Dealers are collectors, too, whether this is a problem comes down to a question of integrity

Some things are for sale. And some aren’t


A few months ago, Larry Gagosian shipped a container of valuable works of art to the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi. The government-sponsored show, entitled “RSTW”—for Rauschenberg, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool—is stocked with works by artists the dealer sells. Gagosian didn’t skimp: the exhibition checklist includes 21 Warhols, 13 Twomblys and 19 Ruschas. What makes this show different from the usual Gagosian extravaganza is that the works are billed as being from his personal collection. This bravura, self-promotional display poses some questions: how do collectors feel about dealers stockpiling art? Does the dealer wind up competing against their clients and their own business? What ethical issues are involved? And finally, how likely is it that a dealer’s collection will wind up in a museum?

The dealer/collector legacy is long. Most dealers are, instinctively, art lovers and accumulators. Gagosian acknowledges this link in his exhibition catalogue: “There is a natural affinity between art dealing and art collecting.” Here in New York, MoMA benefited from gifts from dealer Sidney Janis in 1967, while the Metropolitan received modern and African art from dealer Klaus Perls valued at $60m between 1991 and 1996. UK dealer Anthony d’Offay gave 725 works to the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland two years ago. When Jeffrey Deitch recently stopped dealing to head the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the biggest issue seemed to be the fate of his private art collection.

In the past, museums would avoid exhibiting dealer-owned work, the presumption being that this elevates value. But, these days, the line between a dealer and a collector has blurred—and many collectors buy and sell as opportunistically as dealers. Indeed Gagosian isn’t the only gallerist showing off his private collection. Old master dealer Richard Feigen loaned 50 works to Yale University Art Gallery earlier this year. Chicago dealer Richard Gray has lent over 100 works by Degas, Kandinsky and Rubens to the Art Institute of Chicago (“Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Master Drawings”, until 2 January 2011). There is one line that has not yet been crossed: dealers, for the most part, do not serve on museum boards (there are no rules against this in the American Association of Museums or Association of Art Museum Directors but it is decided by each institution’s own ethical guidelines).

It is hardly a secret that many dealers own art—serious collectors are aware of this, and generally don’t mind. “It is important for dealers to be supportive of the artists in their programmes and own their work,” said New York collector Randy Slifka.

But there is always the potential for bad behaviour. For many buyers, the biggest complaint is about dealers who keep the first pick to themselves, getting the best pieces at wholesale cost. Paris-based collector Steve Rosenblum doesn’t mind working with dealers who collect—up to a point. “I don’t really care. Good for them,” he said. “The only pitfall could be that they access pieces before their customers can have a look at them. So, the question is, do they pre-empt the best work? Or is there some balance?”

A New York collector, who has been buying for more than 30 years and asked not to be named, recalled discovering, during a visit to a dealer’s loft, that the gallerist in question had been keeping back works superior to those he had been offering his clients.

And there are other issues. “I am really not happy when I go to art fairs and dealers have swapped stuff at below market price, especially when I have flown to some exotic or rainy destination only to find the work has already sold, not to a museum, but to an insider,” one collector confided.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a dealer’s ethical compass. There are tales of dealers who stockpile work by a hot artist they represent, aiming to offload later on the secondary market. This Vollard-style hoarding seems unfair to the artist and to collectors.

So, what’s a dealer to do? Perhaps Jeffrey Deitch had the best strategy—according to a New Yorker profile, the walls of his home were bare. Whatever he owned, he kept to himself. Collectors say this is the best solution. “Dealers should be buying their own artists if they really believe in them. It’s part of their pension plan,” said one collector. “But you can’t tell the collectors, otherwise it becomes an ugly discussion.”

“I think it’s always a question of integrity,” says Richard Gray, who has generally avoided conflict the simplest way possible. Until recently, he didn’t invite clients to his home, or speak about his collection. “No one knew we had it,” he said.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Dealers are collectors, too'