Interview conducted and condensed by Jeff Bailey
What’s hot among auction buyers?
Midcentury modern furniture is one thing that’s hot right now, which can mean that it’s overpriced. If people like English and French furniture, they should buy it now because it’s relatively cheap. But really, people shouldn’t buy something just because it’s hot. You need to discover what you really like—paintings, furniture, jewelry, whatever. Invest some time learning about these things and then buy what pleases you. The first rule of collecting: Only buy things you like, because you can never be guaranteed they will be a good investment.
So what’s fashionable shouldn’t trump what’s tasteful?
Some people think they don’t even know what they like. One way to determine what you like is simply to go to a museum and walk around. Or get an art history book. And pretty soon you’ll realize that you do know what you like. You like abstract expressionists? Buy the best John Little painting you can afford instead of a poor-quality Willem de Kooning.
An artist’s best work tends to appreciate. We always recommend buying the best of a lesser-priced artist rather than the worst of a higher-priced artist. Among Chicago imagists, buy a great Jim Nutt, not a bad Ed Paschke; British sculpture—buy a great Lynn Chadwick, not a bad Henry Moore; watches—buy a stainless steel Patek Philippe, not an 18-karat-gold Movado; crystal—buy a top-of-the-line Steuben rather than a lower-end Tiffany. You get the idea.
How does a know-nothing like me follow art prices?
It’s easier to follow the art market now, including what sold for how much, than it was in 1982, when I first opened an auction house, thanks to sites like Artnet.com, Artfact.com, AskART.com, Artprice.com, and Artinfo.com.
Auctions seem so dramatic. Do regular people belong at one?
We have 30 to 40 auctions a year, and some people are intimidated because of what they’ve seen on television or in the press—all those very, very high-end auctions in New York or London. People call and ask me, “What should I wear?” Wear whatever you’re wearing, I say. You can buy something for $5,000 or even $500 at auction. At a jewelry auction we had in September, we sold a 7.52-carat diamond ring, beautifully set in platinum, for $268,000, but we also sold a group of coral necklaces for $223.20.
What do you buy?
Oh God, please don’t ask me what I collect. I don’t buy anything. I can’t afford what I really would like to own, like a Mark Rothko or Franz Kline painting. I have a drawing that looks like a Franz Kline—it’s from the fifties, and it cost $5,000. Mostly I have a lot of taxidermy. My friend Mike Sneed, the Sun-Times columnist, always hits her head on the mounted zebra head that sticks out of my dining room wall. She hates it. For some reason, it appeals to me.
Photography: Bob Stefko
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