Joseph Jacobs reveals his secrets to being a successful art advisor by sourcing for quality works that are undervalued. Joseph has been involved in the art world for 45 years as a university professor, museum curator and director, art adviser, scholar, and art critic. He is the co-founder of Jacobs & Morawska Fine Art Consulting and co-authored Janson’s History of Art, otherwise known as “the Bible” of art history.
Arthena: How did you get involved with art and what fascinates you about it?
Joseph: I was a history major in college and was going to go to law school, But I realized my motivation to become a lawyer was not particularly meaningful, which was to earn a good living. I thought about what it is I actually liked – and that was my art history classes and art, and the way it reflects historical and social values. So at the last minute, in May or June of my senior year, after being accepted at terrific law schools, I applied to graduate school in art history and was accepted. And that was the beginning of my career as an art historian.
Arthena: What piqued your interest to pursue art?
Joseph: Well, first, it was the historical factor, the way art reflected history, as I just mentioned. Second, it was the aesthetic quality of the work. I could feel its power when the art was good, and I sensed that I had a good intuition for quality in art.
Arthena: Do you have any favorite artists?
Joseph: Do I have favorites? I can’t answer that very well. I can rattle off plenty of artists whose work I really like, but the bottom line is I like all good art, and there’s tons of it out there. I even like good art by artists who normally don’t produce good work. It’s always a treat to come across a really strong work by a second or third rate artist. But there’s hardly a textbook artist that I don’t like.
I think there are other ways to pose the question about liking (and therefore conversely in disliking) artists. For example, what I find interesting is the large amount of bad art that is sometimes made by otherwise great artists. Renoir, after 1880 rarely produced strong work. Matisse as well largely floundered for a period of his long career, especially beginning in the late teens, toward 1920, and then not hitting his stride again until he made the cutouts in the 1940s, which he continued to produce until his death in the 1950s. And look at the great Enlglish sculptor Henry Moore: Choose the right 100 works by him, and we are in the presence of a great artist. Choose the wrong 100 works, and we cringe, our faces getting red with embarrassment.
Arthena: How do you judge if a work is good or bad?
Joseph: There are a couple of factors. First of all I want to see some kind of power in the work. You look at a work of art, and if it’s good, then you want it to have a wow factor, meaning there is something about it that you sense if amazing. It’s just got to hit you in the gut and be very, very strong in some way. It also has to be meaningful at some level. This, of course, does not mean you’ll see or feel any of this immediately. Sometimes it takes a while for this power to sink in.
Number two, I look for that something that is very special about how the statement is made. By this, I mean I am looking for something in the work that is highly individualistic. In effect, the artist’s style has to be unique. This does not mean that the work is innovative in the sense that it restructures how we think about art, the way that Picasso, or Marcel Duchamp, for example did. We now live in a Postmodern era that precludes this happening. So, I am looking for a uniqueness of statement, a individualistic style. I am not expecting a restructuring of space, for example, which we saw in Picasso, or a redefining of what art can be about, which we saw in Duchamp. Nor am I looking for someone inventing new mediums, because that has already happened in the sense that art is no longer contained to just painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, prints, etc., and artists have license to work any medium they want or can think up. Once again, today we’re not going to be revolutionizing art in this way.
The third thing I am looking for is historical importance, which applies especially to older art, before Postmodernism, I evaluate art based on the impact that it has on the history of art. With new art, meaning today’s art, you simply look for work that is powerful and aesthetically resolved, work that will stand the test of time, work that is so mesmerizing it will never go away. As I already said, we are no longer going to see artists come along who restructure how we think about art. Instead we are just going to see individualistic styles and powerful statements.
Arthena: So you’re not following the art market – instead, you set your own trail by acquiring works that you personally think are in important in the history of art.
Joseph: Yes. The art market is dominated by what I call lemmings. The lemming chases what everyone else is chasing, and in our case, what everyone else is buying. And to a large extent, that’s the art market, which is very different from what somebody who is a connoisseur or knows the history of art would be interested in.
One can argue that there is not necessarily any correlation between a cost of a work of art and its quality. That to me is what makes buying art so much fun. Because you can buy great art for $1000 to $5000. A lot of people are now spending $100 million to $150 million to buy art, and sometimes I don’t even think the work is so good—you can source better examples by the same artist for a lot less.
But the bottom line is you don’t have to spend that kind of money to have a fabulous collection. People who spend that kind of money are not necessarily connoisseurs. They are simply trying to impress the world with their financial power. They are simply buying status and social position.
Arthena: What types of work are quality $1000 pieces?
Joseph: They’re going to be photographs, prints, and drawings. We have to get over the centuries-old perception that painting and sculpture are the king and queen of art and that the other mediums are their handmaidens. Actually, we are starting to get to this position anyway, since Postmodernism doesn’t allow for a hierarchy of mediums and many major artists, like Kara Walker, for example, only work on paper, not canvas. But one can buy works on paper, including photographs, for under $5,000, works that can be consider major works of art, art that any museum would want to have and exhibit.
Let me back up actually and tell you the story of one of my clients who was very difficult because no matter what I showed him, and no matter how much he liked the work I showed him, he could never pull the trigger and make a purchase. He would complain that the little speck of grey in a $150,000 Fairfield Porter painting irritated him, a speck of grey I could not see. Finally, I realized he just felt uncomfortable spending so much money on a work of art even though he said that that was what he wanted to spend—he could easily afford it. I realized that despite his desire to spend hundred of thousands of dollars on a work of art, it would make more sense for him to start his collecting by spending much less money. So, I suggested some incredibly wonderful work that was a lot less, figuring that the price was so low by his standards that he would just plunge in and take the risk of a purchase. I suggested he buy some Alexander Calder gouaches. Calder is one of the great sculptors of the 20th century. Major sculptures, mobiles and stabiles, go from millions of dollars. But for some reason, the gouaches, which are absolutely fabulous and capture the essence of his sculptures without necessarily looking like them or being studies for them, went for very little money. I told my client that Calder’s gouaches now went for $25,000, whereas just a few months earlier they had been going for $5000 to $15,000. They had just taken a bump up to $25,000 from $5,000 to $15,000, where they had been at for decades, but I felt that they were still ridiculously cheap. We parted ways at that point. I doubt he ever bought anything. The next set of auctions, every Calder gouache, and there were a lot of them, went for $80,000 to $120,000. So, there’s a lot of work out there that is very affordable on a minimal budget if you know what you’re doing.
At that same round of auctions, there were two Joseph Cornell collages that went for under $10,000. His collages generally go for $50,000 to $80,000. I could kick myself for not going to the auction because they were fabulous and I was sure they would sell for $30,000 to $50,000, well above their estimate of roughly $12,000 to $15,000, which I felt was ridiculously low. But no one showed up for them that day, and because there apparently was no reserve on them, they went for very little money One of the biggest and sophisticated collectors of Cornell boxes and collages didn’t know about these works, which really shocked me. When I told him one work went for $7,500, he was stunned, saying it was major Cornell collage and should have been closer in value to $75,000!
I can tell you these kinds of stories all day, and fortunately, I have often been the beneficiary of these deals. As a matter of fact, in my own collection, I have two large Robert Rauschenberg works that are solvent transfer with acrylic and collage. I got them for next to nothing, relatively speaking, especially when you consider he is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. I bought them at the same time, one at Christie’s, one at Sotheby’s. For one, I paid $8,000, and for the second, $10,000. Now, how did I know these works were a good buy? In the case of one, it was a good buy because first of all, it came from Andy Warhol’s collection. And 10 years earlier, at his estate sale, it sold for almost $30,000. So, how could I go wrong paying $8,000 for what I knew was a wonderful work? But the thing was, in 1999 when I bought this work, no one was looking at Rauschenberg works from the 70s. The market wanted the Combines or silkcreen paintings from the 50s and early l60s. There was virtually no interest in Rauschenberg after 1964 or so. I was recently offered as much as $150,000 for each of these works recently, but I am not a seller and I don’t buy for myself with an eye for selling. I bought them to live with them, not to profit from them. Also, I think they still have tremendous upside potential. I would value them between $400,000 to $600,000. But the market is not there yet, and may never get there, at least not I my lifetime.
Now talking about how you can also buy inexpensively, a good example is a purchase I made two years ago when when I bought two works by Vanessa German, a Pittsburgh artist who makes assemblages and shows with the Pavel Zoubok Gallery in Chelsea, New York. I paid about $6,000 for each sculpture. They are drop dead fabulous. How did I know at the time that it was a good deal? What can you get at this level of quality for well under $10,000? It’s just the bottom of the barrel in terms of pricing. It just can’t go any lower. It’s a starting point for works of art. In a sense it had nowhere to go but up, which wasn’t the issue since I bought the sculptures because I thought they were fabulous and I didn’t want to live without them. And sure enough, less than twp years later, the gallery is selling out her shows and the prices were raised to $12,000 to $25,000. I understand that this year German is in three museums exhibitions.
Arthena: This just shows how knowledge of history and education of art is so important when collecting art. What makes you so excited about joining Arthena as an advisor?
Joseph: Simply to help people to collect. I’m hoping that this isn’t just about the money. I’m hoping that people will have access to me, and ideally we will be able to set this up in a way that people, the investors, will be able to buy directly from the collection and put their own collections together—that they’ll be buying like me to live with art and to enjoy it, while at the same time making a good investment.
Arthena: What kind of challenges do you see when it comes to collecting online in this day and age?
Joseph: The same as anything. Buy low and sell high if it’s strictly about investment. The only hurdle, and the real hurdle, for anyone who knows what she or he is doing is time. There is no guarantee when items will increase in price, and it’s very hard, if not impossible, to predict when something’s going to dramatically pop in value. So, the goal is to buy at a good price and to buy quality. If you do this, basically you cannot go wrong.
Now, I would also advise someone to overpay for a work of art if it is something that could be hard to get in the future, or if it’s something you think is fabulous and really want to live with. As the saying goes, “if you don’t pay, you can’t play.” Meaning, if you don’t buy a work of art, then it can’t go up in value for you. I learned this lesson the hard way because I once didn’t want to overpay by about 10% for something, an Andy Warhol Mao print, something I knew would go up in value, and I ended up paying ten times as much to finally acquire it. Since then, its value has gone up 18 fold from my purchase price. But I am not a seller. I am a collector.
Arthena: What excites you about finding works that appreciate in value or collecting art?
Joseph: Well in a sense, it’s like big game hunting. You want to bag a lion or an elephant, meaning acquire an extraordinary work of art at a really low price. You take that kind of pride in it, at least in a sense. But coming from a curatorial background, advising clients is like buying vicariously, When they buy based on my advise, I fell like I am collecting as well. It’s not about the money; it’s about putting together a great collection, which I think I did at the museums I was at. People are always coming up to me and saying they had just been to the Newark Museum and were so impressed with the collection that I had enhanced and with the major works that I acquired, works that today the museum could not even begin to afford because they have gone up so much in value.
What upsets me tremendously, and is a major reason I love advising people, is that the vast majority of collectors buy very poorly. We only hear about the people who buy well and put together major collectors. But most people buying on their own with no background in the art world buy bad art, and they pay far too much for it. For the same money, they could have bought museum-quality work.
Just yesterday, I visited a collector who wanted me to sell a large painting by a famous Photorealist artist. I am pretty sure he felt it was worth well over $100,000, and I didn’t want to even ask him how much he had paid. He did not buy the painting from me—I met him well after he had acquired the work, which was probably some 20 to 30 years ago. Well, the painting was just awful. It was so bad I couldn’t even recognize it as being by the artist. It just wasn’t in his characteristic style. But worse yet, it was just a lusterless, insipid work. It was like a dead fish hanging on the wall. At best, it was worth $30,000, but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone. I didn’t want to be associated with it.
And this story isn’t an anomaly. Every week, it seems, I encounter people who have flushed their money down the toilet buying art. Not so long ago, I was approached about a “major” collection that someone wanted to sell. Work after work was bad. A George Luks painting that the collector had paid $450,000 for I valued at $5,000 to $7,000. It was so bad I couldn’t imagine anyone even wanting to buy it, nonetheless paying $450,000 for it. And the entire collection was like this. The man had been taken to the cleaners, either by an adviser, or dealers, or both. This is why I want to help people buy art—there is no reason for this to happen.
Arthena: And you would like to alleviate this situation. Is that what you’d like the collectors of Arthena to take away most?
Joseph: Yes, among other things. It’s more about developing museum quality collections as opposed to making money, which is not to say I won’t watch investors’ money very carefully. But if there is one thing I can guarantee, as much as one can guarantee anything in life, it is that if they buy blue chip, museum-quality art, it will most likely go up in value. The issue, however, is when, and this can be a big issue, a very big issue. Could it be the next day? The next year? Or in the next 20 years? Or even longer? But if you are a collector and you put the art on your walls or a table or pedestal and you enjoy it, it will some day go up in value. No doubt in my mind. In the meantime, you get to live with great art, which is the greatest reward of the purchase. But, again, when you get to cash in is very much up in the air. You could say that it is good to be young when you start collecting!
Arthena: So your expertise and focus of the collection focuses on going back in time and searching for under appreciated works.
Joseph: Yes, in part, I think the fund will largely be based on opportunity, that is when there’s a great buy to be had. There will be no conscious effort to buy emerging artists unless we have a large collector base that is interested in buying emerging artists with low prices. I don’t think this is going to happen, however.
The one thing I would not participate in is flipping. There are a lot of advisors who specialize in is. There’s a large group of these people that feed off of one another. Advisers make a case for an emerging artist to be “important,” and 9 times out of 10 the artist is nothing special. These advisers largely sell this work to financial people or real estate developers who have no idea about art and are told it’s a hot artist that they must own. The buyer then sells it shortly after to someone who has also been told that this is a hot artist. Before you know it the price goes from $15,000, to $25,000, to $60,000, and then $300,000, the numbers being driven up by this feeding frenzy and a very limited market. If you look at the auction catalogues for contemporary art, you’ll see a lot of work by younger artists that was made in that year, or the year before. It was made, probably changed hands a few times, and is now such a hot commodity it is being dumped at auction. This is a dangerous game, because someone is going to be caught holding the bag at some point, and you don’t want it to be you, especially at $300,000, for example. I would hazard a guess that a lot of the hot work that is selling for $300,000 to $500,000 is only going to be worth $50,000 some day, if not a lot less. But quite a few people still made a lot of money on the work as it soared to its peak as it was flipped on a regular basis. However, you never know what the future may hold. No one has a crystal ball.