If you want to know what’s changed in art collecting over the past half-decade, ask Mary Rozell, global head of the UBS Art Collection and author of The Art Collector’s Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Acquiring and Owning Art, a book originally published in 2014, with a second edition out this fall. ARTnews spoke with Rozell over the summer about buying online, what’s new in the collecting world, and the ins and outs of commissioning artists.
ARTnews: The new preface to your book is dated March 2020, the very month the coronavirus lockdown hit much of the world—but there is only one line acknowledging that. Did the timing pose a dilemma?
Rozell: It was quite a dilemma because my book was finished when lockdown started. We were done with the editing process. What do we do now? In terms of writing about the online art world during Covid—that would have been an entire other book.
Were you surprised by the extent to which auction houses and galleries have been able to pivot and do business online?
Yes and no. I was impressed with how quickly things changed and how much was on offer. At the same time, it felt like a shift to digital was going to happen anyway.
How would you advise collectors who are thinking about buying online?
The basic principles haven’t changed. The stakes are getting higher. We’re seeing higher-value work being offered online. There is more risk buying online. You have to ask the right questions, do due diligence, especially on the secondary market. Condition is especially tricky. I think the space is going to improve as technology evolves. [At the UBS Art Collection] we’ve had circumstances even before Covid where there was a snowstorm and we had a work on reserve and we couldn’t get to see it. So we asked for a video of an artwork and [ended up having to ask], can you please show me the side of that frame? Can you please zoom in on the signature?
Don’t be shy about asking for more information, really digging. One of the things that I think is interesting—and obviously it has to do with relationships and bargaining power—but, you know, might there come a time when it would be more common to have works on consignmen, and when the work is delivered, you have the option to return it? Is that something a collector can negotiate? You do not know what a work looks like until you see it in person. Sometimes you like it even better. But sometimes you don’t. As the art world starts to parallel the retail industry more in this online space, with transparency as well, maybe there will be different offerings to make it more friendly for a collector to drop a couple hundred thousand dollars.
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Buying artwork is risky. So we will evolve.
Has UBS continued to collect during the pandemic?
We have, but we got to see a lot of art before lockdown, in February and March, at fairs like Frieze Los Angeles, the Armory Show, Independent. Part of continuing to acquire art was truly wanting to support the industry. I also think in this new environment everyone is appreciating having a little more time to think about an acquisition and do more research. In some cases, someone on my team in Manhattan has gotten on a bike and gone to see a work at a gallery. So we are still seeing some things in person.
Will we see more collectors sharing their collections digitally?
I do think there is going to be more interest in creating a digital presence, especially as collectors become aware of [the options available]. For instance, if don’t want to commit to a private museum, but you still want to share. There are companies that are emerging, like Artland, for digital viewing. There will be more tools for private collectors. Maybe instead of replicating a museum, you can tell a more personal story.
Covid or no Covid, what are some of the biggest changes and updates to your book?
There were things that are obvious, like the loss of 1031 tax exchanges. But there have been so many changes on many levels. The changes in the very structures of the market, power consolidation at the top and the lines being blurred between the auction houses and the galleries. External forces like Brexit and anti–money laundering and the E.U. and how it’s all going to spin out in the rest of the world. And then there is the whole technology aspect. More and more digital art, which raises issues for collectors. Fractional ownership of art and the tokenization of art, and Blockchain—I think the jury’s still out on what’s going to happen with that. And, in general, different tax laws that have a big impact on collectors.
In a way, it’s all about kind of playing defense. What are the questions collectors need to be asking? Who do I need to be talking to? How do I protect myself? What are the resources?
UBS has a strong history of commissioning artists. What are some things that collectors need to know before they embark on commissioning artworks?
UBS has an amazing commissioning history, from the ’70s to 2000. One of the things I’ve done is revive commissioning at UBS. With commissioning, the rewards can be greater, but the risk is higher. You must have a contract, and it’s going to vary with the artist you’re working with. You need to think about the payments. How are they going to be paced out? And you want to have checkpoints along the way where you get the sketch and make sure you’re happy with what you’re getting. And you always want to have an out. An Act of God clause. If there is some sort of act of God that prevents the artist from working, do you want to put a time limit on that? Because after a year, you may not be interested anymore. And the artist is going to want their own assurances.
Also, it’s really important to have a warranty, if there are mechanicals or technology involved in the artwork. We have a situation where an artwork we commissioned isn’t working anymore. How long will your warranty last? Who’s going to pay for replacement parts? If it is going to take another year to fix it, will that eat up half your warranty? Then there is intellectual property. When do you have to get permission to show the work? One artist was very relaxed, and gave us the copyright. Some, understandably, are very protective about their intellectual property. Do you have to go back to the artist in terms of particular usage? There are so many blurry areas in this with Instagram. We’re dealing with copyright all the time.
What about issues of artistic freedom?
With a corporate commission, where is it going to cross the line for the company? Or with an individual? Will there be a sensitivity? That’s why you need that check-in point where you can you pay the artist a certain amount upfront for whatever efforts. And you get to a point where you can then have a discussion and say, is this going in the right direction? A lot of it goes back to your relationships with the artists. The other factor is looking at the long-term. We’ve had situations where some of these fantastic artworks that were commissioned decades ago are part of a building, and we are relocating. We had one example where we had to destroy a beautiful, stunning work in Zurich. But we were able to pay the artist a fee to re-create it elsewhere. We worked with Carlos Cruz-Diez reincarnating a commission we did with him in the ’70s.