Master Framer, Eli Wilner sat down with Jim Dicke and talked about his lifelong passion for collecting art.
WHEN DID YOU PURCHASE YOUR FIRST PIECE?
The year 2010 marks more than 50 years since I bought my first work, a small watercolor on paper of horses, purchased on vacation in Michigan with $5 of my childhood savings. Over these 50 years, my appreciation for art and for collecting has evolved; and I hope become more purposeful and focused, while at the same time, retaining some childhood wonder and enthusiasm.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN ART?
My mother had an abiding interest in art and was very good about exposing us to museums and the chance to see great art, both in person and illustrations. As a stroke of good fortune, Jack Earl, the great American ceramic artist, taught us art in the local New Bremen public school. Later in high school at Culver Military Academy, I took oil painting instruction from Warner Williams, Culver’s artist in residence, and continued my work as a part-time artist into adulthood, influenced by the work of a great many masters. As a young adult traveling for business, when I found myself in a city on a weekend, it was always interesting to visit the local museums. When I could find a book that talked about art or artists and their working methods, it was always something to enjoy.
DO YOU RECALL ANY SPECIFIC EXPERIENCES KEY TO DEVELOPING YOUR PASSION FOR ART?
Two early reading experiences stand out. Time-Life had a slender series of books called “Meanings of Modern Art” that explained modern art really well for the first time in my young experience. Also, Joseph Alsop’s book “Fine Art Traditions” explained as an economist might, how art came to the market, how markets for it develop and then disappear from the market in time. They were eye openers.
When we first started collecting art, it was with an eye towards interior decorating. We were generally considering something for a particular spot. Would it “fit in”? What did we think of the frame? Could we enjoy it enough to make the purchase? Could we afford it? That was about as far as it went.
DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS IN ACQUIRING ANY PIECES OF ART?
There were some initial mistakes, but nothing that rose to the level of a stomach turning “event”. I recall buying a painting by the British artist Yates for our house and being astonished at how big it was when it came. I had bid based on a black and white illustration in an auction catalogue, without paying attention to the dimensions, but still somehow creating in my mind an imagined small size. I knew enough to ask the auction house for their condition report and often when the illustration was in black and white, they would be kind enough to send a color Polaroid to give me the roughest idea of colors. Still, it was not a very informed way to make an art choice.
OVER THE YEARS, HOW HAVE YOU CHOSEN YOUR ACQUISITIONS?
Slowly, over time, as I kept reading and made friends of fellow collectors, art dealers, advisors, museum people, restorers and framing experts, a more complete picture came into focus. Some people turn their art decisions over to “experts” in the field and just retain for themselves the element of deciding if they “like it” or not. For me, that would undermine the pleasure of knowing enough about the piece to optimize the pleasure of living with it. Some people focus on a particular artist, or period, or type of medium (engravings on paper, for example, or ceramic teapots). We have tried to develop a more balanced obsession that does not focus too much on one artist, or era, or medium of works. I do confess a weakness for oil paintings.
DO YOU HAVE AN ERA THAT YOU PREFER WHEN MAKING ACQUISITIONS AND DO YOU PREFER AMERICAN OVER EUROPEAN ARTISTS?
One of the earlier areas of focus was on American painting from the late 19th and early 20th century. Since then, in keeping with the primarily American focus, we have acquired art from every decade of the 20th century where it fit our budget, our interest, and appreciation. Since the year 2000, I have focused “primarily” on art of our own time. It has added an interesting new dynamic on reliance on myself and what I believe, as opposed to the luxury of considering artwork from a body of work of an artist long deceased, with the benefit of knowing what the artist did with the course of his career and where the artwork being considered fits into the body of the artist’s work and the longer parade of art history. The art of today is considered on the fly, the only way it can. Without the benefit of knowing where the story of American art history will wander or how this will fit into the story, or even where a particular artist will go. One famous man always drew a laugh when he would announce in a speech “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re on our way.” When you focus on new work, that is certainly a slogan to remember.
ARE THERE ANY PITFALLS WHEN MAKING ACQUISITIONS OF AN UNKNOWN ARTIST?
As you go forward to collect contemporary art, be wary of the sales pitch. We live in an age where a responsible dealer will try to manage a contemporary artist’s career for stability and for growing success. Will today’s growing young star get stuck in his style and not evolve? Is the mid-career artist’s work not as interesting as it once was, or is the artist continuing to grow? Does the older artist have a thousand paintings in the back room that will one day all come to market? Often no one really knows. So, take refuge in the fact that no one should buy artwork, thinking of it as an investment. When a dealer mentions “investing”, or an artist’s growing prices, or the work getting more valuable because someone is old or dies, these are all reasons to be skeptical. As much as the grounded common sense of the artist or the skill and good judgement of a fine dealer can help an artist to a fine career, it still will ultimately be about the work itself, its quality, and the power it has to engage viewers. A great dealer and a great artist can be like family with one another.
HOW DO YOU RESEARCH ARTISTS AND POTENTIAL WORKS OF ART?
Great dealers and auction houses spend decades trying to amass specific pieces of information not readily available to collectors. Where do paintings reside? Who owned them? What are their conditions, the likelihood they will come to market, and their rarity? Did Andy Warhol do four canvases of Jacqueline Kennedy, or did he do 400? Who are the likely collectors in the world for a particular work and how might they feel about making a purchase right now? At the very expensive edge of this market, this might be a very few people indeed. What experts might be available to the collector in his quest for additional expert opinions?
HOW DO YOU FIND SOMEONE TO HELP ACQUIRE AND APPRAISE AN ARTWORK THAT YOU ARE PURCHASING TO ASSURE THE RIGHT PRICE?
As a collector, you need to have a museum connection with a curator friend who might be a help. Hopefully, the time will come when on-line catalogue resumes of the entire body of a contemporary artist’s work can be viewed in context and searched for relevant examples. I still think, however, that there will be no substitute, no matter how good the reputation, for the experience of actually seeing an original piece of art in person.
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS ?
Continue learning daily. Information is the key to a great collection.