Lisa Hering leans forward on her sofa and glances at the walls of the comfortable yet elegant living room of her home in rural Landenberg. Outside, it is a blustery day with a rain-soaked view of quiet pastureland and small clutches of swaying trees.
“I had never thought of myself before as an art collector,” Hering, an architect, says, as she scans a portion of the many paintings, photographs, and sculptures that she and her lawyer husband, Louis Hering, have put together through their years of marriage. “But I guess we are.”
Rodney Chester, who has been buying paintings since 1991, says that he has “probably 150 pieces of serious art” that covers practically every inch of wall space in his small cottage in historic Arden—and some tucked elsewhere. “I think of chairs as being easels,” he says with a laugh as he points out one piece in a sitting position.
Architect Mark Avellino says he bought his first original art three years ago and is just getting started as a collector. There are a few pieces in his Fairville office and a few more at his home. “Do I want to build a collection?” he says. “Oh, yes, but I don’t have a lot of money.”
Catherine and Jamie Gregory, married just four years, see the collecting of their first few paintings as an integral part of growing into family life in a quiet west Wilmington neighborhood. “I have no art background,” Jamie says. “I”m a bond trader, so I”m very quantitative.” Not surprisingly, he bought the couple’s first painting at a non-profit auction. “Being a trader in a bidding situation, I got very excited,” he says.
There are common threads that run through all of these people and their collections, regardless of where they are in building them or their level of financial commitment to the task. These include a focus on certain styles of artwork; a predetermined ceiling on how much they are prepared to spend; regular attendance at gallery openings, auctions, and art fairs; the decision to collect primarily original works and not copies or prints; and—most of all—the steadily growing number of pieces acquired.
“You know you’re a collector when you start focusing on a period or a style or certain artists,” says Fred Carspecken of Carspecken Scott Gallery in Wilmington, who, as an art dealer, has worked with dozens of collectors through the years. A colleague in the trade, Sadie Somerville of Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, notes that, “Some new collectors may not even realize that they are collectors. One couple, who bought only a painting or two a year, didn’t really consider themselves collectors, but ended up donating their ‘collection” to a museum.”
Although there are commonalities among collectors, there are also differences. For example, the Herings and Rodney Chester collect many of the same regional artists—Christine Lafuente, Jon Redmond, Greg Mort—but their approaches are quite different.
“We never buy anything without knowing where we’re going to hang it,” Lisa Hering says, and bemoans the fact that her wall space is filling up and that she will soon have to consider “stacking” or grouping paintings in arrangements. Chester, who designs custom kitchens, says his acquisition budget depends on how the business is going.
Then there is the matter of conservation. Hering sees artwork as part of the living environment that she and her family, which includes two daughters at Sanford School, share, and admits she doesn’t provide her art any special treatment as concerns humidity and light. But not Chester. “I live in a 25-watt world,” he admits, referring to the low levels of lighting in his home. “I should wear a miner’s helmet.”
Somerville, who sold paintings to Chester for years before more recently marrying him, agrees with Hering. “People living with art tend not to worry about it,” she says. “After all, art has lasted for centuries when there was no electricity or temperature controls.” Somerville and Chester decided after marrying to maintain both their Arden houses, just a few doors apart, if for no other reason than the size of his collection. Her house, which has paintings hung gallery- style, is considerably brighter.
Like many couples, Somerville and Chester share similar tastes in artwork, but that is not always the case. Lisa Hering notes that her husband Lou has developed a taste for Oriental art that is now being integrated into her preferences for contemporary representationalism.
Mark Avellino, who likes a range from African art to the minimalist still life paintings of encaustic artist Jacqueline Cornette, says that the tastes of his business and life partner Jeff Skourtis “tend to be more conservative.”
In addition to taste, there are financial questions about collecting, including how much to pay and whether to buy primarily for investment reasons. Chester’s simple rule of thumb is “buy what you love, and buy the best you can afford” of a particular artist. His top range, he says, “is about $10,000 to $15,000,” about the same as the Herings” “$12,000 to $15,000.” “But there is a lot of great art out there between $500 and $5,000,” Chester notes. Most collectors also buy only originals, even though prints are much cheaper, unless the print is a rare one.
Art dealer Carspecken says, “I would never advise people to go into collecting for financial reasons. They should buy things that they love and want to live with—but sadly, that’s not always the case.”
Both Carspecken and Somerville urge that young collectors consider local “emerging artists” because they are more affordable and are often accessible. “Mary Page Evans is one of my artists,” Carspecken says, “and I sold one of her paintings a couple of weeks ago for $14,000. That’s five or six times what she was selling for 20 or 30 years ago.”
Another advantage of buying emerging artists is the opportunity to get to know them early and to watch them develop. Lisa Hering is excited about a recent piece by Jon Redmond, whom she discovered earlier. “You can see his evolution,” she says. Then she laughs. “We started out buying artists who were young. Now, they’re not so young any more—but then neither are we!”
“Part of the joy in collecting is falling in love with the artist,” Chester agrees. For that reason, many collectors like to go to gallery openings to catch up with the progress of a favorite artist or to meet new ones. “It’s also great to be able to visit an artist’s studio to see where they work,” he says. “I got to visit Greg Mort’s place in Maine, where he paints in the summer. I saw what he had done for 25 years as a painter, not just for the 10 years that I’ve known him.”
Of course, galleries also do a good job of communicating with collectors about the artists they represent. “We let them know in advance about upcoming exhibits” and of new works, Carspecken says.
Although most of the artists Chester collects are still living, he and Somerville like to poke around antiques shops when they are traveling, and occasionally buy older pieces. “Doing research to see what you’ve bought is half the fun,” he says. Other collectors like to check out galleries and art fairs when they are traveling. “We bought one piece when we were in Rome,” budding collector Catherine Gregory notes.
At some point, aging collectors are faced with how to “deacquistion” their paintings. Although collections may not have immediate liquidity, many are auctioned off in batches or as a whole. Museums, especially regional ones, are always on the lookout for paintings by local artists who have made a name for themselves late in life. And many collections are distributed to children and other relatives.
“I inherited a few paintings from an aunt when I was just getting started,” Chester says, and the Herings have been given pieces of their parents” “more traditional” artwork.
“There do seem to be fewer people collecting today,” Carspecken says, “which is unfortunate, because building a collection is one of the few ways to express your individuality.”