Ask an Expert: How to Buy Art (That You’ll Actually Care About)
It’s no surprise that, with the massive popularity of Art Basel Miami and pop culture’s constant fascination with art, interest in this area has risen at a steady crescendo over the years to a fever pitch. But long before today’s mainstream culture professed its love for the art world, Marla Wasser was out searching the corners of the earth for the rare gems that would enrich her client’s lives. In many ways, her company, Pursuits Inc., is just that — a boutique advisory and curatorial firm in pursuit of the world’s most special pieces for the sole purpose of uniting them with their rightful owners, her clients. Think of Wasser as a guru. One that can teach you a thing or two about growing a collection that you’ll actually give a damn about.
What got you into the art world?
I started collecting about 30 years ago with my husband Larry [Wasser] as an extension of who we were in our twenties and early thirties. It was nothing really significant and more just wanting to be educated and go down those paths. If you love art it just becomes a huge part of your life. We started to make these really incredible relationships and friends in the art world internationally that became a big part of our lives. Then, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do at the next stage in my life (because I was also in the fashion business), I thought, “Okay, why don’t I take this passion that was a hobby and think about doing it professionally?”, which I ended up doing in 2007. But really the catalyst for that was in my relationships out in the world. I would ask all of the galleries and my friends what was happening in Canada, who they were working with in Canada or what business were they doing in Canada and sadly everybody was like, “We have nothing going on.” So, I thought this was an incredible opportunity to start by building a bridge from Canada out to the world. My two exhibitions — the Andy Warhol exhibition and RAM: Rethinking Art & Machine — are all international artists. So, I am bringing that world into Canada as a really important educational tool. And then, I am building these bridges for collectors to feel comfortable and supported, and opening all these doors. They love it, and I’m loving it because I’m able to curate and create these incredible collections together with them. It’s just been amazing.
Do you work mostly with contemporary artists or the whole gamut across the board?
As you’ll see from the Warhol show, there’s a very strong basis of pop [art]. I’ve got a foundation of pop; some people would say I’m a Warhol expert. I would say, from the sixties on, it’s pop, and then a very strong influence of the contemporary as well. I’m very involved in the contemporary international art world.
Are there any Canadian artists that are on your radar right now?
I hate to answer questions like that because I support all artists. Because, when I’m working — whether with a museum or an individual — if you were my client, it would be more about getting into your headspace, your personality and what you connect with in life. And then, from there we take your vision and I’m the one that opens the doors to say, “hey, you need to look at this and this and this”.
One Canadian artist I can talk about, because I’m very excited about him, is a man named William Fisk. CBC is doing a documentary on him that’s going to be shown at TIFF. He’s going to be moving down to a major US gallery but he’s not even known in Canada! He’s somebody that, when I went to his studio and I saw his work, it was like nobody was doing anything like it. And he’s been working for 25 years. That’s somebody that I’m celebrating because he’s finding this path to success that he deserves, it’s very validated.
Do you see trends and movements in the art world similar to fashion?
That’s true but that’s not what I support because those trends can go up very quickly and fall even more quickly. This isn’t just about high-end art or blue chip art, this is about everything. It’s about having an instinct towards artists. It’s past the point of talent because everybody’s talented in their own way. It’s so subjective. I really care about the value in the artist’s career that they are creating and how that’s looked upon in the world from a place of galleries, museums or collectors. What’s happening around that artist? What’s the artist’s process? How long have they been working? How dedicated are they to that?
How does the dynamic work between you and a client? What if they don’t know what kind of art they are into?
What’s interesting about what you just said is in today’s culture people do usually have an idea of what they like because they are so inundated with social media. To see the records that are being created, whether it’s Warhol, Lichtenstein or Picasso, people are totally surrounded by art. When I’m meeting with a new client they are not necessarily sitting there and saying, “well, I want to collect this”, but what they are saying is I love art. And I say great, this is perfect. That’s all that needs to start. Then what I normally do is I go into their environment and see how they live, what they like, what they read and what their interests are. If it’s a fashion person, his interest isn't necessarily fashion but it could be very pop culture because that segues. Tech people, you think that they like tech but they live in that world so it’s interesting to show them the relationship between art-related technology, but they could also be into pop. So, you sit down and just talk to them to understand their interests. Then I have them come to my office and I have a library of books, or we go to the AGO. One client was loving this whole Group of Seven thing and I arranged for him to meet Matthew, the director, who walked the couple through to see what they gravitated to. Of course, there are great Canadian contemporary artists that are channeling the Group of Seven. So you don’t have to buy Group of Seven for 1.2 million dollars. It gives me an idea by walking through, looking at photography and going to openings.
There are so many different mediums that you can use as well.
And a lot of times they are really open. So, that’s very exciting too, within the process. I’ve met clients at art fairs and we just go there completely open, and they end up buying from cultures that they would never have thought of before just because they didn't know or understand what they were going to see. And by that experimentation you go into that world; that’s the most important thing. I think being an advisor and that educational person standing beside you, you just feel so much more comfortable. Even the Toronto Art Fair, you’d walk out of there and you would feel really great because you would have learned so much in a way. And that has nothing to do with buying, it’s about this educational process of learning.
With each of your clients is it very different between clients in terms of the experience and the time that it takes for them to end up buying art or do they always end up buying art. How does that process work?
It’s very individual. With me, at a certain point there is that trust that my clients will actually buy over the internet. I go to Basel, Switzerland and I get them to a place of education so that when I see something when I am anywhere in the world I can send it to them over the internet and say, “you need to think about this, this will be amazing”. I walk around with my clients’ floorplans and their wall sizes so that way, if I see something really fantastic, I can already visualize. The other thing I do — and I don’t think a lot of other people do this — is I photoshop the artwork directly into their homes so that they can see how that creates relationships with other things in their home. I almost make it to a place where you are so comfortable with the idea of having it in your home that it’s breaking down these barriers around stepping in. I encourage my clients when they travel to go into art galleries and go to museum exhibitions. Then what happens is, if they see something they love, they send it to me. I do an entire analysis of that piece and the gallery to make sure everything is perfect, the way I want it. Normally, they don’t always buy that piece because once I get into understanding what they like, it’s my job then to make sure that I’ve gone out to the market to find the best that I can in that genre, in that moment, of that artist and that I take care of the client.
Do you find that the interest in collecting art has grown over the years?
I think it’s grown huge. Art as an asset class has evolved in the last ten years and specifically really, really strongly in the past five years, which is why you are seeing all of these auction records. All the money that has come into the market from Russia and China, there’s certain financial issues that have impacted that but in the last five years, it’s gone crazy. In today’s New York Times there is a whole story about art as the largest asset for tax evasion because it’s completely unregulated. It has become the new asset class to take money out of countries and freely move around without anyone knowing.
Do you find that with the increase in popularity of things like Art Basel and its presence in popular music has contributed to more knowledge and education amongst consumers?
I would not say Basel, Switzerland is because [it] really is a cultural event, but Miami Basel is just this crazy party; it’s known for that. So, if my clients are going to go there, it’s overwhelming. It’s not an educational place to learn. It’s a place for inspiration, which is a very important starting point. But it’s hard to be educated because if you were just a starter collector and walked through there, there’s no chance to learn properly. The dealers and gallerists, they’re so busy and they’re interested in selling. Where you’re going to get this education is to go into the galleries. That is the most beautiful place as a collector to educate yourself; to create conversations, to look at and learn. These fairs are fantastic for inspiration, to see things that you may like that you can then go to after for research.
What are the hallmarks that you look for when you are looking to use art as an investment?
There’s three different categories of artists. You’ve got the emerging artists, which are the very young artists who are going to be in the lower price point. You’ve got the mid-career artists and then you’ve got the blue-chip. I definitely feel strongly about stepping into mid-career. Emerging, I would say, is not investment; emerging is for love. It’s probably under $10,000 and it’s something you want to own because you love it and maybe you’re going to get lucky. Or, if you are working with an advisor buying emerging, they might be able to steer you even in a stronger way around that being an investment one day. But that’s not why you buy it. Mid-career involves artists that are established with good galleries, a moderate price-point and are already being collected by museums. That’s what I look for: where are their pieces going? Who’s collecting them? What exhibitions are they having? Have they had a mid-career retrospective? Is their body of work being celebrated anywhere? What’s their press? Are they being documented? All of these things build a beautiful foundation for a successful career. That’s all of the things I am looking for. And then, of course, the blue-chip, [like] Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter — they already have their proven historical place, so you know when you’re buying in if you’re buying a quality work in great condition. At that level, when you’re potentially talking hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars, there are definitely things that are important. Are they credible? Are they real? I bring in a team of appraisers to check. Where was the piece before? Has it been in a great collection? That’s called provenance. Condition is everything and the place in the career creates the value. So, for Andy Warhol the sixties are the most expensive. That’s the Marilyn [Monroe], the [Chairman] Mao, the Campbell [soup cans]; those are all millions and millions of dollars. The eighties are much less expensive because they are his later work. It’s also about the period of the artist because that’s also going to determine value. All of these things are very important to think about when you’re making a potential investment.
What kind of range is mid-career, roughly?
It just depends. Paintings and unique [pieces] are always going to be more expensive. For instance, there’s a photographer that I absolutely love, Richard Mosse. His photographs come in different edition sizes depending on their format and the price ranges from 10 thousand to 50 thousand USD. He's an incredibly strong mid-career artist and there are quite a few artists like that. Of course, affordable is relative and personal to the client but if you’re looking for an investment, then that would be something that [would be appropriate].
What factors do you look at in an artist to see if there is investment potential?
I look at their story. Am I attracted? Does it connect with me? What’s their process? Is what they are doing important? It’s not frivolous, it’s actually telling something important in the world. I always ask myself, is this artist going to be around in 30 years? That’s the most tricky question. That’s where you differentiate between the fads.
Do unique pieces have the most investment potential or does it depend on the individual artist, as well?
It really depends. We have an incredibly celebrated photographer here in Canada, Jeff Wall. He’s probably the most successful and important contemporary artist that’s a Canadian. Jeff Wall is blue-chip, he’s represented by one of the best galleries in the world. At auction, Wall's photograph editions set a record as the third most expensive ever sold. His pieces sell for millions and they are edition pieces, they are not unique. He’s an unusual situation. There are certain photographers, even though they have editions where they still sell for millions of dollars like the American Photographer Cindy Sherman. A unique is normally going to be more valuable because there is only one [which] makes it that much more special.
You mentioned that the art industry is unregulated. How do you navigate the issue of distinguishing between counterfeit and authentic pieces, such as the case with the Knoedler Gallery in New York?
That’s a great question because that’s an extremely reputable gallery. I know them well. What ended up being disputed in the background was that the collector that bought them, he was the chairman of Sotheby’s. He was very, very high level and counted on the sources and resources from the gallery because of their reputation. Because I’m an advisor, I’m the third party. The only person I work for is the client. My responsibility is not to take any information from the gallery because that’s theirs and I have the responsibility then to get my own [independent research]. Let’s take a Warhol piece, let’s say from the seventies, that looks like it’s in great condition. What happens today is, technology is so sophisticated that people can inpaint and recreate without being caught, it’s scary. So, I have conservators and Warhol experts in L.A. and New York step in with their special lights. They can see if there’s any inpainting. We examine the signature, we examine the paper. We have a whole list of criteria that we need to check mark off before I would even give the OK to my client. Lots of times it didn't work out. There’s been tears that have been fixed or inpainting, so I only rely on myself and my team of experts and that’s how I am able to protect my clients. For emerging artists, you don’t need to do that because it’s coming straight out of their studios. For mid-career artists when you’ve got a great relationship with the gallery, you can sometimes even go into the artist’s studio and see the work. This is more for artists that are no longer alive or art that’s really old coming from foundations or have been passed along. That’s when you really have to worry.
How can people get educated on caring for their art?
There was a mom-and-pop drug store that publically bought this iconic set of ten Marilyns that are going now for $2.5 million. It was a drug store but it had a beauty counter on one side, which is why the Marilyns were so beautiful and perfect. Well, they completely faded and went to garbage because nobody told them how to protect them. Hopefully, the gallery will tell the client buying the piece that any works on paper or photography cannot be in sunlight. Today, it’s more expensive but when you’re going to frame something you can buy UV protector glass. Even then it shouldn't be in sunlight. I’ve got clients whose homes are floor-to-ceiling glass and I just know even with UV protection any works on paper or photography are not allowed to go on those walls closest to windows.
How does the insurance and financing process work?
Insurance is an interesting thing because everybody is an individual. Some people understand insurance and some people don’t. Some people I know have incredible art collections they have not insured because they don't want to spend the money. An art advisor becomes part of the inner circle with the client, like an accountant, like their lawyer; there’s that trust factor. I look after that transaction from the moment the work is shared with the client until it’s on the wall and insured. And I take care of every step. With the insurance, basically what you have to do is insure for the cost of the piece but then I always tend to add the HST. Now, specially in the last six months, we are having serious currency issues. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, so I have clients who have a number of collections that were built when the currency was on par. Now I’ve had to readjust their collections to show the 25 per cent or the 30 per cent, the fluctuating currency. Otherwise, they are not accurately insured. If one of their artists has hit a new price point in the market after three years, I reevaluate and I raise their insurance. So, it’s constantly staying on top of their collection and making sure those are in tune with the market value and currency.
Do you have any standout moments with clients that reinforced your love for your job?
I would say just being part of their home. I don’t live in their home, obviously I step in and out. I think that the client’s love and connection for what we’ve created together as a collaboration makes me feel so proud and happy because they are so happy with the whole process. There isn’t one story I can share with you, it’s an evolution of stories.
For a first time collector, what are the main things one should be looking for when buying art?
The first thing is always the emotional connection, it's always the love. What happens is, you bring it into your home and because it’s coming into your living environment of your everyday life, it becomes an extension of you. It has to become something that not only you want to look at, but you want to think about and you want talk about. If somebody’s coming into your home and saying what’s that, you want to have this connection. The education is also really, really important if you are connected to this artist and you know their story. This photographer I was talking about, Richard Mosse goes into the Congo and he films and photographs Congo warriors. But he does it with this really special film called 'Colour Infrared' that create these beautifully coloured landscapes in hot pink and red hues. He contrasts the reality of war with the beauty of colour. This is a great story for you to tell and teach other people. That’s all about connecting and feeling it, and that’s where it has to start. Once you’ve done that, then you have to think about how much this is going to cost to buy and what you need to know to make a good decision around that. If you’re on your own, hopefully you're going to have this honest conversation with the gallery and they’re going to be able to tell you. Plus, you should be able to get a discount, you should know that.