Kenneth Montague has his life hanging on his walls.
He’s standing by the large canvas Any Number of Preoccupations, a rich, ambiguous work showing a man sitting in a red bathrobe by British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The painting was the cornerstone of the artist’s celebrated show at the Studio Museum of Harlem three years ago. Dr. Montague has it hanging by his stationary bike and treadmill.
From there, Dr. Montague, a Toronto dentist and a prominent voice in the art collecting community, begins a tour of his collection – or at least a small portion of the 250 to 350-plus photographs, paintings, sculptures and video works he keeps in his opulent, full apartment. The rest are in his dental office and on loan to museums.
The art market has its excesses. Earlier this month, Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for more than $142-million at Christie’s, becoming the highest price for a work sold at auction.
But Dr. Montague is the truer face of a collector.
He loves his art. He uncorks a bottle of wine and cranks up the stereo, as he carefully shows each work.
Every collector also likes to have their art appreciate in value. But an artwork’s true value, beyond its importance in the larger art community and how rarely it appears on the market, is how desirable it is – the work’s aesthetic dividend.
And that’s the fascinating cycle into which avid and talented collectors get drawn. In order to know the full value of a work, you need to have a sense of its demand in the market. But you also have to rely on your own educated eye and love for the work to fully gauge its importance. That then stops collectors from wanting to part with the work they love, thereby making it more rare and raising its market value. And so the cycle continues.
“For me, it’s not about the money, it’s about the love. It’s about the passion for the work, how it speaks to me about my own life and experience,” Dr. Montague says. “Most collectors of my stature move around a portion of their collection, not significantly, but they’ll sell a painting if they can get a good price or if they’re tired of it in some way.”
But not Dr. Montague. He’s not selling, he says, as he looks at the large canvas Blood, a heavily red painting of a hip young man in a 1970s checkered outfit by increasingly praised African-American artist Barkley Hendricks. The work has gone up significantly from what he paid (although he didn’t divulge exact numbers).
“It’s very validating. But I realize if no one else had heard of him, I’d still have this in my living room. I’d still love it the same way.”
Exuberant prints by the twentieth-century master Alexander Calder hang on the opposite wall. On a side wall leading to the bathroom is a watercolour by the renowned British contemporary artist Chris Ofili. An Edward Burtynsky photograph hangs in his bedroom, as well as a Kara Walker lithograph and silkscreen. All are placed on walls crammed with other works. He has tiny number pins stuck by each work, so that guests can refer to a list Dr. Montague gives out identifying each piece.
He also has important works by emerging Canadians, such as one of abstract photographer Jessica Eaton’s best known shots. The Canadian market, in particular, despite its growing international recognition, is still seen as a bargain.
“I think Canadian art is still very much undervalued, if you compare the record prices achieved by Canadian artists to other record prices achieved for G8 countries. We’re probably lagging last. There’s a lot of room for the appreciation of Canadian art,” says David Heffel in the Toronto office of the Heffel auction house, which is having its major fall auction in Toronto on Nov. 28.
“For the best collectors I’m aware of, it almost becomes very much like a lifestyle, as opposed to a hobby or vocation. Their holidays are timed around art fairs and biennales,” Mr. Heffel adds. “Their social circles are very much based on people involved in the visual arts, the museums. It’s a very enjoyable lifestyle. You’re living with art 24/7. It becomes addictive.”
Yet the Canadian market follows the same pitfalls as other countries, as tastes change and artists fall in and out of favour.
Historical paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff, for instance, known for his quintessential scenes of winter life in the nineteenth century, tend to fetch the same price as they did in the 1980s, while Emily Carr’s works have soared, Mr. Heffel said. Her painting The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase) is predicted to sell for as much as $1.6-million at Heffel’s auction next week.
“Sometimes I’m buying really wonderful works, because I like them, and the market is going the other way,” said Toronto lawyer Barry Appleton, a noted collector of Canadian works. He points to the mistake of strictly following trends.
“It used to be that everybody liked historical pictures from the mid-1800s. Ken Thomson and other people were buying Krieghoff and people like that. And they were beautiful pictures. They’re really wonderful. But now, people want more contemporary work.”
Yet even contemporary works by major names such as abstractionists Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Emile Borduas are relatively cheaper than similar U.S. and European artists.
“If you look at works by Riopelle or by Borduas, these are works that are every bit as good as works I see by Jackson Pollock,” Mr. Appleton says.
“But if I go to Christie’s, I’ll see the Jackson Pollock go for $10-million or $15-million and upwards. And you’ll see a magnificent work by Riopelle sell for multiples of hundreds of thousands, sometimes for $1-million, but nowhere in the range of these other works. That’s astounding to me, because they worked together. They did things together. They were in the same circle,” Mr. Appleton adds.
Every sentence of advice he gives to any collector begins with some variation of “buy what you love.” Yet that also requires having a thorough grounding in the place of the artwork in the larger art world and its history.
“Good art often speaks for itself. But you want to know the context of the work. You want someone to talk to you about the condition of the work. You want to understand the provenance, which is very important,” Mr. Appleton says. “That can be a very important part of the value.”
The thrill for most is finding something underappreciated and undervalued, and helping to raise its stature. Showing and lending out the works, as Dr. Montague does with the works of black artists and Mr. Appleton particularly does with contemporary Inuit art, further raises the profile of the pieces.
Of course that requires establishing a close relationship with dealers and artists and a time commitment many don’t have. As the former executive director of the Canadian Art Foundation, former publisher of Canadian Art magazine and a collector herself, Ann Webb notes that doing the proper homework to engage so fully with the art world is beyond many collectors. That’s where advisers can help.
“As more and more people enter the art world, people who perhaps don’t have the time that I’m talking about and are looking for expertise are reaching out to advisers to help them,” she says.
The trouble is, an adviser could feel like a third wheel for a collector like Dr. Montague, who describes his collection as very much representing himself, a biography of his aesthetics and his life on his walls.
Or as Greg Humeniuk, a curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a collector of contemporary works, says, the fascination is about allowing an artist to enter your own home with their works and to see “how they then proceed to create this world or their own artistic universe, and what is the internal logic of their art-making.”
Unlike a stock or bond, collectors live with their art every day. They have to love it. “Because I’m not thinking of the art that I have as a financial instrument, it’s sort of easier for me that way,” Mr. Humeniuk says.