NEW YORK – Over the course of two decades Adam Sender amassed a leading collection of contemporary art by gravitating to artists on the cusp of stardom. As Sotheby’s prepares to offer his diverse collection over the span of a year, Ted Loos discovers the secret of the mega-collector’s success.  

Acquiring a few choice artworks is one thing – theoretically, with time and money and good advice anyone could do it. But making smart choices again and again over decades is something else. It takes a guiding intelligence to create a large collection that is truly coherent, which is surprising and engaging at every turn, yet utterly logical in the way it progresses from piece to piece.

Certainly Adam Sender has done just that. At only 45, he has pieced together a huge trove of work from the very best contemporary artists around, and one that does not feel like just a parade of Greatest Hits – it is rich and personal. The scope of his vision will be on view for the world to see beginning in May and extending over the next year, as Sotheby’s auctions some 400 works by 139 artists in the Sender Collection. 

That is an astounding number of works to be going on the block from one person – and it does not even represent his entire holdings. But the avid collector is also proud of what he did not buy, and therein may lay the tale. “We didn’t chase every single flavour of the month over the past fifteen years,” says Sender, whose success as a hedge fund manager allowed him to pursue art at an early age, starting in the mid-1990s. “I’m not a chaser. I’m a pursuer of great works by artists who have had long careers.” 

Martin Kippenberger, Untitled (from the Series “Lieber Maler male mir”), 1981. Estimate $3,000,000–4,000,000.

That is pretty clear, given some of the highlights that will be offered: pivotal works by Keith Haring, Martin Kippenberger and Dan Flavin, modern masters by any reckoning. Coming up for sale are several works by the great Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who have helped define an era. But the Sender Collection also gives serious attention to younger artists like Adam McEwen, Rashid Johnson and Lucien Smith. There are layers upon layers to be plumbed in the collection.

Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s Chairman of the Americas, first worked with Sender when she was chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum during the landmark 2003 Matthew Barney show there. “He collected Barney in depth, which was really adventurous then,” Dennison says. “Adam saw that Barney invented a new language of art, and he used that as a barometer for what he collected afterwards. Adam always looked at whole bodies of work, and in-depth. He was ahead of his time.”

Conceptual art, Minimalism, appropriation – most of the important movements of the past few decades are represented in Sender’s trove. “When you speak about this collection, you have to talk about how kaleidoscopic it is,” says Gabriela Palmieri, a senior specialist in the Contemporary Art department at Sotheby’s. “You really see the intellectual curiosity of the person behind it.”

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #93, 1981. Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000.

Palmieri cites all the “weighty art historical moments” that Sender has acquired over the years, including the controversial 1981 Cindy Sherman photograph known as Black Sheets, with the artist, as always, featured in her own image, this time dazed-looking and pulling the covers over herself in bed. 

Sender remembers it as one of his first important purchases in the late 1990s. At the time, it was relatively expensive. “I think we paid the record price for Cindy Sherman, which was around $100,000 – and that’s crazy,” says Sender, considering the value of the piece today. 

He stuck with his appreciation of the artist and managed to compile one of the best Sherman collections around, probably because the artist straddles the line of provocation and beauty that Sender gravitates toward: “For me it was really important that the works were intellectually stimulating, and they had to be visually appealing as well.”

Given the white noise of the art world, finding the right work that meets those criteria is not easy. But Sender has a knack for focus. “He has an exceptional ability to hone in,” says private curator Sarah Aibel, who has worked with Sender since 2006, helping him discover a younger generation of artists. “He can walk in to a show, be surrounded by 25 works and immediately see the two best pieces. He has that kind of laser vision.”

Adam Sender at his home in New York City. Photography by Robyn Twomey.

One of Sender’s strongest suits has been his rapport with the top echelon of women in the art world. He mentions dealers Barbara Gladstone, Sadie Coles, Philomene Magers, Shaun Regen and Marianne Boesky as some of the “core ladies I got along with.” 

Not surprisingly, he adds, “The collection has a lot of great women artists, too.” That list includes Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Sarah Lucas – and Lucas is someone he has collected particularly in depth. “I don’t think there is any reason why women artists should be discounted on price,” he says. “That seems silly.”

Another entirely logical – yet not typical – approach of Sender’s has been to actively share his holdings with the world, lending to important exhibitions, as opposed to many collectors who keep their treasures hidden away. “He created an interesting and provocative website that you can enter to make your case for a loan,” says Dennison. “It became a great and important lending library.”

Of course, when he started Sender had no idea that he would amass a collection that was worthy of loaning to museum shows (he is also planning on donating major works to institutions as he moves forward). “When I started buying art, I never thought that this was going to turn into what it turned into” – a kind of snapshot of how contemporary art has evolved in the past 30 years.

“This was always long-term in nature for me,” says Sender, who is also holding on to a large number of works and will be continuing to buy new ones. “Every single thing I bought, I was passionate about. It grew organically.”

Ted Loos writes on art, architecture and wine for a variety of publications, including Vanity Fair, Departures, The New York Times and Vogue.



AHEAD OF THE CURVE: THE SENDER COLLECTION

Works from the Sender Collection will be offered in sales throughout 2014 and 2015.

Contemporary Art Evening
14 May 2014, New York

Contemporary Art Day
15 May 2014, New York

Contemporary Curated
12 June 2014, New York

Contemporary Art Evening
30 June 2014, London

Contemporary Art Day
1 July 2014, London

Contemporary Curated
22 September 2014, New York

20th Century Italian Art
17 October 2014, London

Contemporary Art Evening
17 October 2014, London

Contemporary Art Day
18 October 2014, London

Photographs
7 October 2014, New York

Contemporary Art Evening
11 November 2014, New York

Contemporary Art Day
12 November 2014, New York

Contemporary Curated
March 2015, New York

Contemporary Art Evening
May 2015, New York 

Contemporary Art Day
May 2015, New York

Contemporary Curated
June 2015, New York

Tags:New York, Contemporary Art, Auction Previews, London, Photographs, Collections