How to Start an Art Collection: Advice from Philanthropist Joseph Segal

By Sotheby's

V ancouver’s Joseph Segal was a self-made billionaire, thanks to the various business ventures that he invested in — from selling fish from his bicycle to property development through his company, Kingswood Capital Corporation. But when it came to one of his greatest passions — collecting art, Segal valued the help he had along the way. Sotheby's interviewed Segal prior to his death last May, and he offered inspiring suggestions for budding collectors.

“The first object I bought was in Los Angeles about 40 years ago,” Segal said. “I was walking down Rodeo Drive and stopped in a shop owned by an Englishman by the name of David Orgell. I saw an array of Sheffield silver-plate [items] and [they] looked magnificent.”

Segal purchased the Sheffield pieces and ended up becoming friends with Orgell.

“Three years later, he called and said, ‘You should start to collect real things. Let me teach you,’” recalled Segal.

From the Segal Collection: Detail of a set of four Victorian silver horse and rider figures , John S. Hunt for Hunt & Roskell, London, 1861. Selling in New York, October 20, 2021.

Here, Segal became the tutor, sharing his experiences in building one of the most impressive private art collections in Canada. And here’s the first piece of advice from this well-known philanthropist — buy something you love. “I don’t buy for investment,” said Segal. “I buy it because I take pleasure in it.”

Amassing an art collection is a long-haul game. You have to put in hours of practice and study before you can get really good at it. If there are specific artworks that catch your fancy, try to see them in person and compare them to similar pieces in galleries and museums. Previews at auction houses like Sotheby’s provide a great opportunity to examine artwork up close. Making friends with fellow collectors is another way to educate yourself about art and its nuances. Seasoned collectors share their pitfalls and triumphs in the world of art collecting, and can help connect you with artworks that may interest you. Segal told the story of how he found one of his favourite art pieces. “Twenty- five years ago a dealer in Winnipeg called me. [He said], ‘Somebody said I should call you because you are interested in good things. I have a painting you might [like]. It’s a Renoir.’”

From the Segal Collection: Detail of a pair of Victorian silver equestrian figures shown at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, John S. Hunt for Hunt & Roskell, London, 1854. Selling in New York,Oct 20, 2021.

Visit galleries and auctions, as they are the perfect venues for networking. They bring together all the players. “The only way to learn is to listen to someone with more knowledge and experience,” notes Segal. “I didn’t know anything about art before. Now I see the beauty of the artwork plus I’ve learned to appreciate the creativity that went into making it.”

There are however, potential drawbacks to getting in too deep with the collector community, such as competition with other collectors. There is an endorphin rush when it comes to purchasing an artwork to impress or compete with other aficionados. So, it’s important to take a step back and stick to that first principle — buy what you love — before you sign off on a piece of art.

From the Segal Collection: A Regency silver Civic Presentation Candelabrum Centerpiece, Paul Storr for Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, London, 1813. Selling in London, December 7, 2021.

But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the monetary value of an artwork into consideration at all. Building and focusing a fine collection also rely on the ability to trade up, say sell two or three smaller works to finance the purchase of one to-die-for piece. This practice also helps you keep your collection from becoming cluttered. “It’s not a question of size but [of] quality,” Segal explained. To wit, Segal was a businessman. He explained that when he added to his collection, he assumed that a piece would appreciate in value. But the real treasures were those pieces he could appreciate in real life. In the upper echelons of art collecting, for example, there are consortiums who purchase art as an investment only, locking it up in vaults until the time is right to resell. When he collected silver, he used the pieces.

From the Segal Collection: One of a pair of Early Victorian silver “Doves of Pliny” centerpieces for the Duke of Sutherland, Paul Storr, London, 1838. Selling in London, December 7, 2021.

Segal’s collection was proudly displayed within his Belmont Estate in Vancouver, which shattered records for the area when it was sold early last year by Christa Frosh of Sotheby’s Realty. Another invaluable piece of wisdom from this seasoned collector: Buy the best you can afford. When Segal started getting serious about buying art, he was mindful of budget. Studying art helped him train his eye. “Just because its old, doesn’t make it automatically valuable,” he warned.

Knowing when to stop is another important skill to learn. We asked Segal what his next purchase would be and his response? “Nothing.”

“I love what I have,” said Segal. “And I have no room for anything else.” He saw his role as a steward, rather than an owner, and he was someone who felt that creativity was much a treasure as a material object. “You can’t just put it in a closet.”

From the Segal Collection: A pair of Regency silver soup tureens, covers, stands and liners for the Duchess of St. Albans, Paul Storr for Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, London, 1817. Selling in London, December 7, 2021.

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