Journalists are forever struggling to gain access to the world’s top art collectors. From magazine articles and television programmes to websites and electronic newsletters, the media’s attempts at portraying collectors and their passions – along with their disappointments and triumphs – are innumerable and often unsatisfactory.
So it comes as a relief that a new book, Could Have, Would Have, Should Have: Inside the World of the Art Collector (Art/Books), accomplishes that task spectacularly well even while being written in a breezy, seemingly effortless style. That its author, Tiqui Atencio, is not a journalist but very much a peer of her subjects makes this book’s success at capturing what the press rarely does self-evident: few could have beaten a serious insider at getting other serious insiders to open up. Access was never a problem: Tiqui Atencio is the real deal.
Born in Venezuela, Atencio began collecting when she was eighteen, and she never stopped, whether her life’s peregrinations took her to Latin America, the US or Europe. She has sat on the boards of some of the world’s leading museums – including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Tate in London, where she founded that institution’s Latin American Acquisitions Committee in 2003 – and is now based in Monaco, with another home in London. During a recent chat in her Belgravia town house, she explained how the idea for the book occurred to her three years ago: “For years and years, I had been hearing all these stories from fellow collectors,” she said.
“Finally I thought, ‘I want to put all this down, in black and white.’”
So Atencio bought herself a recorder and got busy. The reporting took her two years, and she says she could have easily kept going. Then she had to start writing, a task that took another year: “I had to weave it all together – everybody has a different approach to collecting, and behind every work of art purchased there is a story,” she notes. In the end, she interviewed about 100 leading figures in the art world, including such megacollectors as Irma and Norman Braman, Peter Brant, Adrian Cheng, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Stefan Edlis, Laurence Graff, J. Tomilson Hill, Maja Hoffmann, Dakis Joannou, Peter Norton and Denise Saul. “When I approached them and told them what I was doing, they all said, ‘What a great idea!’ and were eager to talk,” Atencio recalls. “They were all very candid with me – I was surprised how candid.”
And so Atencio got the stories, arranging them into chapters such as “Learning from mistakes,” “Keeping it in the family” and “What was I thinking?” Some anecdotes revolve around the collectors’ early days in the art world. Chicago industrialist Stefan Edlis, for one, told Atencio that he learned about collecting art pretty much the same way he learned how to make his way in the plastics industry: “By not being afraid to dive right in,” he says. In 1977, he made one of his first major acquisitions at auction when he paid £675,000 for a Piet Mondrian, a record at the time. “All the dealers in the room were asking who was this jerk who overpaid for a Mondrian,” Edlis recalls in the book. “Afterwards, they all made pilgrimages to Chicago to try to sell me things. They didn’t know I didn’t have much money left.” For his part, financier J. Tomilson Hill confesses to a steep learning curve: “It took me a long time to put aside my natural instincts as an investor,” Hill tells Atencio. “When I am buying a company, I want to get the cheapest price possible. But the mistake I made with art was not paying more than what it was worth – for something great,” he says. “You can never overpay for a great painting.”
Finally I thought, ‘I want to put all this down, in black and white.’
On the topic of bidding at auction against friends, Atencio draws out some colourful tales. One comes from Wall Street giant Glenn Fuhrman, who recalls a night early in his collecting career, when he was seated in a salesroom next to London dealer Anthony d’Offay, whom he credits with initiating him into the auction scene. An important sculpture came up, which Fuhrman says he excitedly decided to go for. “I told Anthony that I was thinking of bidding on it, and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Oh Glenn, we have a little bit of a problem…. It doesn’t make much sense that we bid against each other. Why don’t you write down on this piece of paper the maximum that you’re prepared to spend, and I’ll write on this piece the maximum that I’m willing to bid. Whoever writes down the higher number, the other person will sit out.’” Not surprisingly, says Fuhrman, d’Offay walked away with the sculpture, but there were no hard feelings.
On another significant collector topic, the studio visit, Atencio heard some remarkable accounts. Museum of Modern Art president emerita Agnes Gund recalls going to see Mark Rothko in 1970 with her friend Emily Tremaine. “He told us that the darker, gloomier paintings were his best works,” Gund recalls. “It was ten o’clock in the morning, but even at that hour he was already solidly drunk and so depressed. I called my sister and said that I thought he was going to kill himself – and he did shortly afterwards.”
A fascinating read filled with reflections from some of the legendary names in collecting today – along with delightful cartoons by the New York-based artist and satirist Pablo Helguera – Could Have, Would Have, Should Have is sure to elicit interest among all types of collectors, whatever their level. But if Atencio got the inside stories, she does not contribute her own, although this collector of contemporary, Latin American and pre-Columbian art does reveal a number of personal facts throughout her book. She grew up in Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela, in a family of industrialists, bankers and real estate developers. While her parents did not buy art, her paternal uncle and his wife were serious collectors who became major influences on Atencio. “I would go to auctions with them and watch. Without being well informed, I started collecting what I liked. It was all very eclectic; nothing had anything to do with the other. It was a bit incoherent,” she says. And if Atencio is uncomfortable being counted among major collectors – “I don’t feel I am up to par, but people seem to think I have a great collection” – she does admit to one very common trait among her peers: “I always wish I bought more – coulda, woulda, shoulda!”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.