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Buy Young, Sell High? On Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner's New Guide to Collecting

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Buy Young, Sell High? On Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner's New Guide to Collecting
A view of Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner's home

A photograph of a Bronx storage facility crammed with wooden crates and cardboard boxes appears in the opening pages of Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, the new book by husband-and-wife art advisors Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner. The overflowing space pictured in the photo, the caption reveals, is just one of the several sites—totalling 3,000 square feet—that house the Wagners’ colossal collection of contemporary art. Clearly, the couple are their own best clients.

The picture might lead one to wonder, why buy so much art just to put it in storage? Collecting can quickly become a compulsive endeavor, the Wagners admit. “Once you get the bug, you’re involved in a profound way,” Thea told Artspace. Today the couple relies on a database to keep track of the work, which they rotate throughout their home and lend to exhibitions. Last year, they announced a donation of 800 contemporary works from their collection to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Pompidou Center

Like many addictions, art collecting also offers a heady rush. Ethan traces his interest in art back to his days running a consulting firm, when dull meetings filled up most afternoons. “As soon as I got out of there I’d walk down to the Chester Dale rooms at the National Gallery,” he said. “The Impressionist paintings used to make me just spin through those rooms. I couldn’t fix my view on anything because it was all so demanding, all so exciting.” 

Today, the Wagners have also been known to go to Art Basel in Switzerland and purchase, as they did in 2011, five works by installation artist Klara Liden, plus more from Josephine Pryde, Annette Kelm, Danh Vo, Melvin Moti, and James Beckett. They flew home “anxious about money,” the book relates, but filled with “feelings of mastery, magical escape, and states of transport and renewal”—a common acquisition high, the Wagners say.

The thrill might incite some buys, but there’s “no one reason to collect,” Thea said. Investment, decoration, and intellectual curiosity—all are valid rationales for acquiring art, and the Wagners want to validate collectors across the spectrum. Not quite a how-to manual, the book, published by Phaidon, is an anecdotal, fully-illustrated examination of the art world “as it is, rather than as it is depicted in the press,” Thea said. 

Through a series of brief case studies of their own clients, the authors share models of how to form relationships with artists and dealers, and how to navigate new frontiers in online sales and auctions. They describe, for example, a young couple that had allotted $50,000 a year for art acquisitions. Thea and Ethan advised them to fill their home with works by emerging names like Ryan Gander, Claire Fontaine, and Alex Olson, which they began to complement over time as their budget grew.

No one can know for certain if these artists will also prove to be lucrative investments, but the Wagners are known to buy work by artists on the brink of stardom. In 1985, a client called Thea “crazy” for buying one of Robert Gober’s sink sculptures from Paula Cooper. Later, after meeting Ethan, the couple bought a painting by Gober’s friend Christopher Wool, whose auction record soared to $7.7 million last year. Today they have their eyes on dozens of promising young artists, including Cheyney Thomspon and Sam Lewitt

“Sometimes the door that leads one to collect is as an alternative investment,” said Ethan. “But art has a way of winning out.” The museums that the Wagners are now pledging their storerooms of work to, and the countless viewers who will soon be able to enjoy it, would agree. 

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