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Building an art collection is an art in itself, one that Chelsea Art Group founder Don Christiansen has forged into a globe-spanning career. He explains how he quit the car trade after 15 years to pursue his passion, and reveals the nuances of sourcing rare artworks from around the world.
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I went from collecting cars to collecting art.
After 15 years in the car business, I knew it was time for a change. I was young, inexperienced, and living in New York, so I joined the Guggenheim collectors group. It was a group of other young, new art collectors who wanted to know more about the collection at the museum, and how it was acquired. While most of my expertise is self-taught and comes from 25 years of experience, the program was a strong stepping stone.
Soon after, I attended an auction at Sotheby’s for the estate of Victor and Sally Ganz. They built one of the most important collections of contemporary art in the 20th century. Their accumulation encompassed 50 years, with the first 25 devoted exclusively to Pablo Picasso; the last 25 years were to seek out “the next Picasso” rooted in the Pop and Minimalist movements.
I had not been to many auctions before, and I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I left feeling dejected and without having made a purchase. Later that night, I heard about a Rauschenberg exhibit, so I drove back into the city and bought a piece right then and there. That’s how I made my start in a new career. The dealer and I went out to dinner and cigars, and have been best friends ever since. Today we’re each other’s biggest clients.
It was a valuable purchase because Rauschenberg is one of the most important artists from the past 50 years. What he did was so out of the box and beyond his time. He developed a unique method transferring images to different mediums to tell a story. He never revealed what was going on; he let you work the story out for yourself.
It becomes an obsession; it becomes a passion.
Eventually I founded the Chelsea Art Group, an art consultancy to guide new and experienced collectors to acquire the right pieces. What sets us apart is we like to educate our clients about each piece and its relevance to society and history.
We also travel to different art fairs around the world every month. Once a year we take an intimate group of about 20 clients to an art week in a specific city. Recently, we took a group to Mexico City for a fair, where we scheduled studio visits with local artists, too. We also attend Art Basel in Miami every year, which is a melting pot of the world’s current and contemporary artists.
When I first used Wise I was dealing with a sale which happened at the fair in Mexico City. The gallery I worked with only billed in pesos. The artwork was in Germany where the artist wanted euros, and my client in the US only had dollars. With Wise I was able to bill in euros, collect in dollars, and pay in pesos — saving me three bank conversions and a lot of fees. I also paid the shipper in Germany for the transport in euros, which cut the transaction costs. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.
Previously, I’d had terrible experiences visiting the bank and making multiple conversions. Sometimes I even lost more in bank fees than I made on a sale. I only signed up a few months ago, but Wise has been a wonderful tool for me. I’m very excited about it.
As a global art collector I follow the trends, but I tend to stay away from the newer "hot" artists. They often become part of a trading bubble. When that bubble breaks, not only do the people investing in those artists lose money, but it really hurts the careers of those artists. I look for fair deals for artists who have a long, traceable career which builds value. I look for appreciation in those items for a collection.
Currently there is a growing interest in women artists from the ‘50s and ‘60s who were very overlooked at the time. They’re now being revisited and appreciated again. I’ve also got my eye on several unnoticed artists from the European Abstract Expressionist movement whose work will be reexamined and reevaluated in the coming years. Their art is exceptionally rare and hasn’t yet had the recognition it deserves. The Pop movement and minimalism are also making a comeback. In my profession, it's crucial to look to the past as much as to the future.
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As told to Christina Thomas exclusively for Wise. Photography provided by Don Christiansen. Learn more about the Chelsea Art Group here.
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