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Collector Roberts Goes with His Own High-Priced Hunches

British art collector David Roberts is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after clients by contemporary art galleries in the U.K. The real estate entrepreneur’s habit of buying up entire exhibitions before they open, and spending six-figure sums on paintings that haven’t been finished, has created a considerable amount of art-world buzz in recent months.

LONDON—British art collector David Roberts is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after clients by contemporary art galleries in the U.K. The real estate entrepreneur’s habit of buying up entire exhibitions before they open, and spending six-figure sums on paintings that haven’t been finished, has created a considerable amount of art-world buzz in recent months.

Suspicions were aroused last fall when the Young British Artist (YBA) Keith Coventry sold all eight paintings for an exhibition to a buyer who had visited his studio. Some of the works had not been finished. Priced at £12,000 ($21,000) each, the paintings are white-on-white ghostly replicas of hunting scenes by Alfred Munnings, that had been on view at the Fine Art Society in London’s New Bond Street.

At the opening reception last month, it quickly became clear that the buyer was Roberts; he was holding court among a number of dealers from other galleries who had come to the show. He bought out another show before it opened, at Albemarle Gallery in 2004. Stuart Luke Gatherer’s series of eight paintings of “A Rake’s Progress,” a modern-day version of Hogarth’s classic, carried a price of £17,500 ($31,000) per painting.

The collector recently moved up a notch, acquiring an unfinished, 10-foot triptych, Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour, by Pop art veteran Peter Blake, which was priced at £250,000 ($425,000) when it was shown at Waddington Galleries last October; and a large new painting by Turner Prize-winner Keith Tyson, acquired from the Haunch of Venison gallery for £287,000 ($488,000).

Dealer Matthew Flowers says that Roberts “likes to buy the best, and that’s not cheap.” He has acquired works by many of the artists whom Flowers represents, including Peter Howson, Eduardo Paolozzi and Tom Phillips. Paolozzi bronzes sell for as much as £70,000 ($122,670) each. Howson’s paintings have reaped more than £100,000 ($175,000) at auction.

Roberts made his fortune in the property business, buying and selling shopping centers. During the last 10 years he has bought and sold 100 shopping centers worth about £2.5 billion in total. Five years ago he moved out of the public sector to form his own company, Edinburgh House.

He began collecting art in a small way about 15 years ago—buying well-made, figurative paintings by minor artists. Though he acknowledges they have long been out of fashion, he still enjoys them. In the past five years the pace has quickened, and Roberts’ collection, which has become eclectic to say the least, now includes nearly 200 artists, ranging from the conventional to the cutting-edge.

Along with works by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, there are pieces by “Stuckists” Charles Thomson and Stella Vine. The collection also contains ceramics by Grayson Perry, sculptures by Tony Cragg and lightboxes by Julian Opie.

Commenting on the independent nature of his buying, Roberts said, “I think it is wrong that only three or four people seem to determine taste in this country. When I buy, I do not require that kind of validation.”

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