Montabonel – Art Collecting and the Future of Culture

by | Interview

Sebastien Montabonel gives us some invaluable pointers on the ins and outs
of serious contemporary art collecting in the 21st century.

It hasn’t of course escaped our attention that art is now big business and all eyes are on this last unregulated legal market. Anyone who makes some serious money invests in art – including the banks themselves. Many of whom – like Deutsche Bank – have vast priceless collections. The number of galleries and international art fairs – like Frieze – has proliferated, while auction houses are at boiling point and breaking all boundaries. Christie’s recently set a world record for a single auction when works sold at its post-war and contemporary art sale, including Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis, amassed $853 million (£543 million). Similarly Sotheby’s successfully raised a combined $470 million from its New York impressionist and modern sales — the highest total for any auction in its history. The highlight was a Giacometti sculpture that broke the $100 million mark, only the second sculpture to do so, when it was bought by hedge-fund tycoon Steven Cohen. It’s no wonder therefore that many experts are predicting that the $1 billion-mark will soon be breached in the madness of a single night’s bidding.

How strikingly different the modern art collector is from his 18th and 19th century predecessor. The stratospheric prices that fine art has been attracting have come as investors regard it not just for personal pleasure or to demonstrate their level of learning or culture, but as an asset class in itself like equities, commodities or property that can offer a decent rate of return. But apart from the fact that investing in art can be just as hazardous as investing in anything else, aren’t we in danger of wrecking culture by commodifying it so blatantly?

It in this extraordinary environment that a highly specialised form of expert has emerged to advise the would-be art collector – and his services couldn’t be more pressing than they are now. Meet Sebastien Montabonel, whose independent art consultancy firm – Montabonel & Partners – advises the world’s foremost foundations, private collectors, museums, and international companies engaged in building collections of Post-War and Contemporary Art.

Montabonel‘s many years of experience as European Senior Specialist in Contemporary Photography at Phillips led him to collaborate with important private and corporate collections. In 2011 he advised Tate Modern on the acquisition of the Jacobson/Hashimoto Collection, enabling it to become the only museum in the West to hold the most comprehensive collection of vintage modernist Japanese photographs. His latest venture is as founder of Montabonel & Partners. (Montabonel has co-curated an exhibition Lewis Baltz with works by Carl Andre and Charlotte Posenenske, that just opened at Stills).

Montabonel has also been at the forefront of a highly significant new initiative – The Private Collector Project – to work with major collectors to explore the future of philanthropy, in the face of the double whammy of the eye watering cost of art today, and swinging cuts in the public art sector. In partnership with the Saatchi Gallery in London, he started showcasing influential private art collections to the general public, and orchestrated the first public display of the Franks-Suss Collection at the beginning of 2010.

Everyone’s potentially a winner in this exciting model that had its recent high profile outing in Sheffield (Going Public). Instead of gathering dust in huge dark warehouses, large private collections go on public display – often in the art starved regions. The tricky bit – that Montabonel acknowledges – is how to do this without compromising on integrity and quality; with the obvious danger that private collectors call all the shots and with public institutions cow towing even more to big money than they do now. The answer, according to Montabonel is for public institutions to set the ground rules now – while they still can.

There is no underestimating the fact that the future course of our entire culture will be entirely shaped by initiatives such as these if indeed they succeed, as seems more than likely – and Montabonel among others may well be helping to plot that exciting if perilous course.

We asked Montabonel to help us – and any aspiring art collectors – to navigate the choppy and frequently murky waters of the art world.

What is a good collection?

A good collection is one that presents a unique point of view and reflects the personality and interests of the collector. It has a curatorial vision and a well-researched foundation, and explores yet uncharted territories in order to expand knowledge. One of the common issues that collectors face in the globalised art world is that you can go from London to Hong Kong to Sao Paulo and see collections that are very similar to each other. Creating a diverse collection with a unique standpoint ensures not only the interest of museums, curators and other collectors worldwide, but it also gives it the opportunity to become part of the history of art and collecting.

What is a good collector?

A good collector is someone that collects with thought and consideration. S/he is supportive of the artists whose work he collects. S/he understands the responsibilities that being an art collector involves and the necessity to support public collections of museums and other not-for-profit art institutions. In short, a good collector understand s/he is part of a wider eco-system – the artworld – which necessitates and rewards their input and support.

Sol LeWitt, Serial Project. Montabonel and Partners.

Image: Sol LeWitt, Serial Project. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.

What are the collectors needs?

Every collector will need to ensure that they are buying smart. In order to achieve this you will need to have exceptional access to the art world and reliable validation, which comes as a result of the combination of having an established reputation and a long-term vision. The potential profit accrued through the sound investment is secondary to the authority and prestige afforded by building an important collection.

Image: Do Ho Suh’s “Wielandstr.18, 12159 Berlin” 2011 ©The Artist and Cattelain Collection. Photo by Nils Clauss

What you should expect from your advisor?

They should be able to make you an expert in the field of art by providing you with knowledge (art historical, technical, financial etc..). As you are the one who has the final word on what goes in or not in your collection, the more knowledgeable you are the better your collection will be. Your advisor will make sure that only the best works enter the collection. S/he will help you to evaluate the work and make sure you are achieving the best value for money. The advisor must at all times be able to give impartial, unbiased advice, they have to be trustworthy and transparent. They are essential in smoothing the path of what is, after all, an exciting journey of discovery.

Is this the right work to spend my money on?

Determining whether the work of art is the right one to acquire requires a number of factors that differ from collector to collector. Each successful collection has a subtle but indelible ‘signature’. Ultimately the work needs to fit into the collection and enhance its value. It is important to remain objective and assess all aspects of the work, whether it’s the correct year, medium, condition, series and to also be aware of what else is available for that price.

Dan Flavin, Monument for V.Tatlin 1969-70. Montabonel and Partners

Image: Dan Flavin, Monument for V.Tatlin 1969-70. Image courtesy of DACS.

What are the pitfalls in buying an expensive work of art?

It is crucial to follow the process of due diligence at all times when building a museum-quality art collection, and never avoid it. One of the common dangers in buying a work is not seeing it in person. Another potential problem comes from not verifying the information provided on the work, such as dates, provenance, condition, and of course value.

Image: A vast political tapestry in Sheffield Cathedral by Goshka Macuga depicting the faces of the G20 leaders and boats full of refugees. Photo ©Andy Brown/Going Public Sheffield

Why people decide to spend money on art rather than anything else?

The motivation behind collecting art varies from collector to collector. Some want to continue a family tradition, or pursue philanthropic activities, others to gain visibility or become an active participant within the intricate network of influences that constitute the art world. But they all have a common aspiration: they want to buy the best works of art that their money allows them to buy and as a result become part of a creative, inspiring and innovative industry.

How do I manage the collection?

There are many different aspects to consider when building a collection. It involves storage, insurance, transport, installation and administration aspects. Your advisor should be able to assist you in providing bespoke solutions that suit all your requirements as well as to advise you on the day-to-day management of your collection. Each of these aspects require specialist input and can be outsourced so that the collector has peace of mind to concentrate on developing the collection.

Sebastien Montabonel and Nicolas Cattelain in front of Solid Light by Anthony McCall, Photo by Dan Holdsworth

Image: Sebastien Montabonel and Nicolas Cattelain in front of Solid Light by Anthony McCall, Photo by Dan Holdsworth.

What are the common mistakes made when buying art?

Buying works of art without following the process of due diligence is the most common mistake people are making. This often leads to overpaying for a work. And in the worst-case scenario, you could end up with a fake work of art and have to spend time and resources going to court, which reflects badly on the collector reputation and later ability to secure the most desirable works.

Image: Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “Cyber Iconic Man”.

Why should you consider the future of your collection?

Collectors often tend to forget that they are the “keepers” of the art work for a given period of time, but that it will remain for many decades to come. This needs to be carefully considered at all times, whether you plan to leave the collection to your heirs, donate it to a museum, sell it or house it in a museum or foundation of your own.

Is it always important to consider the future of the collection?

When you collect solely for investment, the future of the collection becomes irrelevant and need not be considered. In such cases the primary goal of the collection is monetarisation, rather than reputation or integrity.

Charlotte Posenenske relief series B Montabonel and Partners

Image: Charlotte Posenenske’s “Relief, Series B”

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