To Have and Hold: George O'Dell on the Pleasures of Collecting Art

To Have and Hold: George O'Dell on the Pleasures of Collecting Art

A contemporary art specialist with a passion for emerging artists and works on paper, George O'Dell helps clients build bespoke collections rich with personality and taste.
A contemporary art specialist with a passion for emerging artists and works on paper, George O'Dell helps clients build bespoke collections rich with personality and taste.

How did you get started in the art world?
After college I had been working in private equity, and I quickly realized that I was more interested in art, which I had studied as an undergraduate. I moved to London and completed the Sotheby’s Institute masters program, and after graduating started my career with a different auction house. My interests were always in young and upcoming artists, which then grew into mid-career artists, mostly American and European. In 2013 I joined Sotheby’s in London as the Head of the Day Sale for the Contemporary Art department.

George O'Dell, Vice president and sales director for Sotheby's Private Sales department. Julian Cassady Photography LTD

Did working in private equity complement your career at Sotheby's?
Yes, it helped me to better understand the backgrounds of some of our clients, and to understand that what we do at Sotheby's is helping collectors with their passion projects, which are outside of their Monday to Friday job in finance, legal, entertainment, real estate, medicine or other professions. That’s a great reminder of how fortunate we are as art professionals, to work everyday in other people’s passion pursuits.

How did you become focused on contemporary art?
My undergraduate study was broad, but a breakthrough moment came when I was growing up in Washington, DC, where I got to visit the National Gallery of Art with my mother. The collection was mostly built by Andrew Mellon and the dealer Joseph Duveen, though they do have some more recently added Modern and contemporary art. The access and availability of such masterpieces gave me a profound sense of wanting to discover art and an aesthetic sensibility to what a masterwork could be.

Maurizio Cattelan, Felix, 2001. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Edlis/Neeson Art Acquisition Fund, 2001.22. © 2001 Maurizio Cattelan. Photo © MCA Chicago.

Later, as an undergraduate in Chicago, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where Maurizio Cattelan's Felix was installed in their atrium – a giant, dinosaur-sized sculpture of a house cat skeleton. That was an eye-opening moment as to what contemporary art could be. Soon after I went to Florence to study Quattrocento Italian art from the Renaissance. Being around those paintings firsthand was a real push into art and into understanding that it was a significant driver in my life. I thought contemporary art seemed interesting enough to keep following it down the rabbit hole, and when I found myself coming to New York to go to galleries and museums, I knew it was something worth exploring.

How did you get started at Sotheby’s, and how specifically in the Private Sales department?
In 2013 I started at Sotheby's as a Co-Head of the Day Sale in London, focusing on what we call the Afternoon Sale or PM Session, which is more of the emerging and mid-career artists. All the while I was doing at least one private sale in the background. Eventually as private sales grew to be its own channel of our business, I did that full time. When I came to New York in 2019, it was a logical place to sit within Sotheby's contemporary private sales department. This is not to say a specialist only conducts private sales or only work in auctions. While we all might have a focus, our entire specialist team and private sales directors work together on both sides – it’s considered client by client or even artwork by artwork to understand the best possible strategy.

Untitled, 2001
Price Available Upon Request

How much of private sales is collection management?
Part of collection management and collector management is having open and real conversations about what is the best sales channel. Sometimes there is a big disparity between what an artwork could trade for in a private transaction versus its auction estimate. When discussing large consignments, I’ve said to collectors, “let's focus these things for auction, that's where you are going to have the best success, and let's look at these artworks for private sale, because we can best place them at a strong price.” It is an ongoing dialogue where we are holistically looking at a collection and figuring out the best way to offer artworks on behalf of our clients.

There are certainly collectors who are more predisposed to going the private sale route. Maybe they are risk averse, maybe they want to place an artwork with a specific person, or maybe they feel like the market for their particular work is not deep enough, and we will engage the known collectors privately.

With the pandemic and so many people in quarantine, is private sales changing at Sotheby's? Is the marketplace evolving or adapting?
Right now everyone has had to change to a digital presence. Until a month ago, Sotheby's Private Sales was just a bulletin on our website. Now we have some 70 objects available just in contemporary art alone. We're also selling Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern art, watches, wine, 20th century design and much more – all through the private sales channel. It is opening up new conversations with people who we have never spoken to before and prompting engaging, dynamic correspondence. I think we have gone five years forward in two weeks in terms of our online presence and how we are presenting artworks to clients who might not otherwise see it.

If we look across the market, galleries of all sizes are launching digital platforms, posting about each other and figuring out new ways to be collaborative. This benefits everyone, and collectors are able to see more artworks. In terms of sales and volume, people are still buying and selling actively in all categories and levels, and we are finding different ways to be flexible given the current circumstances. We are all apart right now, but we are communicating even more than I think we have in the past, which is really impressive.

Gianni Versace, 1980
Price Available Upon Request

Are new collectors trying private sales for the first time?
Clients from all different backgrounds are getting in touch with us for the first time, from the established collector to the more casual. We might not have the artwork available that they are interested in, but having a dialogue to discover the client’s interests is so valuable to building a relationship so later we can show them the right piece. It is really exciting to search for a specific artwork on behalf of a collector. Being able to call a collector to tell them you found the exact piece they mentioned to you 10 years ago is the most rewarding feeling. It's that kind of ‘aha’ moment that makes private sales so interesting.

How can you help new collectors who might not be so versed in contemporary artists and the market?
Our education in contemporary art comes by looking, viewing, reading and talking. At Sotheby’s, we always try to provide context with what we are offering, be that artists biographies, background information, quotes, or context to other similar artworks. My advice is to first invest in a good bookshelf, fill it with books, and then go out and see what you like, ask questions, make offers and dive in that way. It is always a trial.

“Our education in contemporary art comes by looking, viewing, reading and talking.”

Do you collect yourself, and has your own collecting evolved?
In my own collecting I’ve found you can start in one place and end up in another – it’s a constantly evolving journey. Is what I first started collecting 10 years ago what I collect now? No, it is almost completely different. But I have grown in my collecting, and can also finally realize some pieces that I was first attracted to.

My interest in collecting started very early on from my grandfather, who was a university architect and commissioned a lot of large sculptures for the campus of the University of New Mexico, including a very large Bruce Nauman sculpture, titled Center of the Universe. That was always very intriguing to me, and I think it led to the idea of collecting. He owned Native New Mexican art, tribal artifacts, Kachinas and pottery. Collecting was always kind of around growing up.

Bruce Nauman's Center of the Universe at the University of New Mexico. Copyright of the UNM Archives Historic Preservation Committee Photograph Collection.

My own collection has really started to hone in. At first it was emerging artists – what I could afford is what I was interested in. Over time, it has moved to more conceptual work and a lot of work on paper. One recent acquisition from Sotheby's was a print by Bruce Nauman titled Ah Ha. Before that I bought a Martin Kippenberger drawing, from the Hotel Drawing series. It’s an iconic work and I'm quite happy with both of them.

I also became very interested in wine while living in England. We spent a lot of time in France, specifically on the left bank of Bordeaux, and right now Sotheby’s has two amazing wines available that remind me of my time there and the surrounding beauty of the area. 1989 is an archetypal year for Porto and 1989 Lafite is the top of the pile. It’s a great bottle. Similarly, the 2009 Rauzun-Segla is from a property in the village of Margot and the 2009 is interesting because it was the first vintage from the new owners, and they had the late Karl Lagerfeld design the label. My son, unbeknownst to him because he is four, has a case of Rauzun-Segla awaiting his 21st birthday (or 18th birthday should he live in Europe again). It is one of those places that is very special to me. The real bonus of working at Sotheby’s is that there are people who are even more passionate about wine and these winemakers whom I can learn from every day.

Philodendron, 1967
Price Available Upon Request

Do you see things changing in the market in terms of a shift from auction to private sale? Are people adapting their collecting habits?
I think right now collectors who may have only looked at auction are starting to pay attention to private sale, and vice versa. To find the right artwork, you have to consider each opportunity. The present situation notwithstanding, the dialogue for private sales has been evolving over the last three years to become a much more common practice within the business. Before, there was a mindset that an auction house is a place where auctions occurred, and the private sector was reserved for the upper echelon in offline conversations. Today that's very much not the case. We are engaged in trading however it may occur, be that with young, emerging artists or established, top-tier art, and that's because everyone's definition of an important acquisition for their collection is completely different.

Aristolochic Acid, 2013
Price Available Upon Request

How does having Sotheby’s full team of specialists around the world help with private sales and maybe differentiate us?
I think what makes our global team of specialists so interesting and so dynamic is that we all have our own interests and passions within the art world. To that end, I am particularly interested in the books that I have in my library and the artists that I choose to follow. What I am ultimately considered a specialist in is completely different from the person who sits next to me in the office, or from my colleagues in Brussels, London, Paris, Hong Kong or Milan. There's lots of crossover of course, but each person is unique in terms of what they know the most about. That dialogue allows us to have a real discourse about something, or to say to a collector: “my colleague is actually very well versed in that particular artist. Let's have a conversation where they can tell you exactly what you want to know.”

What are some of today's contemporary art collectors looking for when they come to you?
There is not one sort of archetypal collector just like there is no one archetypal masterpiece that fits everyone’s category. There are certainly those who in the current situation are looking for deals, and who are looking for great things they may think they couldn't have found before. There are also collectors who are very set in their ways and only want to see a specific artist or style – minimalism, for example – and they are constantly looking at anything that might come across their path.

Then there are other collectors who collect a little bit of everything, they see it more like that's part of their life in the pictures on their wall. They want to talk about design, they want to talk about African and Oceanic art. They have a budding interest in wine collecting – all these things come and go. Two years ago, a contemporary art collector I worked with for many years just switched to buying watches. He knuckled down and learned everything about Rolex, Patek, Omega and the other major watch brands. That is the interesting thing about collecting, you can dive in and become fully engrossed in it. Be it art, be it wine, be it watches. It causes you to travel, to read and to meet new people.

Equestrian (Flesh) in Brackets with Orange Showdown, 1992
Price Available Upon Request

How does private sales protect a client's privacy?
We always take extra measures because we have to have very forward conversations before engaging in the sale of an artwork. We clearly discuss the parameters of the sale: are there certain collectors who have already been approached? Are there other parts of contemporary art collecting world that we should avoid? Understanding the state of play before you begin helps to maintain privacy. Especially in this moment where we are all working remotely and digitally, information can move around quickly if not handled properly. Right now we have private artworks available very publicly online, and increasingly we will see people who are more comfortable with that kind of trading.

What is the timeline for a private transaction?
We usually take works on consignment, and if we do not yet have a buyer lined up, then it is usually a two to three months process. That is usually how we like to work. We determine an agreed net price with our seller, have the work consigned to Sotheby's, get it into the building to be photographed and catalogued the same way we would for an auction, and then proceed to present the work to our targeted audience.

That process in an ideal world could be as fast as a week, though sometimes it takes much longer. Once we have a mutually agreeable offer, we work to tie the whole deal together. That could take 48 hours if everyone is local, or it could take a lot longer with global parties. Our team has dedicated post-sale services and shipping, so we can have an artwork sourced out of Australia today moving towards Hong Kong two days later and have it in New York by the following week. We have a really strong network in that regard.

During this difficult time, are clients coming in with any questions, and what are you telling them?
A lot of people just want to talk, and maybe they are not actively buying or selling today, but they might be tomorrow. Clients are looking for different perspectives. The best thing we can do is make advice as tailored as possible, keeping in mind their set of needs and the artwork they are hoping to buy or sell.

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