THE ART OF THE DEAL
Melanie Gerlis meets the ex-bankers who have swapped futures for Futurism and are now flourishing in their second career as gallery owners
WHEN OLIVIER CAMU decided to leave his job as a mergers and acquisitions banker at Morgan Stanley to go into the art world, some of his colleagues assumed he was having a midlife crisis. ‘Others were impressed but nervous for me. None encouraged me,’ he says. This was in 1994, when a board member of the same bank, Sir Anthony Tennant, was also chairman of Christie’s, where Camu re-emerged and now reigns as deputy chairman of the Impressionist and Modern art department. When Camu sought Sir Anthony’s counsel on the leap between the two worlds, he says the response was: ‘How can I advise you? The two jobs are like chalk and cheese.’
The art world has always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with its business side. Its preferred projection is of an artist somehow romantically starving in a garret. By comparison, the art market represents a cold, faceless machine of hard finance. ‘Money’ is a dirty word among the aesthetic elite and the notion of art as an asset can produce horrified responses.
‘Relating money to fine art was almost considered an oxymoron,’ says Mathias Rastorfer, the co-owner of Switzerland’s Gmurzynska gallery, of his move from finance. He trained at Deutsche Bank in Munich but was inspired by his father’s regrets at not becoming an artist to take the plunge and become a gallerist instead. Despite this, his father was concerned. ‘My parents thought it was a bad idea to make your passion your business,’ he says.
Anything that involves trading involves currencies, and being familiar with these — particularly the euro in the past few years — has given us a bit of an edge’
Camu and Rastorfer are not the only people to have made the leap from finance and into art and find that the two are hardly worlds apart. Dominique Lévy, the co-founder of New York gallery L&M Arts, has a sophisticated grounding in finance. Her father is André Lévy, a Swiss banker, and Dominique worked as a currency trader at Geneva’s Compagnie Financière Tradition in the late Eighties. But, she says, art was also always in her blood: ‘I am imbued with the mix.’ (Many of the dealers featured in this article are appearing at the Pavilion of Art and Design in Berkeley Square, 10-14 October.)
When she made the move into art, her father was initially disappointed that she didn’t stay in banking. But, she says: ‘Now I am doing what I am passionate about, and I am still a deal-maker. Both worlds are a part of me.’
Lévy is soon to splinter away from L&M Arts and has plans to open an eponymous gallery on the Upper East Side, but she says that her background in finance is one of the things that has helped her seven-year working relationship with business partner Robert Mnuchin (with whom she will still be running a gallery in California). He retired as a partner of Goldman Sachs in 1993 prior to opening shop in the art world, and Lévy says that it initially helped their partnership ‘that we speak a bit of the same language’. Her move to start her own business is, she says, an extension of her ‘usual entrepreneurship’.
Her nous has also proved a useful addition to the gallery’s offering. ‘Anything that involves trading involves currencies, and being familiar with these — particularly the euro in the past few years — has given us a bit of an edge,’ she says. ‘If someone is selling in euros and the buyer wants to pay in US dollars, we can help structure the transaction so that any potential currency risk is hedged.’
MANY OTHERS WHO followed a passion for art are finding there are advantages to their financial backgrounds. Louisa Guinness, who now runs her own contemporary jewellery gallery (boasting artists including Pablo Picasso and Damien Hirst), began her career in the sell-side broking industry. After twelve years, she wanted a break.
‘I had been very lucky to work and live in some glamorous locations [including San Francisco, New York and Hong Kong] and I wanted to come back to the UK,’ she says. ‘But the idea of getting on the Tube at 6am in the cold and the rain didn’t really do it for me.’ She grew up with art and gradually realised her calling, opening her eponymous gallery in 2003.
She acknowledges that her success owes something to her understanding of business, developed while working in the banking industry. ‘I visited a lot of small companies in Asia [she worked in Hong Kong for what was Hoare Govett Asia and was then ABN Amro between 1990 and 2000], so I learned a lot about how they worked. This has proved very helpful for running my own business.’
The Parisian 20th-century art dealer Diane de Polignac, who opened her own gallery opposite the Louvre in 2009, agrees that there are overt practical benefits of a business background. She was in the finance industry for three years, working at Standard & Poor’s and then at the technology company Strategis Group. ‘It certainly taught me about how a business is organised. What I learned then, and as a student [she has an MSc in finance from UCL and another in politics and economics from the LSE], taught me a systematic way of analysing the period that I specialise in, in the same way as writing industry reports.’
This stringent approach is core to the art market reports produced by Anders Petterson, who founded the analysis firm ArtTactic in 2001. Having worked in debt capital markets at JP Morgan for six years, Petterson left in order to run his own business in the two worlds in which he was interested: finance and Contemporary art. ‘It took me a year to work out that what I should do was between these worlds,’ he says. The research reports that his company produces include an art market confidence survey, which takes the model of the influential CEO confidence index and applies it to art. Qualitative expert opinion, he says, is arguably more important for art: ‘It’s a smaller market, so it’s easier to identify trends. And sentiment is always crucial in a market in which value is so nebulous.’
WHAT ABOUT THE sudden drop in income that must have awaited those who drifted away from finance into the arts? Not many of those interviewed commented on this (remember, money is a dirty word), although Camu was frank: ‘One thing was clear — financially speaking, the move was suicidal.’ Even now, top of the tree in a job he loves, he says that he occasionally misses the bankers’ bonuses. However, he acknowledges that, since the latest economic meltdown, the industry has changed a great deal, with a lot of the ‘fun’ taken out because of the necessary regulation now in place.
That finance is no longer as desirable to work in is a point also made by Irving van Dijk, the co-owner of the Dutch Contemporary art and design gallery Priveekollektie, where he joined his wife in 2007. He previously ran the credit trading and mortgage-backed security trading books at NIBC Bank: ‘In hindsight, my timing in choosing another career was the smartest move ever. I resigned after nineteen years of trading and [received] my last pay cheque in October 2007, just when the credit crisis started.’
No one would go back, although van Dijk says he could be tempted to set up a new hedge fund if the markets were less risk-averse. ‘The main difference is that the “assets” we now deal with are works of art, not companies, shares or debt,’ says Camu. ‘Obviously our conversations involve the economy and supply and demand, but the most important part is the painting, its quality, its fineness. Whereas before I was using my brain, now I use both my brain and my eyes.’
De Polignac agrees: ‘They are two very different jobs, one is learned, the other is a passion.’ But Lévy thinks the separation is less marked: ‘Generally speaking, you have to have reached a certain level of success to buy art, whether as a banker, an entrepreneur or anyone running a business. These people have to deal with assets and asset allocation. Why should the art market pretend it is anything different?’ Why indeed.
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Illustration by Phil Wrigglesworth