Art adviser Lisa Schiff works with Hollywood stars to build their collections © Pascal Perich
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — except when it comes to art advisers. These experts view paintings and sculptures through the eyes of their clients when building collections for them. Art is so subjective that being guided by a stranger seems unnatural. But the art market can be a minefield and, judging by their sheer numbers, advisers are playing an important role in helping collectors to navigate their way towards the best art.

So, what does an adviser do? More importantly, why do collectors go to them?

Lisa Schiff, whose clients include Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, says: “My main job is to make the art world transparent, to help empower collectors. It’s such a complex world and very opaque. If you’re in it every day, it becomes second nature . . . When people come in, they often leave quickly because they feel threatened, make mistakes, or they’re taken advantage of. So I’m trying to help people understand . . . and enjoy it.”

Advisers get to know an individual, and perhaps their family, to sense their taste, character and what they want out of collecting. Their role may include everything from due diligence and checks on provenance and condition, to organising security and shipping, framing and lighting.

Schiff says: “It takes sitting down in their homes, spending time talking to them, getting a feel for what their aesthetic is, how important investment is.”

But the investment side has become problematic, she adds, recalling “the old days” when there was a pleasant surprise if a purchase turned out to be a good investment: “Now it’s something calculated from the beginning . . . What it’s done is create a laser-focus on auction results.

“No one wants to spend half a million dollars and know that it’s going down the drain. But, if everyone is basing their decision-making on investment, based on what’s trading at auction, then we’re going to be buying and selling five artists who, most of the time, aren’t even that good . . . The most important thing is really trying to make things transparent.”

Lisa Schiff in her office in front of a print of the artwork ‘Privilege 5/3/2016’ by artist Amalia Ulman © Pascal Perich

Based in New York, with associates in Los Angeles and London, she specialises in contemporary and modern art. Many of her clients are keen to learn about “everything that’s happening in the art world”, travelling to fairs and exhibitions. Like many art advisers, she often accompanies them.

Many of them seek advice because they have busy careers and little time to shop for art. “So many people buy from jpegs now or online and just trust us,” Schiff says. “That used to be a really shocking thing to do.”

She started advising DiCaprio through a friend’s introduction. She spoke of his passion for art: “He’s a collector all the way through. If he has a day off, he’ll just get on a bike and go to galleries . . . If he wants to consider [a purchase], he’ll call and say, ‘will you go look at this; let’s talk about it?’ ”

David Mach’s ‘Buddha’ was also part of Sting and Trudie Styler’s auction at Christie’s © Getty

She has other show-business clients, as well as people from the worlds of property and hedge funds. How does she stop her own taste from influencing her decisions for others?

“It’s really interesting that you ask that question. At some point, I saw that I was building the same collection over and over again . . . I didn’t even know I was doing it. I consciously took a step back and had to change how I was functioning. My taste has grown from working for people who have completely different aesthetics. It’s something a lot of advisers fall into and you don’t even realise you’re doing it. My own taste has expanded. You separate different collectors in your head.”

The best advisers can open doors to some of the world’s most sought-after works. Melanie Clore and Henry Wyndham have an extraordinary network of contacts. They were joint chairpeople of Sotheby’s Europe. Clore ran its Impressionist and Modern art; Wyndham was its chief auctioneer. They have now launched an advisory company in London, managing collections and orchestrating sales between collectors of the finest art.

They focus primarily on Impressionist, modern and contemporary masters, but they will know where to go if someone wants a Rembrandt or another great Old Master.

When I recently visited their elegant Mayfair offices, there were two striking pictures on show — a beautiful view by Frank Auerbach of Mornington Crescent, a London street built in the 1820s, and a tiny jewel of a painting by Picasso.

Clore says: “Because we were in the auction business for a very long time, we know a lot of works. People come to us because they want discretion.”

While many collectors prefer to buy art in private, away from the public drama of auctions, sellers may not want the world to know that they are selling something, she adds: “That 1914 Picasso has never been on the market. Its owners want it to be placed and it’s now under offer to a collector of works like that. So we know who would be interested. We can just quietly place it and it’s not about making a noise.”

With some collectors, advisers are on a retainer. For others, they broker deals or search for particular works, for which they receive a commission. Some clients have inherited collections and need advice.

Wyndham says of an art adviser’s role: “You’re filtering. The person who comes to you has obviously got some money to spend . . . It’s important to find out what their taste is first of all. I don’t think you can dictate their taste. But what you can do is point them in the right direction.

“If they like, for instance, Monet, you want to make sure they buy a good Monet rather than a bad one. The mistakes that people make without good advice are huge. You can buy a bad Monet for $8m and you’ll be left with it for the rest of your life. So the important thing is the filtering system, the editorial control. That’s what we do and maybe open their ideas to artists . . . they don’t know.”

Art advisers used to be art historians such as Bernard Berenson, who guided the great American collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. But the huge increase in wealthy buyers has seen a rise in the number of art advisers. There are thousands of them. And not everyone is happy about that.

Insisting on anonymity, one art expert says: “There are so many art advisers who don’t know anything about art. There are people who think that because they’re very social and know a lot of people who buy art that validates them being an art adviser?”

Patrick Legant, who worked at Sotheby’s for 10 years, is an adviser specialising in 20th-century German and Austrian art, among other areas. He says: “The art adviser is not a regulated profession, so there’s no way of counting art advisers.”

He sits on the board of the Association of Professional Art Advisers, which has a strict code of ethics for its 150 international members. It frowns, for example, on taking commission from both buyers and sellers.

Good advisers help collectors avoid the pitfalls. In a market blighted by forgeries, it is all the more important “to know how to do your due diligence, what to ask, what to check, which expert to contact”, Legant points out.

Another leading adviser is Sara Pearce, whose clients include Sting and Trudie Styler. She was responsible for the successful sale of some of their collection at Christie’s last year as they were moving from their large family home in London and spending more time in New York.

She describes her profession as “a mixture of having your ear to the ground” in the art world and “understanding your clients and their tastes, introducing other ideas and aesthetics which they might not have considered before and listening to them about their interests. With our clients, it’s always been a two-way dialogue. Very often, when they come to us, they’ve achieved a lot in their own lives and they are often very time-poor. We fill that void for them.”

Art adviser Sara Pearce © Pascal Perich

Beth Greenacre was art adviser to rock star David Bowie for 17 years until his death last year. Although she had other clients, she worked particularly closely with him, negotiating purchases, organising loans, conservation and displays.

“Somebody with David’s brain and knowledge doesn’t need that much advising,” she says. With other collectors, it can be “about leading, advising and teaching”.

Bowie had worked with Kate Chertavian previously and knew what he liked. Often he would have done a lot of the research already, she says, recalling his particular love for Auerbach’s Head of Gerda Boehm: “He said that it could fill him with angst or joy, depending how he approached it in the morning.”

But how do advisers react when their client wants to buy something they regard as hideous?

“Hideous is one thing, bad is another,” Schiff says. One collector paid $50,000 for a work that she actively disliked and told them so: “They still bought it and are happy. But they appreciated I was honest with them.”

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.