19 Gallerists Share Their Love for Collecting and Dream Purchases
Working in an art gallery without being tempted to buy art is akin to working in a chocolate factory and never getting a sweet tooth. As gallerists develop relationships with artists and travel the world to see and sell art, they often become major collectors in their own right. Their appetites become more voracious as they solidify their places in the industry and their wallets (and wall space) expand. On the whole, gallerists purchase with a unique passion and verve, supporting their art community with their own capital.
Art is pricier than bonbons, of course, and anyone who wants to advance in the art world faces significant structural barriers. It’s no surprise that many of the gallerists below developed a love of art early on, often from relatives and family already deeply immersed in the nuances of selling and collecting art.
Yet no matter their backgrounds, the following gallerists all share a belief that collecting is a lifelong journey, and living with art is an undeniably enriching experience. In recent months, as galleries have shuttered around the world due to COVID-19, personal collections have offered some dealers their only opportunities to experience art in real life.
Co-founder, Proyectos Ultravioleta
Portrait of Stefan Benchoam by Alan Benchoam. Courtesy of Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City.
Stefan Benchoam grew up surrounded by his parents’ collection of modern Guatemalan art. As a teenager, he was already eager to acquire work for himself: He became obsessed with the paintings of José Francisco Tún and saved enough allowance to buy one. “Sentimental value aside,” he said, it’s “still one of my favorite works.”
These days, Benchoam has no specific collecting strategy, yet he’s still thoughtful and rigorous about his approach. When he looks at art, he attempts to “relate to it in the most open and direct way possible, independent of who the artist is or where it’s being shown,” he explained. If he feels a connection, he begins researching the work, the artist, and the context in which the piece was made. After all this, if he’s still thinking about the artwork, he inquires with the gallery that has supported the artist the longest, and—hopefully, finally—makes the purchase.
Francisco Tún, title unknown, c. 1970. Courtesy of Stefan Benchoam.
Benchoam looks for a similar passion in his collector clients, too. If he feels that a potential buyer’s interest “is more speculative or solely economic,” he said, then he typically won’t make the sale.
Director, Ruth Benzacar
Portrait of Orly Benzacar. Courtesy of Orly Benzacar
One of the perils of simultaneously collecting and dealing is becoming attached to artworks that could be bought at any time. Orly Benzacar once hung a Miguel Rothschild photograph in her office. One day, a collector came for a meeting and bought it. “As soon as that photograph was taken down from my office and delivered, I realized I missed it and wanted it,” she remembered. “I immediately phoned Rothschild’s Berlin studio and asked him for another copy of that piece to purchase myself.” She secured the last copy of the edition. The work hangs in her dining room today.
Benzacar’s collecting habits grew organically. Her mother, Ruth, started her eponymous gallery when Benzacar was very young. “I’ve lived around artworks forever,” she said, adding that, as a child, it felt “very strange” to walk into a home without art.
Fantasy purchase: A Lucio Fontana cut canvas.
Co-Founder, The Third Line
Portrait of Claudia Cellini. Courtesy of The Third Line.
Simultaneously collecting and running a gallery has taught Claudia Cellini to always leave the best artworks for the audience and collectors. “We never believed in the gallery buying up and sitting on the top works,” she said.
Cellini buys sporadically, like when a work “really hits a note” that resonates with pieces of her own life, or when she feels she needs to document an experience with a visual object. The first piece she ever purchased was a photograph by Xi Zhouwei, a Chinese avant-garde artist of the 1980s and ’90s. The black-and-white image features the Chinese painter Fang Lijun. The artwork, in other words, is an artist’s portrayal of another artist—a celebration of a creative community.
Founder, Galerie Atiss Dakar
Portrait of Aissa Dione. Courtesy of Galerie Atiss Dakar.
For Aissa Dione, collecting is a means of encouraging artists’ development, showing that “you believe in them deeply, not only through superficial considerations,” she said. Dione’s approach to both dealing and collecting derives from her own experiences as an artist and entrepreneur. She studied art for years before opening her own textile design company, Aïssa Dione Tissus, in 1992. She stopped practicing artmaking and was able to retain her connection to creativity by opening her own gallery in 1996, presenting artists from West Africa in general, and Senegal in particular.
Soly Cisse, La Poule, 2005. Courtesy of Aissa Dione.
Dione’s emphasis on cultivating trust with artists has rewarded her personal collection. The gallerist represented multimedia artist Soly Cissé for 10 years, helping his career so much that he decided to leave his Senegal home and join international galleries. In the middle of the night, just before his departure, Cissé had a truck bring Dione a painting that reflected the gallerist’s long-standing aesthetic advice to him: Simplify and pare work down to essentials. Dione establishes a similarly personal and honest relationship with her collectors, only selling work that she’d buy for herself.
Fantasy purchase: A Giuseppe Penone tree sculpture.
Owner and director, Goodman Gallery
Portrait of Liza Essers by Anthea Pokroy. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
William Kentridge, Atlas Procession I, 2000. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Liza Essers started her collection by buying on credit. When she was in her twenties, she purchased a William Kentridge print, Atlas Procession I (2000), from gallerist David Krut. He gave her a year to pay off the work, which cost R 10,000 (less than $1,000). “Seeing William Kentridge’s Soho Eckstein films at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg really helped ignite my passion,” Essers said.
“[An artist’s] philosophy, value system, and what they believe in are big factors for me.”
Over the decades, as Essers’s financial circumstances have changed, she’s expanded her collection in thoughtful ways. Now, she predominantly collects female artists. Film interests her, as well as art about “social change and making a difference.” She also likes highly textured and handmade works by artists such as Ghada Amer, El Anatsui, Ernesto Neto, and Nicholas Hlobo. “It’s not possible to represent all the artists I love,” she said, but she tries to collaborate with them when she can.
“I believe in trying to meet with the artist and see who they are as a person, which informs what work I buy,” she said. “Their philosophy, value system, and what they believe in are big factors for me.”
Fantasy purchase: A Mark Rothko painting. “I’m very drawn to the contemplative nature of his work. It’s truly transporting and transformative.”
Founder, Xavier Hufkens
Portrait of Xavier Hufkens by Jean-François Jaussaud. Courtesy of Xavier Hufkens.
As a gallerist, Xavier Hufkens’s first responsibilities are to his artists and collectors. “My role is to bring art to people,” he said. “Many of the works I have placed, I would have loved to own myself.” Artists need collectors’ support to nurture their careers, and gallerists need collectors’ resources to develop their programs and sustain other artists. “It becomes a mutually supportive system,” said Hufkens. He likes to have relationships with the people he purchases from, and perhaps the artists themselves, since “there is a human being behind every artwork,” he said.
Hufkens began collecting editions as a teenager. By his 18th birthday, he was ready to graduate to painting. His parents gifted him a work by Belgian artist Walter Swennen, which he still owns. Hufkens always wanted to work with the artist, and—25 years after receiving the birthday gift—he made it happen. “In hindsight,” he said, the gift “may be one of the most significant works to me, not only within my collection but also as a milestone in my career.”
Fantasy purchase: A Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy work. “Felix and I collaborated in the early 1990s and his candy works are very meaningful and dear to me.” (Hufkens’s recently opened gallery on Brussels’s rue Van Eyck is one site of the largest Gonzalez-Torres installation to date, with a pile of fortune cookies inaugurating the new space.)
Principal, Jenkins Johnson Gallery
Romare Bearden, Tidings, 1982. Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Collection.
Portrait of Karen Jenkins-Johnson. Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery.
“The artist’s needs must come first,” said Karen Jenkins-Johnson, when asked about the unique responsibilities of simultaneously collecting and representing artists. In the past, she’s given up the opportunity to own work by a gallery artist so that an esteemed institution could buy it. In 2018, Jenkins-Johnson mounted a solo exhibition of work by Deborah Roberts and put a reserve on a mixed-media collage titled Baldwin’s Promise (2017). But she relinquished her family collection’s claim on the piece when the Pérez Art Museum Miami expressed interest in acquiring it. “It has since become one of her seminal works,” said Jenkins-Johnson.
The gallerist has always had an intimate, supportive relationship with the artists she collects. At 26 years old, she bought her first artwork: a piece by conceptual artist Andrea Smith, who was her neighbor in Maui, Hawaii. The Jenkins Johnson Collection now focuses on emerging and mid-career artists of the African diaspora, with the gallery occasionally serving as an appraisal site. Jenkins-Johnson recounted how a terminally ill woman once walked in with a beloved 1982 Romare Bearden collage, Tidings, which she’d bought for $2,120 at an early exhibition. After the woman died, her partner contacted the gallery, and Jenkins-Johnson bought the work for her own collection at market value.
Fantasy purchases: Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997) or School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012). “They both represent positive images of Black life. Timeless paintings!”
Founder, König Galerie
Portrait of Johann König by Juergen Teller, 2010. Courtesy of König Galerie.
Johann König said his first-ever artwork purchase was a “realization of [his] privilege.” At 19 years old, he bought a drawing by his friend, Carsten Fock, inspired by Paul Hardcastle’s song “19.” The anti-war lyrics focus on the disparities between the narrator’s life at 19 and that of a young Vietnam soldier of the same age. “It was about self-reflection somehow,” added König.
The dealer freely admits that, while he can provide his clients with “amazing advice,” he’s a “worse collector than advisor” because he’s not focused enough and always forgets to go over his collection. His own acquisition strategy is more personal and based on art that he and his wife come across. Some of König’s holdings are also family heirlooms. He owns an abstract 1984 Gerhard Richter painting that his mother bought from the artist and passed down to him.
Fantasy purchase: Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp.
Founder, Pearl Lam Galleries
Portrait of Pearl Lam. Courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries.
Pearl Lam has a self-described “ownership problem.” “I always like to purchase things, own things,” she said. She began buying art when she was a student in London with some extra cash. In the decades since, she hasn’t developed any collecting strategy, but has leaned into her acquisitive passions. “I buy [art] because I love it,” she said. “It’s all about my heart. It’s not about investment strategy or whatever.”
As with any good romance, Lam’s heart has softened over time, too. She recalled how, in the mid-aughts, Melissa Chiu (now the director of the Hirshhorn Museum) wanted her to visit artist Zhang Huan’s studio. Lam told her, “I don’t really like performance art. Zhang Huan’s performance art is very painful.” It wasn’t her “cup of tea,” she said. She knew the artist went to extremes—lying on massive ice beds, for example, or sitting naked and honey-slathered in a public bathroom, waiting to attract bugs.
“It’s all about my heart. It’s not about investment strategy.”
Yet after Lam met Zhang at a dinner organized by Chiu, she agreed to stop by the studio. She was pleasantly surprised, falling for his work as both a collector and a gallerist. She’s purchased many of his pieces over the years and recently helped organize the Hermitage Museum’s upcoming retrospective of his work—the institution’s first major show of a Chinese artist in years.
Fantasy purchase: Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952).
Partner and executive director, Perrotin
James Bartolacci, Looking to Connect , 2020. Courtesy of Perrotin.
Portrait of Peggy Leboeuf by Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of Perrotin.
For Peggy Leboeuf, buying and selling art has always been about “the potential for deep emotional connection, beyond what we can express through words,” she said. The story of her first-ever purchase reflects this value. In the mid-1990s, her friend Olivier Antoine showed her a work on paper by artist Emmanuelle Mafille featuring two ambiguously gendered figures kissing. “I felt overwhelmed by its beauty, I actually almost cried,” Leboeuf recalled. She couldn’t stop thinking about the subject matter and technique in the work, and eventually purchased it. Leboeuf brings a similar mindset to her job at Perrotin. She wants to work with artists who inspire her and make work “with a lasting impact.”
When Leboeuf moved to New York in 2013, she began collecting more emerging artists. “I think this is a result of the energy in New York and the inspiration and hope the city offers,” she said. Serendipity, too, has shaped her personal collection: She once won a Pia Camil sculpture at a silent benefit auction for RxArt. She’d been a longtime fan of the artist and felt like the win “was fate.”
Fantasy purchase: Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (1477–82). “The beauty and level of detail in his artwork has greatly contributed to movements throughout art history, through today. I would love nothing more than to be quarantined in the Uffizi with the artwork.”
Founder and director, Deli Gallery
Lex Brown, Untitled, 2017. Courtesy of Deli Gallery, New York.
Portrait of Max Marshall by Ken Castaneda. Courtesy of Deli Gallery, New York.
Through his work as a gallerist, Max Marshall has learned that “exhibiting art and living with art are two very different things with extremely different motivations,” he said. Over time, he’s realized that working with collectors is less about “convincing them the work is ‘good’” than it is about building a potential purchaser’s “personal relationship and connection” with the art. Marshall shares this wisdom with his artists—their future patrons may be less interested in the objects themselves than in the artists’ stories about making the work.
Marshall’s first purchase was White Tulips ’13 (2013), an oil-on-paper work by Alexandria Tarver that was featured in an exhibition at his old apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (before he founded Deli Gallery). More recently, Deli Gallery artist Lex Brown gifted Marshall a drawing of Daffy Duck which, according to the gallerist, “deployed the cartoon character as a stand-in for an unrelenting, comical force against oppressive systems.” Marshall was moved by Brown’s generosity. “An artist’s work is their capital, their currency, and their power—so it was moving for Lex to share that with me,” he said.
Edward Tyler Nahem
Founder, Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art
Portrait of Edward Tyler Nahem. Courtesy of Edward Tyler Nahem.
As a collector and gallerist, Edward Tyler Nahem must be wary of competing impulses, though the two functions are often inextricable. “Collecting comes from a purer or non-business train of thinking, and dealing demands prudent business choices,” he said. Nevertheless, he only shows work in his gallery that he’d be proud to own for himself. Nahem rarely sells work from his collection. When he does, it’s in order to purchase something else.
Though Nahem did not grow up in the art world, he began visiting museums and galleries in his late teens. His first purchase was an 1850s Japanese woodblock print by Hiroshige. “I instantly became smitten with this world of 19th-century Japan, its unique history, culture, and art,” he said.
Founding director, Carbon 12
Portrait of Kourosh Nouri. Courtesy of Carbon 12.
Kourosh Nouri has collected since childhood, with interests spanning far beyond fine art. Early on, he acquired stamps, as well as French and Belgian comics, or bandes dessinées. “I have always collected something, so collecting art came to me very naturally,” he said. Around age 21, he purchased his first painting with a cash birthday gift from his father, from what he described as “a mediocre auction house.” “The painting was an expressionist depiction of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque,” he said. “In retrospect, a true painterly horror, but I would love to have it again!”
For Nouri, being a collector is an integral part of being a gallerist. “How can I be trusted by a collector if I am not genuinely interested in what I promote?” he asked. Over the years, his interactions with artists have given him “an in-depth appreciation and knowledge” of what contemporary art practices really mean. He’s now able to navigate between artists and collectors, understanding both sides of the art-selling equation.
“Collecting art came to me very naturally.”
In a perfect world, Nouri would buy more strategically—purchase a contextual work, “maybe a transition between series or two bodies of work, or simply the work that breaks the visual rhythm in a show,” he said. For now, he just buys what he loves.
Fantasy purchase: Sara Rahbar’s Flag #59, I Don’t Trust You Anymore (2019). “This work has every possible layer you could expect or want in an artwork. It’s simply perfect.”
Founder, Thaddaeus Ropac
Portrait of Thaddaeus Ropac by Ulrich Ghezzi. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac.
Jean Michel Basquiat Self Portrait, 1983. © Jean-Michel Basquiat / ARS, New York 2020 / The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York 2020. Photo by Ulrich Ghezzi. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac.
Thaddaeus Ropac said his “modest attempt” to become an artist made him realize he was better suited to running a gallery. At the beginning of his career, he lacked the funds to build a substantial collection. Instead, he amassed works that artists gifted to him. When Ropac opened his gallery in 1983, he bought his first piece: an artwork by Austrian artist Josef Strau, which was part of the gallery’s inaugural exhibition.
According to Ropac, collecting and dealing are complementary. “By living with art in your private surroundings, you learn to approach it differently. This experience is, of course, beneficial when running a gallery,” he said. As someone who curates objects in his own home, he thinks about the right context for all the artworks he sells.
Ropac knows that collecting is a long game. Back in 1982, he was an intern, helping set up Joseph Beuys’s Hirschdenkmäler (Stag Monuments) (1958/1982) for the famed “Zeitgeist” show at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. “I was young, staying at a youth hostel, passionate, and completely overwhelmed by this experience,” Ropac recalled. “I would never have dreamed that 30 years later, this seminal work would become a key work of my collection.”
Founder, Schoeni Projects
Portrait of Nicole Schoeni. Courtesy of Schoeni Projects.
“Art appreciation and collecting is in my DNA,” said Nicole Schoeni. The dealer’s late father, Manfred Schoeni, was a self-taught artist, gallerist, and patron. When Schoeni was young, she accompanied him to galleries, museums, and artists’ studios—and helped him in the family gallery. “When my father was still alive, he encouraged me to believe in my artistic eye; he would often ask me what I thought of an artwork and acted on my interests,” she added.
Schoeni became particularly interested in street art at an early age. Her first purchase was a work by Adam Neate. When she opens her gallery in London later this month, Schoeni will include the artist in her inaugural show, “disCONNECT.” The exhibition will feature many of Schoeni’s recent acquisitions—Isaac Cordal’s polyurethane resin sculpture of a socially distancing couple, a wallpaper poem by Aida Wilde, and a landscape painting by David Bray, to name a few.
Isaac Cordal, Social Distancing, 2020. Courtesy of Schoeni Projects.
Fantasy purchases: “Mostly artworks that I saw when I was much younger, but unsure of my own choices. I never took the leap, and now their markets have moved on: Jenny Seville, Mark Ryden, Kehinde Wiley, Sopheap Pich. But a Francis Bacon triptych is at the top of my dream list.”
Vice president, Pace Gallery
Portrait of Adam Sheffer by Luke Fontana. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Adam Sheffer started his art-world career as Mary Boone’s assistant in the 1990s. With that income, he bought a small painting by Ellen Gallagher to kick off his collection. “I felt an immediate kinship with the work, its restraint, and the inherent message,” he said. Gallagher, like Sheffer, is from Boston. He continues to collect her work today.
Over the years, Sheffer developed a particular interest in language-based art. He owns work by William Kentridge, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, and the “very promising” younger artist Bethany Collins. Sheffer said lifelong dyslexia and learning disabilities have given him a unique perspective. “I don’t always understand the meaning of the word at which I am staring, so it speaks to me first as a visual image,” he said.
William Kentridge, Whilst Reaching Down (Slowly), 2013. © William Kentridge. Courtesy of Adam Sheffer.
Sheffer also collects work by Sônia Gomes (who recently joined Pace) and Peter Hujar, whose photographs remind the dealer of his Greenwich Village neighborhood’s past. “I am interested in art dealing as a form of storytelling, and for me that comes from personal experiences,” said Sheffer.
Fantasy purchase: Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). “It sends shivers down my spine every time I see it.”
Founder, Marc Straus
Portrait of Marc Straus. Courtesy of Marc Straus.
Marc Straus has been collecting since 1964. That year, he got married and, with his new wife Livia, purchased four paintings by Saul Raskin, a peer of Marc Chagall. The artist was living in a one-room, cold water flat on New York’s Eldridge Street, and while the couple loved his paintings of the Jewish ghettos, they also wanted to support him. Soon after, they purchased a 1966 Kenneth Noland “Chevron” painting, then Ellsworth Kelly’s Chatham VIII (1970). “No one wanted his work, but it wasn’t cheap then,” Straus remembered of the latter. “I was finishing medical training and we had no funds. I took out a three-year loan to buy it. Kelly came to visit us. He had no money and stayed in a terrible motel.” The painting has hung on Straus’s study wall for 41 years, save the months it’s been on loan for institutional shows. A Bruce Nauman neon, Human Sexual Experience (1985), hangs nearby.
Because Straus was a collector long before he was a gallerist, he retains the collector mindset. He ensures that gallery visitors are treated with respect, and he sets prices at which he’d be comfortable buying. “In 1991 and 1992, after the art market came to a dead stop, I was an active buyer,” he said. “I believe as a gallery we should look at how to build on an artist’s career for the long term.”
Co-founder, Sperone Westwater
Portrait of Angela Westwater by Greg Kessler. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater
Angela Westwater’s first-ever art purchase has developed an incredible provenance over the course of five decades. In 1970, artist John Coplans and dealer Irving Blum took Westwater to Roy Lichtenstein’s studio on the Bowery. She bought the artist’s Mirror #10 (1970), which he planned to show in Los Angeles in 1971. “Eureka!” Westwater said. “Some years after I bought it, I sold it to Don Marron and subsequently, he gifted it to MoMA.”
As a collector herself, Westwater is able to empathize with her clientele. “I have experienced firsthand issues of size, scale, aesthetic juxtapositions, and installation,” she said. Over the years, she and her husband, design showroom owner David Meitus, have bought paintings by Malcolm Morley, Andy Warhol, and William Wegman; a collage by Cy Twombly; antiquities; and sculptures by Jean Arp (Kore, 1961) and Yves Klein (La Victoire de Samothrace, 1962). The first piece Westwater and Meitus bought together was a black basalt torso of Cleopatra from the 2nd or 1st century BCE. “We split the price, so we can credit Cleopatra for starting our collection,” said the gallerist.
Installation view of Angela Westwater’s collection. Photo by Robert Vinas, Jr. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater.
Fantasy purchase: A Francis Bacon painting, especially Second Version of ‘Painting’ (1946). “I always remember his dictum that ‘the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation.’”
Portrait of Ealan and Melinda Wingate. Courtesy of Ealan Wingate.
In the 1950s, when Ealan Wingate was 9 or 10 years old, he often visited Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery on 53rd Street with his father. Wingate would egg his father on to purchase art that was out of his price range. “Mrs. Halpert liked me very much for that,” Wingate remembered. One day, she told Wingate’s father to send his son alone. When Wingate climbed the stairs, he found a great prize—Halpert gave him a Jack Levine drawing and said, “Now you start becoming a collector yourself.” The drawing remains in Wingate’s collection to this day.
As a collector and dealer, he said he must have empathy for the art itself.
Another prized piece is Robert Rauschenberg’s Buffalo I (1962), a black-and-white silkscreen painting that Wingate bought at auction in London. Wingate knew the artist through his work at Sonnabend Gallery, which lends the artwork a personal, nostalgic element. It now hangs in his living room, where he looks at it daily and still finds it “full of new information,” he said.
Obsession drives Wingate’s collecting habits. He buys work that he can’t stop looking at and learning from—work he feels he “must own.” As a collector and dealer, he said he must have empathy for the art itself, ensuring that an object is “shown and handled to its fullest potential and is respected independently of the artist.”
Fantasy purchase: Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). “The painting permits the viewer to be complicit and essential in the structure of the moment depicted. As the artist serves as the motor behind the action, he puts us, the viewers, at the same level as the royal couple, and all those who stand in front of his art being made.”
Header and Thumbnail Image: Portrait of Liza Essers by Anthea Pokroy. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Claudia Cellini was the director of The Third Line. She is the co-founder.