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Art World Explorers, Meet Sacagawea

Consider Navigating the Art Scene With One Who Knows the Terrain

September 28, 2003|EMILY YOUNG

People collect all sorts of things without any formal training--baseball cards, postage stamps, even stuffed animals (remember Beanie Babies?). But for a major art purchase, novices would do well to contact an expert guide such as Tom Paul, who is also a private art dealer (www.tpaulfineart.com) and director of the gallery at Jerry Solomon Art Centre on La Brea Avenue. Paul earned an advertising design degree from Memphis College of Art and, after a short stint in advertising, switched to art consulting in Memphis, then Atlanta. In 1976, he moved to Los Angeles, where his clients have included individuals, museums, institutions and other dealers.

What does an art consultant do?

"Art consultant" in recent years has taken on a negative connotation because anybody can call himself an art consultant. It's evolved into someone who works with an interior designer and individuals in selecting art for their home. But I also work on a higher level, advising on art collections. So I call myself an art advisor. I work with people who want to build something that has personal meaning, not just to add decoration.

How does the process start?

A lot of times I'll be referred by a designer or previous clients. I'll go to the home, talk with the owners, see the space, discuss a budget. Then I'll bring in photographs of pieces that I think work in the space. One of the most productive things I do is meet clients at a local museum and gauge their response to what they're looking at. Even then, a lot of times people don't know what they want. That's when I'll suggest what they should consider. I'll make sure they get value for their dollar since I've done research and know the market.

How is payment handled?

In general, it's [the price of] the art itself, plus about 15%. If I'm buying several pieces, then usually the percentage is less. I try to pass on the cost savings, which is what I can buy the works for, plus my fees and expenses, which might include flying to New York, London or Paris for an auction. Of course, all this would be spelled out in the interview process.

Are L.A. collectors different from collectors elsewhere?

You find more people open to extreme contemporary art in Los Angeles than in Memphis or Atlanta. And I would classify L.A. as much more contemporary than New York. New York is the mecca of the art world, but you'll find more 19th and 20th century traditional and European art back East.

Have collectors changed since the dot-com bust?

The dot-com bubble was a lot of young people who got rich real quick and wanted to act like rich people, throwing money at art. When the bubble burst, people got skeptical. People are trying to educate themselves now because a lot more information is available through the Internet, and they're more careful about their spending.

What advice do you have for novice collectors?

It's a question of priorities. Is it just to fill the walls or is it to acquire art over a period of time that becomes part of their portfolio? I don't want to do a house in two weeks. I encourage clients to take their time. The bottom line is: Go for what you love.

What if collectors have a limited budget?

If clients tell me they have 5,000 square feet and $10,000 for the whole house, well, that's pretty much nothing. My advice would be to find things they like on their own, and I would back out of it. I'd rather get them to look at one really good piece. When I convinced one couple this was the way to go, they ended up buying a Barbizon painting, traveled to France, learned all about the Barbizon school, bought three or four more paintings and really took off.

What kinds of art should beginning collectors explore?

Photography and emerging artists are good places to start. If people want to collect names, they're better off in photography than paintings. Still you're talking about $3,000 to $8,000 for a good vintage photo and $600 to $1,200 for work by young photographers. Prints, meaning etchings or lithographs, are also good. Glass is another area for the beginner, but with kids, it's a tough thing to collect.

What are the most common mistakes that new collectors make?

People will take the advice of one gallery in an expensive part of town. But I tell them to weigh who they're talking to. Ask, "Are they just trying to sell their inventory?" If they don't know the artist, ask, "Where else has he been exhibited?" And avoid anyone who talks about art as an investment. People should buy art because they love it, not because they want to turn it around in 30 days and make a profit.

How does a collector find an art consultant?

Good sources would include museums, art galleries, places where you see nice collections like banks, college campuses--anywhere it's obvious they've worked with someone to coordinate the art. Interior designers often work with art consultants, so members of the American Society of Interior Designers might be helpful, too.

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