Conversations on Collecting, with Donald B. Marron

We found this discussion with Donald B. Marron, organised and held at Frieze London last winter, not only inspiring but also practical and informative.  Here we set out, in condensed form, the key messages from the hour-long lecture and discussion session: “Conversations on Collecting”.

Who was the speaker?
Donald B. Marron
Born in 1934

American financier, private equity investor and entrepreneur who, in 2000, engineered the sale of Paine Webber to UBS

Whilst at Paine Webber, he spent over 30 years assembling a corporate collection of post war art.

He is a previous President of the Board of Trustees of MOMA and is currently their President Emeritus
What were his main messages for collectors in the context of today’s market?

  1. You have got to have passion for some aspect of the work you’re buying. Some people can only refer to their art in terms of how much money they’ve made on it. You always need to ask yourself, if the value of the work declines – how would your heart feel about the art?
  2. Do your homework. This is a world which is so easy to research nowadays.
  3. Be in touch with the people who really know about the art you’re interested in. Curators are good, but the reality is that you need to know the good dealers. The good dealers are those who are also good collectors.
  4. Know that if you want to buy work of art, you should make sure you’ve seen all the available works of art by that artist before you buy. It’s an absolute ‘killer’ if you’ve just bought something by a particular artist and walk down the street and find something better by the same person.
  1. Get the books, do the homework and you’re 95% of the way there.
  1. The best way to communicate to a seller that you’re serious is not to show them that you have a lot of money, but to show them you know something about them and what they’re interested in.
  1. It’s useful to build relationships with institutions and auction houses. “Great institutions become great by the audiences they serve and the people who support them.” Associate or junior curators can often make time for collectors. “Auction houses call a lot of their staff experts. Only a few of them are.”  It’s important to find the right people within auction houses.
  1. Don’t let your collection dominate your marriage or household.
  1. Don’t allow your collection to get to a point where it takes on a life of its own and makes demands upon you as a collector. Don’t buy things you don’t like, just because it fits in your collection.

What’s his definition of a ‘classic artist’?

  1. Original
  1. Creates works that others follow
  1. Is able to move from one genre to another

How does he see the current market?

He noted two trends, the first reflecting changes in (U.S.) society and the second, involving changes internationally.

  1. U.S. society has moved on from aspiring to have washing machines and two cars in the driveway … Such that the only two categories of real distinction left now are education and culture. What’s happened in the art world is a natural progression from that. People are no longer content with having a reproduction on the wall, and this has caused the art market to evolve into something much bigger.
  1. It used to be the case that major artists would consider themselves successful when they had pieces of their work in the major New York museums. That has now changed. Every country in the world has museums aspiring to collect works of a similar calibre to (for example) MOMA, and at the same time artists want their art in a broader range of the best museums.

These two factors have created a ‘funnel effect’ which has driven up prices in the fine art market.