The russian oligarch raises his black plastic auction paddle vigorously to bid $1 million for an Andy Warhol camouflage painting. It’s a good painting at a good price—a starter Warhol—but someone else is willing to go to almost $1.5 million. So the oligarch decides to be patient.
Despite his wealth, no one recognizes him on this spring evening at Phillips de Pury. After all, he’s just one of the many anonymously rich people who have joined the ranks of art collectors. This past June in London, 21 percent of the buyers at Sotheby’s contemporary-art sale had never registered for a paddle before. Here in New York, Phillips is the place where many new collectors come to take down their first auction kill. But with all the new money in the room clamoring to be heard, the din is awful, and the Russian is outbid on several lots.
His best buy, though, is not a work of art at all: The Guggenheim Foundation is auctioning a week at the Hotel Cipriani with special access to parties and events during the Venice Biennale—invaluable entrée for any newcomer. Sitting next to the Russian is Kim Heirston, 44, his art adviser, who’s bidding for another client but quickly reaches her limit. Curious, the oligarch leans over to inquire about the details. Then he tells Heirston to buy it, leaving his own paddle in his lap: $30,000 … $35,000 … $40,000 … she raises her paddle a final time—$45,000—and he’s in.
Kim Heirston stands out in the art world, and not just because she is an African-American woman. At six feet tall without heels, she’d be rather visible even without the oversize sunglasses and rock-star shag. “She’s one of the top-tier art advisers,” says Lisa Dennison, who was the director of the Guggenheim until she went over to Sotheby’s, “and she has a very strong presence, so when you’re visiting galleries, going to dinners, going to museums, going to art fairs, going anywhere in the world—you see her.”
Perhaps that is why, after demoralizing first encounters with artists and dealers, new collectors seek her out. People with money can be quite naïve about how the art market works. Just because you can afford that painting doesn’t mean you can buy it. The artist Richard Prince has received e-mails from new collectors asking him where to get one of his nurse paintings, one of which, Dude Ranch Nurse #2, sold at Sotheby’s in May for $2.5 million (another goes on sale at Christie’s next week). “I immediately understand that they don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “That doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m not an educator. Really, that’s where Kim comes in.”
Heirston is quite quick to recall her clients’ tales of woe: “ ‘I was in this gallery two years ago, and I couldn’t get them to answer a question,’ ” she says. “ ‘They were really rude to me. Now, I come in with you and I get whisked into the inner chambers!’ ”
“I don’t think most of her clients could walk into my studio or my gallery and just say, ‘Gee, can I buy this thing?’ ” Prince says. “But if she walks in … It’s almost as if we’re selling to her, rather than to her client.”
The operation goes beyond getting clients access to new work directly from artists and their primary dealers. Heirston also guides them through the private market, that vast network of mostly secret dealings. Say you own an important painting that you want to sell quietly. A dealer will contact known collectors of that artist—or art advisers who work with other interested collectors. But on the private market, prices are the product of rumor and incomplete information. An art adviser with a strong network becomes a valuable form of insurance against buying the wrong piece at the wrong price.
“For the fee,” says Aby Rosen, the New York developer and collector, of the 10 percent commission Heirston takes on all purchases, “you get such security that you don’t mind paying.” (Rosen’s collection is so extensive that it has to be rotated among his commercial properties, including Lever House and the Core Club; storage; and his homes. “I took a truck with eighteen pictures out to my place in Southampton and rehung it,” he says. “It’s like a totally new house.”)
Security is more important than ever in today’s uncertain but still raging market. During the London sales in June, Damien Hirst became the world’s most valuable living artist when someone paid nearly $20 million for Lullaby Spring, an elaborate piece that looks like an oversize medicine cabinet filled with brightly colored pills. Did the new collector who bought it know that a nearly identical companion piece had sold just five weeks earlier for one-third the price? Did he care?