Four years ago, J. Tomilson Hill, vice chairman of the private equity firm the Blackstone Group, got a phone call from L.A.-based artist Mark Grotjahn, whose work Hill has collected in depth. Grotjahn was coming to New York and intended to visit the exhibition “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hill, a Met trustee, not only got Grotjahn admitted on a Monday—the museum was closed on Mondays at the time—he also got the show’s curator, Rebecca Rabinow, to accompany him through the galleries. Hill couldn’t resist tagging along. He wanted to experience Grotjahn’s reaction to Matisse. “I strongly believe,” Hill told ARTnews in an interview this past summer, “that if you look at an artwork being made today and you juxtapose it with a work from 200 or 500 years ago, the one today, if it’s good, can help you see the older one in a different way.”
Hill should know. In the course of their collecting, he and his wife, Janine, have long been juxtaposing contemporary art with older art, and they will soon be sharing such displays with the public at their private museum. The Hill Art Foundation, which will be admission-free, opens next fall in a Peter Marino–designed building in New York’s Chelsea art district. The building’s windows looking out onto the High Line, the elevated park that runs through Chelsea, will provide millions of passersby a glimpse into a world where Christopher Wool might meet Duccio, where Lucio Fontana might meet Giambologna, where Sarah Crowner might meet Peter Paul Rubens.
Hill is the kind of collector who has long been a fixture of ARTnews’s annual “World’s Top 200 Collectors” list: passionate, committed, serious, voracious. The kind of collector who sticks around even when the market cools off. And the market has indeed cooled off. Last June, when ARTnews went to press on the 2015 edition of our “Top 200 Collectors” issue, it was on the heels of Christie’s New York having auctioned Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alger for a record $179 million. This time around the buoyancy has subsided: The May auctions in New York took in a total of around $1 billion, less than half of last year’s haul. Volume was down. Sales for the first half of 2016 at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s were down about a third from the same period a year ago.
The speculators in work by younger artists have vanished–very likely one reason that contemporary sales at Christie’s were down 45 percent in the first half of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015—and the mind-boggling price records are fewer and further between.
The word on everyone’s lips at Art Basel in June was “uncertainty”: What will happen with Brexit; with the unprecedentedly weird, high-stakes U.S. election; and with global stability in the face of terrorism? (The fair upped its security at the door.) Some market observers were saying that collectors had recently gotten “cautious,” and that the air was thinner than usual for artworks priced in excess of $10 million. But one thing was for sure: the stalwarts—those collectors on our list—were there, their checkbooks at the ready and their keen eyes out for quality. Among those on hand were the Horts, the Rubells, Martin Margulies, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Tony Salamé, and Qiao Zhibing, to name just a few.
All of which is not to say the market is in a deep rut. Far from it. In May, Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa, new to our list this year, hoovered up $98 million worth of art in just two days of auctions. And last June, Sotheby’s London set a new record for Cubism at auction when Picasso’s 1909 painting Femme Assise sold for $63.6 million. Collectors are going for top quality; the good stuff is selling.
Other records have also turned heads. In May the New York Times reported that Argentinean businessman Eduardo F. Costantini, another collector on our list, had bought Diego Rivera’s 1928 painting Baile en Tehuantepec privately through Phillips auction house for $15.7 million, setting a new record price for the artist. Asian buying is strong, and Silicon Valley is increasingly joining the collecting fray, with Pace Gallery expanding into Palo Alto, and Gagosian opening opposite the new SFMOMA.
Weak market? “It’s a savvy market,” one of the savviest market players told us in Basel, adding “the best and the smartest are the risk-takers.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 77.