Art bargains; SHOP FOR A MASTERPIECE WITH JAY JAROSLAV
A quotation from Horace, "Many shall be restored that now are fallen, and many shall fall that now are in honor," is written in black on an easel in a shabby classroom of the Museum of Fine Arts School. But there are no smocks and palettes in here.
The class looks like the cast of Masterpiece, Parker Brothers' board game about art auctions in which all the players take on a persona to bid on post-card-size reproductions of luscious paintings. In this game one can draw for one's identity Bitsy Rich, the young, heedless heiress who bids like a wolverine for the tiny Gainsboroughs. Or Millicent Friendly, a no-nonsense librarian from Oklahoma who by shrewd investment has parlayed a minor inheritance into a fortune, and who hangs onto a Chagall or Picasso with a sinewy tenacity. And who can resist playing the part of the ruthless, weaselly Count Du Bonnet, who of course does a Maurice Chevalier chuckle when he snatches a Monet out from under Bitsy's nose?
At Jay Jaroslav's $95, one-day investment seminar called "Art: The Imperfect Investment," they aren't quite as driving and carnivorous, but then this isn't an auction. It's a chance for the players to sit down at the board to think about how to improve their moves.
Yet it's easy to imagine the well-heeled, tanned couple in navy blue with quiet voices, appreciators of beautiful things, from a posh beach town gently outbidding Millicent. The young, blue-blazered, horn-rimmed architecture student has been collecting since he was 12, and one suspects he is now making the transition from his father's money and taste to his own, though he might take pointers from the count. Instead of Bitsy Rich there is the heiress in sunglasses who doesn't want to anything and the self-made woman looking to rent art to companies that are shopping for something to culture up their headquarters.
The CPA with the scholarly goatee resists all pestering and won't disclose what he has been collecting for 25 years, but suddenly leans over and says with avuncular warmth instead of a Chevalier chuckle, "Your best bet is to plunge in. Buy something you like!"
An actual artist, tousle-headed in a dirty short-sleeved shirt, drinks water during the seminar from a thermos which had a hole melted in it, possibly during some multi-media experiment. He has more water for lunch, explaining that he was keeping the Muslim fast of Ramadan in sympathy with some of the inmates he has come to know in the prison art project he coordinates. He also says he had become an artist because he couldn't afford to buy paintings.
Get all these people bidding, and you could have a jolly round of Masterpiece.
But the teacher, Jay Jaroslav, is quite anotehr character, one that Parker Brothers has yet to codify. An original, as long as we are talking about the art market. And he's one of the realm masterpiece game's zestiest players, who bought a Rembrandt print when he was 13 years old for $:2 and sold it last year for $21,000, and admits he has done much more sensible things and lost money.
"I hope my style doesn't anyone," he says, taking a bronze statuette out of a knee sock. He hands the statuette around and asks for bids on it so that everyone can humiliate himself "indirectly" (without spending money), to get ready for the tumbles he would take in the marketplace. And humiliate themselves they do. Most guesses are way over the actual price of about $500, except for the artist's guess of $29. The point is not really to make people feel stupid, but to show how value and price aren't really related -- this is a valuable artifact, about 4,500 years old, but the price is low because "these things are about as common as a plastic Jesus in Mexico City."
He isn't saying it was a piece of trash -- that word he reserves for overpriced Renoirs. He is saying it is undervalued, not a bad buy at all if you can hang onto it till the price goes up. Still, he is enjoying these bad guesses rather a lot.
His style amuses rather than offends, but it is unexpected. Jaroslav is not your typical financier. He's more like a kid collector with his artifact in an argyle, his wrist calculator, and his way of pronouncing "museum" as "museem" in his rush to tell yet another unknown and embarrassing art fact: "I have seen photoengraved pieces on museum walls" displayed as prints; "museums don't want to know" if one of their paintings is a fake; and "most dealers don't know any more about art than you do." He is hardly the sentimental soul he might have become, lingering over those prints and drawings and paintings at the 1,000 auctions he has been to.
He is too contradictory to fit on a Masterpiece card. Logging that many auctions and only buying a few things -- "I'm very selective, and selectivity is the whole thing" -- has, he figures, made him very objective. He has been hanging out at auctions and talking to dealers for 25 years, and he is only 35. He still has the aura of, if not the child prodigy, the enfant terrible.m All that knowledge has made him rather mischievous, not to say rude.
He has fun warning investors away from the dealer who has "invested all his money in track lighting" and sells art on commission -- "Nothing against dealers ," he interjects. And "nothing against artists," he says toward the young man with the melted thermos, but the art market is based on the concept of supply and demand, and "each year the American College Art Association lists more artists generated by art schools in the United States than the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance."
One of the questions on the easel is, "It's very pretty, but is it art?" -- just to startle the sleeping aesthete in everyone. And he points out that personal taste is tied to what one sees most, and what one sees most is what's most popular, not due as much to intrinsic aesthetic value but to whatever dealers have decided to promote.
He has to say "Nothing against . . ." quite often, because he has a lot of balloons to burst. After all, art and money are the two things it is easiest to be impolite about, especially together. There are all sorts of taboos and manners to prevent one from talking about them too specifically. One talks about easthetics, but one doesn't put a price on aesthetic value. That is, "one" may not, but Jaroslav does, and so does the art market. The aesthetic value is exactly what people are paying for, he says. It's just that so much keeps changing, and there is so much not to talk about that the whole subject of the economics of art becomes shrouded in mystery. And that mystery supports huge markups for some art dealers. Any attempt to demystfy looks rude, and this is precisely what Jaroslav is out to do.
"Art is a business and it's been a business for 5,000 years," he says in a Brooklyn accent that serves well for scoffing but also has a reassuring ring of sincerity. "The only reason there's been art is that there's been money flowing around." And he doesn't just clear up mysteries, he actually gives instructions, and a list of criteria for figuring out value:
* Historical significance.
* World demand.
* Current fashion or taste.
His firm, Artdata, gives his big-time investors like banks, pension funds, and various millionaires the same advice he teaches in his course: Be businesslike. The great swoops and crashes in the market, the paintings that sell for record amounts only to plummet in price when they fall out of fashion, are what careful investors will avoid. There's no Securities and Exchange Commission for the art market. "It's like the Wild West," he says. And there's more mythology in it than in the Masterpiece game, so the most precious commodity of all is cold hard facts.
"Do your homework," became his chorus to the seminar.
Up in the library stacks at the Museum of Fine Arts is row upon row of auction records which list just what a specific work of art is and was selling for. This, he says, is the other half of Jansen's indispensable "History of Art." He advises students who can't afford to have Artdata do their homework to use the library, or buy their own Gordon's Print Price Annual, which at $250 is a bargain, considering how much money it can save you. He even prowls the stacks when there is nothing to look up, taking down records and reading any old clutch of prices at random. It is possible to track the market record on almost any painting or drawing you might find yourself bidding for or considering buying -- and if there isn't a arket record, he advises, be very careful and only buy if you know the work well. Better yet, find something with a "clear market."
Buying and selling art is more than numbers to Jaroslav. He gets as excited about great value as bout great bargains. To involve students who may not have spent their childhood within earshot of the gavels of Sotherby's, Christie's, and Kornfield and Klipstein, he talks about the kids on street corners in Brooklyn where he grew up, all of whom knew what number apeared on each of 5,000 baseball cards. The collecting zeal blazed the details into their young minds. His point is that enthusiasm goes a long way.
Find something you like, he advises, since "There's too much art in the world" anyway, and read books. Read one book about something you really go for, and you will absorb information like a sponge, and come out an expert, just like a kid with an overweening obsession. "If you read two books, you're competing with the professionals." The combination of the enthusiasm of baseball card hounds plus information can't be beat, he says. "If you read three books" in this excited state, "you will have so much information, aside from informational paralysis, that you'll start to have dreams" about Egyptian statuary, old masters, German prints, or whatever you wanted most. "At a certain point the information will have to go off," and you will start talking about your new area of expertise, which helps.
The more people who know about your pet subject, whether it be on the hobby level or grown to megalomania proportions, the more you'll be let in on what he calls "special situations" and the more good dealers will talk to you.
Someone who comes into a good dealer's shop and asks about something he really likes and has done some homework on, Jaroslav says, is already ahead of probably 30 to 40 people a day who have been coming in and asking what's good to invest in. The dealer will probably spend time with the well-prepared buyer. And the dealer who tries to intimidate you out of asking questions or can't tell you anything about what you want should be avoided. There are other dealers you can talk to, he promises.
For all his stress on looking things up, documenting, and checking the numbers, Jaroslav has a transparent love for the invisible, unquantifiable delights of the marketplace, the companionship that arises between dealer and buyer, where doing business -- in art, anyway -- still means human contact. One of his many interweavinf maxims (all 52 of which he has written on an easel which he flips through in the course of the seminar) is: "The art market is no place to be on your own." Make friends, he advises, and do business with your friends. This was handed down by his role model, his grandfather, a diamond dealer who also collected art. Jaroslav says he has been aware of the art market all his life and "possibly prenatally."
When he was 10, his antique-dealer mother and diamond-dealer grandfather dragged him to auctions, his mother notes proudly, "while everyone else was dragging their kids to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers." His father restores 15th-century clocks and his five-year-old son has announced he is going to be an art dealer.
We're a family of fanatics of one weird sort or another," he says, but points out that whatever they deal in, it's with a particularly Jewish eye to mobility, not to amassing great solid permanent collections as their WASP counterparts might. Jews were never allowed to own real estate in Europe, and stock certificates were usually confiscated, Jaroslav explains. So they began to deal in tangibles -- portable tangibles. These, he says, are survival skills, knowing "what to have on hand and how to keep it on hand and how not to keep it on hand and where to put it and how to put it and also how to trade."
"We're a very Central European family, and we've been in [this type of] business for five generations."
One thing he realized while he sat in auctions and watched masses of items change hands is that "there's a lot of art out there," much of it well-documented, undervalued, and beautiful, besides. His example is always old master prints, which he has been fond of ever since that first Rembrandt.
"My great enthusiasm is turning people on to the fact that you can get great art cheap," he says. "And that a lot of garbage is very expensive, and the price has nothing to do with the value -- that, yes, as investment, you have to look for things that are inexpensive, but they're not inexpensive because they're not good. The average person says, 'Gee, this couldn't be very valuable. How could it be valuable? It's $300. . . .' And that's why the Rembrandt that I bought for $:2 in 1957 was worth $21,000 last year, because it wasn't worth it then. . . . It was available. I didn't know anybody special. I was a 13-year-old kid who happened to go to an old-master print auction and realize that the prices were unreasonable. . . . Here were 500-year-old kid who happened to go to an old-master were selling for $150, $200. It's like the statue of Osiris, the thing I keep in the sock. The thing is 4,500 years old, it's worth maybe $500. But it's not that it's not worth anything. It means that it's really super-worth 500 bucks. And every time I see one, I buy one. The market couldn't care less about it right now, but two years from now, three years from now, it's going to have to be worth something. If it ain't worth something in my life, it'll be worth something during my son's life. And that's my philosophy. That's having grown up with Grandpa."
How is it possible for someone who mixes art and business, buying it to sell it, to develop an affection for it? Could art mean any more to Jaroslav that the wheat futures he traded before he had a family and decided not to take such risks? He tells me about his grandfather's cronies, all sharp dealers, who would sigh when they saw a beautiful diamond.
And he ushers me into the print gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts. "I'm going to shock you." he promises, and proceeds to give a lecture on the difference between value and price by leading me up to Israel van Meckenen's 1490 portrait, "The Artist and His Wife Ida." Two heads, somewhat tipped toward each other, look out of a small frame at you. They are solid and homely, and look slightly like each other, but are placed separately: The eye has to glance from one to the other and back. They seem to speak of marriage and a hard-won happiness. They speak to the heart.
They are priceless, Jaroslav says. This print is the first printed portrait and the first printed self-portrait. Gazing back and forth between the print and van Meckenen's entry in his Print Price Annual, Jaroslav talks about the feeling of the portrait, the strightforwarness, the humanity.
He points to a column in his book. "This is in the $40,000 range. This is nothing in financial terms. . . . The average person pays $80,000 in 1980 for their house. Average, OK?" But there's more to it: "This is such a vast turning point in the whole history of civilization. These little pieces are absolutely priceless. . . . Lots of paintings were sold for $100,000 that never had an effect on history. . . . So we have to think in terms of absolute values. We can't think about, oh, it's a painting or it's a drawing, any more than we can think a diamond is just a piece of carbon. A diamond is not just a piece of carbon. There's a difference between a flawless one carat for $60,000 and a diamond that you buy from Long's Jewelers for $800. You and I would think it was the same, but it's not. That is a piece of real value. An ounce of gold is a piece of real value. A diamond is a piece of real value, and that, in fact, at a certain point becomes a piece of historic value," he says, pointing to the artist and his wife, Ida.
There's no real price on something like that, he says, but you can buy them. "They appear" in the market.
"Forty thousand. That's cheap," I say. Am I overwhelmed by history, or do I like faces? Or is Jaroslav's salesmanship getting to me?
He laughs. "See, all of a sudden it sounds like a bargain," he says. And it does, because I have seen for a moment some of what he sees in the print. I have caught his excitement. It's an informed excitement, conscious of the market, true. But he sees the value in the print, which, he says, will go on meaning something to its owner for years, unlike the less masterful but equally expensive painting the owner will pass by from day to day like a piece of furniture.
"You could enjoy it for a lifetime. It's been worth something for 500 years, and it's probably got something in it for the next generation. That's what people are paying for, but they may not get it in a $100,000 painting by a 19 th-century American." He sees the gap between price and value. He sees how money can't accurately express a love for art, an appreciation of the rare person who 'makes something of himself and changes history in a way." He loves art, especially prints by Durer, van Meckenen, Holbein, and Rembrandt. He also knows quite accurately how wide the gap between price and value is, and when to leap into it.
By the end of the seminar, the wife of the quiet couple from the beach town says that she's not an investor. "If I were going to invest I'd invest in the stock market." She will go on buying Helen Frankenthalers, even though the stars of contemporary art are overpriced, because she and her husbank like Frankenthaler. But they will look things up, they both agree. The artist, who says he took the seminar because he didn't know much about the market, says it has been "so much fun. I don't have any trouble that it's a business, because I know that as an artist." The architecture student asks about investments under $ 500, and Jaroslav warms up. "That's a nice range," he says encouragingly and tells him to give him a call at Artdata. And now that the group has absorbed enough information to spot a Bitsy Rich or Millicent Friendly and perhaps avoid acting like one, Jaroslav leaves them in the new West Wing of the Museum of Fine Art, in the midst of the gorgeous, wall-high contemporary paintings of Morris Lewis, bad investments all.