7 Things to Look for When Hiring an Art Consultant

Aug 21, 2019

The art world is notorious for its lack of regulation and transparency and the global market is full of complexities; it can help to have someone on your side - an art advisor, or consultant - to help you make sense of it all and make the right purchasing decisions as a collector. However, even choosing a consultant can be a daunting task! The Clarion List has more than 800 listings for art consultants, and there are certainly many more globally.

We asked three art consultants with different backgrounds, experience and interests what advice they have for collectors who would like to hire a professional to help navigate the market to purchase art. Leslie Rankow of Leslie Rankow Fine Arts, Terri Kahan of Terri Kahan Fine Arts and Marina Aarts weighed in with their own ideas about what to look for in a consultant.

1. Someone Who Understands Your Collector Profile

There are many different motives for collecting art. For some, it’s a passion for being connected to a piece of history, or - in the case of contemporary art - making history. For others, it’s a status symbol and a means of decorating a smart and sophisticated home. Still others see it as a method for making valuable investments. Most collectors are motivated by more than one factor, but it’s important to reflect and ask yourself why you collect before you find someone to help you do it.

No matter the profile, Rankow said that anyone who is serious enough to spend the money on a consultant should take the time to find out who they are and interview them. She described the process of being hired by a very discerning couple who asked to meet her at an art fair. They spent some time walking around the fair, discussing pieces that they liked to make sure that their taste and interests aligned. Then, she was invited to their home to view their collection, which she described as, “intellectual, sophisticated, minimalist and meticulous” before she started to recommend new pieces for purchase.

Kahan said that her private clients have diverse profiles. She said, “I have clients that are very particular and really require a lot of research and legwork, while some are much more brand-name driven.” She said that she sees a lot more of the latter these days and expressed some concern that consultants who “just help people decorate their homes” don’t do enough research to ensure that their clients get fair prices.

2. Someone with an Appropriate Background and Experience

Kahan, who grew up in the business with art dealer parents, spent time working in auction houses and galleries and also has an MBA, stressed the importance of working with a consultant who has some relevant experience in the art market. She said, “I’ve met a lot of people who wouldn’t think about hiring a money manager right out of business school hire a young person right out of a [Christie’s or Sotheby’s education] program. The courses are great, but they are not enough. You need someone who has been in an auction house or gallery for a few years.”

This kind of experience is invaluable for learning the ins and outs of the market - from the process of buying and selling to shipping to international tax implications. Aarts worked for more than two decades at Christie’s in Amsterdam before transitioning to a career as a consultant. She said that - in the beginning - she could not have imagined spending so much time with the storied auction house, but, “the contact with the original paintings, the dynamics of the auction business as much as the incredible high standard of expertise available on all fields there, the possibility to go out and visit collectors and last but not least the international environment made the job exciting and varied.”

3. Someone Well-Connected

Experience at a gallery or auction house also provides an opportunity to forge connections. Rankow said, “I source work from the usual suspects - 10 major galleries repeatedly because they represent the strongest artists and we have a good relationship.” With these galleries, she’s often able to avoid waiting lists, which allows her to find exciting pieces for her clients before anyone else is able to snatch them.

4. Someone with a Specialization

Though most consultants offer a wide range of services to a wide range of customers, it’s reasonable to expect that each one will have certain strengths and weaknesses. Rankow said, “I’m not good at discovering young, new artists, though every once in a while there’s an emerging artist that catches my eye. I tend to be good at knowing whether something is a good investment. I like to do research about the artist and about the market - guide people to make a sound investment that hopefully will at least hold its own.” She works almost exclusively with private collectors, whereas Kahan - because of her MBA and a background in finance - often works with art funds.

As former director of the Old Masters Department, Aarts has her own specialization. She said, I am a traditional valuator and broker in the sense that my business centers on valuations. The valuation is mostly the start of other services, such as curatorial services, meaning that I advise on conservation and restoration, frames and other issues, or advise on where and when to sell, in regard to the developments in the market etc. Further to this, I provide expertise on old masters, including art historical and also technical research. And, of course, I also advise buyers. Here the issues are condition of the work, place in the oeuvre, price, desirability, etc.”

5. Someone Who Can Advocate on Your Behalf

Kahan said, “Having worked on Wall Street, I can say that the art market is really unregulated. You don’t need a license to be an art advisor. It is really buyer beware and you need somebody who can help you assess the value of something.” She added, “There is so much inventory, so there is a lot of competition - a lot of people needing and wanting to sell things - and there’s no guidebook to tell you what the prices should be.”

She said that while you can take a stockbroker to task if they’ve committed fraud, there are really not the same protections in the art market. For this reason, it’s important to hire a consultant that you trust. Aarts said, “Integrity and knowledge are key to the art consultant. This requires discipline, reflection, an ascetic attitude and, of course, hard work.”

6. Someone Who is Qualified to Tell You ‘No”

Rankow said, “Anyone can choose a work of art they like; it’s my job sometimes to say no and redirect the client to a work has other reasons for being purchased.” She said that when she started out as a consultant, the business had its share of advisors with good taste who would go around to galleries with their friends to help them buy works; now it attracts more knowledgeable and serious advisors because clients are more demanding, and art is considered an alternative investment.

However, not everyone who claims to be a consultant is qualified. Rankow spoke of an exchange that she witnessed at an art fair where a woman pointed to a work in a booth, said that she liked it and the “consultant” quickly encouraged her to buy it. Rankow said that he was just there to get the commission and that an experienced consultant should push back and make sure that their clients are considering the purchase from many different angles and are making the right decisions.

7. Someone Who Meshes with Your Personality

Though it’s certainly important to maintain professional boundaries, Rankow said that most of her best clients are people that she would be friends with anyway. She said that people who are motivated to collect art as a status symbol might be a better fit for a consultant with a parallel social life and that she tends to attract and keep clients who really like to think about value and want guidance in negotiating and bidding at auction. When making a decision about a consultant, she said, “You’re better off trying to make a happy fit right from the beginning.”

Search for art consultants on The Clarion List, the leading online resource for discovering top-rated art service companies worldwide: www.clarionlist.com.


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