Michael Findlay: A Collector, For Love And Money

Patsy Southgate | August 28, 1997

Michael Findlay, senior vice president and senior director of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's, is nowhere near as solemn as his titles may indicate. A fit and animated 52, he warmly welcomed a recent visitor to his new house in the Northwest area of East Hampton, an upside-down dwelling with treetop decks.

Asked over a plate of muffins whether collectors were in it for love or money, he said it was both.

"I tend to believe, and often quote, a wonderful collector named Emily Tremaine, who said that three elements influence collectors. One, a love of art. Two, the possibility that it will go up in value. And three, the social prestige art brings. Whether acquired venally - to impress people - or not, a good collection opens doors and actually enriches one's social life."

Collecting

And what distinguishes a true collector?

"Involvement in a work must come first," said Mr. Findlay. "Later, you can find out who created it and when and where, and how much it's worth. It takes a lot of courage to be the only bidder on something no one else seems to want; I admire that."

"Anyone can be a collector," he continued. "Start on a small scale. Begin with prints and drawings. And visit artists' studios. With a work of art, you must see the original - there is no substitute. It's the difference between eating a gourmet meal and buying Gourmet magazine."

A huge number of works are in private collections, of course, but when they come up for auction, Mr. Findlay pointed out, anyone can see them. Christie's preview exhibits, for example, are open to the public at no charge. "Not everyone is a potential buyer, and we even serve chocolates in Christie's wrappers."

Mr. Findlay, who played a leading role in the May 1990 sale in which Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" was sold for $82.5 million - still the most expensive work ever sold at auction - has specific responsibility for developing Christie's Asian market.

The job takes him frequently to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the People's Republic of China, where, he said, great collectors are just beginning to emerge.

Back home, he has helped to form the collections of Pamela Harriman, Alice Tully, Billy Wilder, and Richard and Dorothy Rogers, among many others.

Taste-Forming

His heady career in great art and high finance had humble origins. It began because he couldn't draw.

Born in Scotland, he was sent at age 11 to a boarding school in England, where the "brilliantly nonauthoritarian" art teacher divided his classes into drawers and nondrawers.

"The nondrawers were taught to appreciate art by a method I still subscribe to," said Mr. Findlay. "We were taken on ritual trips to London's major museums, told to look, fairly indiscriminately, to choose one painting we really loved or didn't love, and to articulate our reasons."

"It was the best education at the best point in time. I saw an awful lot of Old Masters as well as 19th-century and contemporary works, not in any quantifiable order. Tastes were formed."

"Some - for all the obvious Impressionists, particularly Cezanne and Manet - have not changed. Others have. I was quite dogmatic as a boy, and have become more broadminded since. I even learned to like Victorian painting."

College In Toronto

Afterward he won a scholarship to attend the then very small (now huge) York University in Toronto, handpicked by its faculty, he presumes, "to be a foreign student and stir things up."

The rudimentary campus consisted mainly of an old mansion, and the budding executive was put in charge of borrowing paintings from local collectors to hang on its walls.

"From 1961 to 1963, the Pop-culturally critical years I was there, I might as well as have been in Detroit in 1840," he said.

"Although I somehow managed to get involved with American jazz and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Toronto was puritanical, isolated, and totally out of touch with what was going on."

Early Gallery

With a few contacts and some curatorial experience, Mr. Findlay came to New York as a tourist in February 1964.

(His arrival, he recalled, coincided almost exactly with that of The Beatles. While he had worn the same English schoolboy hairstyle as long as he could remember, suddenly, in the eyes of New Yorkers, he looked like one of the Fab Four, whose invasion in a matter of weeks had been preceded by a blitz of publicity.

"Beatle!" people said, pointing to him on the street and either smiling or scowling.

After an exciting first two weeks, and "at the frighteningly young age of 19," he decided to stay. He cashed in his plane ticket home, applied for a green card, and went knocking on art gallery doors. One was opened by the dealer Richard L. Feigen, who gave him a modest job helping to organize exhibits.

In 1968, Mr. Findlay opened his own gallery, J.H. Duffy and Sons Ltd., one of the first in SoHo, in a building Mr. Feigen owned on Greene Street. "A nest for fledgling artists," it operated on a shoestring.

Involvement

Mr. Findlay's own art collection "started out as things I bought because they didn't sell and the artist needed supporting," he said. As a dealer showing young artists, he visited many studios, "and while 80 percent of the work was quite good, I had no passionate response to it."

"I have to be startled, and have that quality persist. Sometimes my reaction is so strong I can't tell if the work is atrocious or something new the artist is coming to grips with."

Sometimes, however, there is that rare, elusive "involvement."

"When I keep coming back, then a real communication is happening. The artist may have created the work for reasons having nothing to do with the reason why I am startled, but that absolutely doesn't matter; for me, at least, it is a masterpiece."

Family Man

Mr. Findlay's second marriage, to the supermodel Naomi Sims, lasted 17 years and produced a son, Bob, who lives in Santa Fe and is the apple of his eye.

"He publishes a scurrilous underground magazine called 'Flushable Applicator,' plays in a band, and is in the food service industry, a waiter at a coffee house where he also plays bongos for an acoustic guitarist. A very talented free spirit and vegan, he's been an animal rights activist since the age of 8."

Bob's father is now seeing the artist Victoria Wolfe, "a major element in my life." Her work was in a group show recently at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton.

Art Runs In Cycles

According to Mr. Findlay, the art market operates in fairly predictable cycles of seven to 11 years. After a sharp decline - 1991 was the last time it hit bottom, he said - years of steady growth will follow, fueled by estate sales and speculation. That, he said, is the current trend, now perhaps nearing its close.

If the past is any indication, the cycle will end with a sharp rise in values that then causes the market to implode, and bottom out again.

"It's hard to identify which new collectors will still be refining their collections after 20 years as opposed to the apparently dedicated ones who will actually cash out after a couple of years," said Mr. Findlay.

"But," he concluded, "every cycle produces a few who are pulled in as speculators and stay as collectors because they actually like what they're buying. Amazing!"