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Watching Paint Fry


Piotr Uklanski's Untitled (Crayon Shavings) (2000) purchased by a client.   

Everyone agrees that new collectors are driving the market. Their appetites have also swelled the ranks of art advisers—many of whom are accused of not knowing enough about art. But seasoned advisers are caught in the surprising position of being skeptics about today’s numbers. “I think that there will be a correction,” Heirston says. “I don’t think it will be catastrophic, but who knows?” On the other hand, many dealers think the greater “depth” in the market now—meaning more collectors from a broader geographical base—is just what will cushion any fall.

“Most of the people I work with will continue to collect,” says Heirston. “Perhaps not at the same rate; perhaps not with the same urgency.” Besides, a buyer’s market works in her favor. It restores power to collectors who have seen themselves priced out of million-dollar Lisa Yuskavage paintings.

And like any good financial consultant, Heirston is also preaching diversification: “I personally think that people will start looking more closely at the old masters,” she says. Having seen works by Andrea del Sarto or a Reynolds portrait on display at the Maastricht art fair for prices “that were staggeringly reasonable,” she has started to think about pitching a collecting strategy that combines old and new. “My dream is to get someone to understand that they can have a Turner and a Rothko,” she says. “Or a Currin and a Gainsborough.”

The hottest corner of the contemporary-art market at the moment, though, is Chinese painting, where prices have hit multimillion-dollar levels. And that does worry Heirston: “What gives me pause are reports of 100 studio assistants and big factories.”

Heirston’s admirers cite her relentless hard work and penchant for self-improvement. (Rivals whisper about buying art like shopping.) She has an unsurprisingly active social life: She holds lunches for twelve to fifteen ladies in her garden in Bridgehampton, and she’s squired Salman Rushdie to her friend Denise Rich’s ball. She met her husband, Richard Evans, an Australian real-estate investor, at a gala at Rich’s house in the Hamptons; they were married twelve weeks later.

Raised in Huntington, Long Island, by a single mother who had divorced Kim’s father when Kim was 3, Heirston was always caught between her parents’ differing expectations for her future: Her mother had a close-knit circle of like-minded bohemian friends; her father wanted her to become a lawyer. A tall string bean of a kid, she excelled in school, especially the sciences. But when she went to Yale, her dream wasn’t to be a doctor but an actress. Something akin to stage fright put an end to that.

“I don’t think most of her clients could walk into my gallery and just say, ‘Gee, can I buy this thing?’ ”

After Yale, she flirted with a museum position but instead progressed through a series of gallery jobs. Eventually, she became the director of the Stux Gallery and attracted the eye of several collectors who offered to back her as a dealer. But during the art-world slump of the early nineties, opening a gallery seemed like a bad idea. Instead, Heirston proposed to one Italian client that she become his adviser as he built an important collection.

Together they commissioned a then-little-known Damien Hirst to do a sheep in formaldehyde. The work cost the collector about $60,000; it sold in 2006 at auction for more than $3 million.

At the beginning of Heirston’s relationship with a client, particularly an unseasoned one, she acts almost like a decorator. She’ll walk her charge through different painters, periods, and styles. When it comes time to buy, she becomes more of a real-estate agent, providing independent condition reports and checking prices against comparable works (not to mention herding spouses, architects, and decorators toward a picture that she can get approval to buy). Once a collector is firmly established, the adviser morphs into something more akin to an investment banker—always chasing the next deal.

All the while, in one of the more unregulated markets in the modern world, Heirston is accumulating her own body of intelligence about who owns what and how much they paid for it. From her townhouse on the Upper East Side, she sits watching a significant portion of the art market flow by. During the auctions, she and her team will attend all the sales, recording prices and identifying bidders. She gets an early look at a lot of paintings because dealers know she won’t burn the picture by showing it indiscriminately. A loose JPEG can get around quickly—and spoil the market for a painting.

But just because she doesn’t burn paintings doesn’t mean she can’t get burned. Heirston’s dogged pursuit of Eric Fischl to do the portrait of a fashion-designer client lasted for over four years. When she finally persuaded the artist to paint the client and his wife, Fischl warned, “I don’t do flattering.” Nonetheless, the client balked upon seeing the finished product, says Heirston, and refused to go forward with the deal. Nor, she adds, would he allow her to creatively dispose of the work with a European collector and save the awkward embarrassment with the artist.

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