearst publishing whom he had sold it to years before.  You may be surprised to hear that it was my wife who picked it out but then she looks for the unusual object not necessarily the sensual one.  No reason we can’t each have a different reason to acquire an object.

One of the most gratifying things one can do is upgrade.  There are different kinds of opportunities but availability is obviously the most important.  Sometimes, it is also what you can afford at the time.  Teri Greeves, as I have said in various places before, is a superb bead worker and my wife bought a simple bracelet from her at Indian Market years ago.  It was a modest bracelet for a modest sum and one could see a number of others around town.  We have followed Teri’s work, seen life size beading on canvas with images of people without faces making them even more powerful, and seen her bracelets become more and more elaborate.  So here at Indian Market, as I mentioned last week, was an opportunity to spend many times as much as on the first bracelet but get not just a much larger bracelet but a tour de force, a real work of art.  It is made with seed pearls and 24 karat gold beads imported from the Czech Republic where Teri believes that the best beads are made, definitely an upgrade!

Over more than two decades of collecting we have sought to build a good representation of every aspect of Hopi art, so today our acquisitions in this area are more selective.  We are now starting to branch out to acquire outstanding works from Native artists of other tribes.

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