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The results of the auction of the Refco photography collection produced one of the few pleasant surprises that have come the way of the bankrupt commodities trader’s creditors. Christie’s conducted three sales between April 24 and May 10 that raised more than $9.7m, almost 50 per cent more than pre-sale estimates and about three times what the collection cost to assemble, mostly between 1998 and 2003. That leaves the creditors only a few hundred million dollars to go in filling the black hole in Refco’s accounts.

The money raised was the main focus of the creditors, of course, but there were also some interesting lessons for the rest of the art collecting world, and corporate collectors in particular.

The first is that while caution and conservatism make good sense when conducting legal and regulatory compliance, they don’t serve as well as boldness and experimentation in putting together an art collection. That applies to both the commercial and aesthetic considerations. Who wants to buy something boring, and who wants to look at it?

“We never felt the collection functioned in any way as the typical corporate collection,” says Adam Brooks, Refco’s former curator. Mr Brooks, with Frances Dittmer, the wife of the former chairman of Refco, assembled the collection in two stages. The first, taking place from the early 1990s to 1997, comprised several media, including photography, painting, and sculpture. The second, which spanned 1998 to 2003, concentrated on “works of art in the photographic medium”, in Mrs Dittmer’s words.

As she explains: “The company incurred losses during the Asian currency crisis of 1997 and the board thought it would look bad to have art on the walls in the middle of layoffs.” The paintings and sculptures were sold in an orderly fashion but she and Mr Brooks held on to a core of photographs. When the crisis faded in 1998, the board allowed them to resume acquisitions, even after Mr Dittmer’s departure from the company.

By then Mrs Dittmer had developed standing of her own with the board. In the second phase, however, the pair decided to concentrate on photography, which, given the way the art form and the market developed, turned out to be a smart or lucky move.

The border between photography and contemporary art has become progressively more out of focus, you could say, in recent years, due to developments in both technology and artistic technique.

The two technologies that changed photography in the 1990s were high resolution, large-scale, ink jet printers and user-friendly commercial software for the digital manipulation of images. There had been lower resolution billboard size photographs for years but the combination of size and high resolution put the big photo on the elite living room or office wall. At the same time, the computerised manipulation of images migrated from big budget government agencies and Hollywood laboratories to work­stations and graphics shops accessible to artists.

Developments in artistic technique soon followed, just as the open air painting of the Impressionists was made possible by ready mixed paint in lead tubes. Some of the more commercially minded high-end photographers were already thinking about how they could move the medium on to a different level. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, who had made a good living as a portraitist for society women, managed to profitably transform himself from salon pet to transgressive artist with his sexually charged photographs

But these were still traditional photographs, if rather edgy ones. Commercially, prices were moving up but not to the levels of painting or sculpture. “Works of art in the photographic medium” were, by the 1990s, leapfrogging over them in the market. As Mr Brooks explains: “It is the difference between taking a camera out into the world and waiting for something to happen and capturing it, and starting out with the idea, setting something up in a studio, or a performance activity, or manipulating activities in front of a camera and injecting a theatrical notion. It’s about premeditation and creating something for the camera.”

Also, the collectors of photographic art were a different breed. Traditional collectors of photography were more concerned with vintage, the condition of a print, and who made it, none of which are important in a digitised world. Instead, the photographic art collectors were, as Mrs Dittmer says, looking for “very serious works of art that were conceptual in nature”.

This fitted with the technological bent of the new money drawn to contemporary art.

Now, if you’re a standard issue MBA or a corporate bureaucrat you are not going to attempt to sell management on a commitment to conceptual art. For that you have to be somewhat immune to, or indifferent to, office politics. Mrs Dittmer was just such a person. So, interestingly, were a number of the other assemblers of the more successful corporate collections. We know the most about the collections of companies that got overleveraged or went bankrupt, because those estates were sold in full public view. Among these were the Enron collection, one of whose sponsors was Mrs Andrew Fastow.

Another example is Phyllis Lambert, née Bronfman, who assembled the Seagram collection. That was sold to cover part of Vivendi-Universal’s overleverage.

For that matter, Phillip Bennett, Refco’s last chief executive, had a respectable art collection. He also gave strong support to Brooks and Dittmer.

In contrast, many corporate collections go for the tried and true. That is to say, art that has already made its statement and gone to sleep. While this makes for easier PowerPoint presentations, it is neither interesting nor profitable.

One other point about the sales of art from corporate bankruptcy estates: they tend to be better managed than sales by non-distressed collectors. Lawyers and creditors tend to leave the pricing and presentation to the auction houses, because an arm’s length approach protects them from accusations of mismanagement. This works out better than the micromanaging and niggling of many clients who try to play amateur auctioneer. The auction houses are not charitable institutions but whatever their faults they only get paid when the consigners do well.

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