Make art collecting an education


The art market currently presents plenty of opportunities for buyers, with trading volumes increasing and an influx of new buyers from all over the world. However, it would appear that there is a slight decline in connoisseurship among collectors and a corresponding reduction in successful art investment. That is the view of Spencer Ewen, managing director of Seymours Art, a team of art advisers and independent consultants that negotiates and advises on the sourcing and acquisition of important artworks across all areas of the international art market.

“30 or 40 years ago the number of private clients buying at auction was less than now, but connoisseurship was provided partly via long standing relationships between dealers and buyers,” he says. “Those dealers tended to operate in genres they really knew and understood. The knowledge of the dealers is the same today but it is more difficult for dealers in the modern world to operate in this way.”

Seymours Art promotes and encourages connoisseurship but does not dabble in dealing. For Ewen this is an important distinction, because it enables the company to give truly impartial advice.

“When Seymours Art was founded in 2002 we stated in our shareholder agreement that we would not own the whole or part of any artwork,” says Ewen. “We have no artworks to sell, so we listen to our clients’ objectives and then we attempt to act on those on the client’s behalf . If we are acting as a vendor agent we provide transparent information about what we believe to be correct within the market and then try to find a buyer in the most efficient and sensible way. It gives us true independence, and aligns our interests entirely with our clients’ interests.”

Ewen and his team see themselves primarily as problem solvers. Their first job is to listen to what the client wants, and rather than selling a limited selection of services, they take a broader view.

“We offer a group of individuals who have a significant amount of expertise across the art market as a whole and so the services that we provide are fairly all encompassing within that market,” says Ewen. “We are transparent about what we can achieve as well as transparent in every other aspect of our business.”

Rather than focusing solely on financial concerns, Seymours emphasises the enjoyment and intellectual fulfilment that can come from passionate art collecting. Its advisers provide support that takes into account how much clients have to spend and what they want to achieve – for example, whether they want to invest in a collection for future generations or look at shorter term goals.

“It’s about risk assessment and appetite for risk and matching any potential client’s aspirations and requirements to any investment program that we put together for them,” he says.

A major hurdle when creating a collection is the opaqueness to the art world, which is unregulated, or at best self-regulated. Sometimes it can be difficult to gain access to all the information you need in order to make an informed purchase. If you don’t have truly independent advice you are minimising your chances of full disclosure of information, warns Ewen.

Independent advice can also help you time your purchases wisely. “Certain genres within the art world are subject to elements of subjective taste and fashion – and if you miss those cycles or get those cycles incorrect that’s a difficult thing,” says Ewen. “It’s about obtaining objective information on  artworks that overrides any subjective whims or fads.”

Ewen perceives the art world as being split into two areas; contemporary art and “everything else”. He warns that the dynamics at play within those two areas are significantly different. If you buy work of a deceased artist you have the benefit of hindsight, and can assess their  oeuvre in totality.  It is harder to assess the value of work by living artists.

“There are a lot of fantastic contemporary artists but it is a skill to try and appreciate where they are in their artistic development,” he says. “Assessing the value of those works is a different process.”

Notwithstanding, Ewen notes that while there are good opportunities in every genre, the modern and contemporary sector are performing better at the top end than the old masters sector.

“In a broad sense, modernism and contemporary art is strong at the moment ” he says. “In contrast, the Old Master market’s perception is that it has had  “less engaged eyes” upon it but there are still many strong and significant  collectors in this field; it is just perhaps more rational.”

He also notes that the art market is opening up geographically, with buyers opening their eyes to a wider array of cultural influences.

Part of Seymours’ role is to introduce clients to work they may never initially have thought about buying, gradually educating them about the world of art.

“The key advice I’d give is to take your time with your collecting,” says Ewen. “We have one client who came to us many years ago wanting to build an Impressionist art collection but to date probably only five or six percent of his  collection is Impressionistic. That client did not make their first purchase for many months because we felt our job was to show them everything that was available.

“When you begin the educational process, it’s about taking your time, and making sure you have as much information in terms of the context of the artwork that you possibly can in advance. Whether that’s verbal or written, it’s our job to provide that.

“It’s important to engage fully with the subject and to enjoy the process. Find people you trust and like and work with them to buy art that you love. By doing that you are probably maximising your chance of an investment, because a passionately built art collection is very rarely poor.”

Ewen recommends that art collecting should be approached primarily as a method of wealth protection rather than wealth creation. While it can indeed create huge sums of money, it is a  process that needs to be undertaken  with a full understanding of the risks. It is entirely possible, for example, to spend £20,000 on a painting and to find that very soon afterwards it is worth only a fraction of that.

“It’s the job of a company like ours to make those risks clear,” he says.

A good rule of thumb is to buy the very best examples from each genre. Many of Seymours’ clients buy from across a wide variety of genres, but while Ewen firmly believes that an eclectic collection can be an attractive goal, he is opposed to the type of ‘wish list’ collecting that sees collectors buying work solely on the strength of an artist’s name.

“I think too often people are buying names, not artworks. A “wish list” collector buys a name within their budget, irrespective of the relative quality of that artwork,” he says. “Artists have good and bad days, just as we all have good and bad days, and artists don’t set out to create investment pieces, they make artworks. It’s an extremely complex emotional process to create an artwork and to monetarise that can be fraught with problems.

He says that it is important to consider the relative merits of an artwork, and where it sits within its genre or within that period in the artist’s career. Other factors, such as condition, provenance, freshness to market and many others elements are also important. With the art market looking increasingly healthy, there are lots of interesting opportunities for buyers – as long as they make their purchases wisely with knowledge and/or good advice.

“I believe the art world is in an exciting phase,” he says. “The momentum is huge and I see our job at Seymours as being to act as a form of gatekeeper to provide the right information for intelligent people to make informed decisions.”

Spencer Ewen

Spencer Ewen