(Bloomberg) -- Now is a good time to buy contemporary art, even though prices have never been higher, the Dallas-based collector Howard Rachofsky says as he digests his bratwurst.
The former hedge fund manager and his wife Cindy are grabbing lunch at Art Basel, the world’s biggest fair devoted to 21st- and 20th-century works. Dealers did plenty of business at this year’s 44th edition, following the $1.1 billion achieved at the New York contemporary sales in May.
The Montreal-based dealer Landau Fine Art sold Rene Magritte’s 1960 canvas, “Un peu de l’ame des bandits” (A Little of the Spirit of Bandits), priced at $12.5 million.
“The market for masterpieces and trophies couldn’t be stronger,” says Rachofsky, 69, dressed in a cobalt-blue jacket and canary-yellow pants. “There’s plenty at more modest levels, particularly by younger artists. There are opportunities.”
He’s just bought works by Italian postwar artists Mimmo Rotella and Mario Merz for $500,000 and $150,000 each. He’d also snapped up a 1954 abstract by the Japanese Gutai (“Embodiment”) group’s Kazuo Shiraga for about $300,000 from the London-based dealer David Juda.
The Rachofskys are one of the most prominent art-buying couples in the U.S. Their collection is primarily devoted to American and European postwar movements such as 1960s Minimalism and Italy’s Arte Povera. Selections are displayed in their modernist Dallas house, designed by Richard Meier, as well as in a new Dallas warehouse space.
In the last four years, they’ve been buying Japanese postwar art, amassing what Howard calls a “definitive” collection of as many as 100 pieces by artists such as Shiraga, Saburo Murakami and Shozo Shimamoto.
“Japanese postwar is an undervalued area of the market,” he says. “Our primary concern isn’t financial. There’s a whole evolution of thinking right now about mid-20th-century art movements and we’re trying to be part of the dialogue.”
Curators, dealers and collectors are ahead of the auction houses in rediscovering Japan’s 1950s and ’60s avant-garde.
The Gutai group was the subject of a recent survey at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Belgium-based dealer Axel Vervoordt sold an abstract by Shiraga -- who painted with his feet -- to a Swiss collector for 1.2 million euros ($1.6 million) at the Dutch Tefaf art fair in March.
The Rachofskys are currently are currently showing the exhibition “Parallel Views,” exploring the relationship between Japanese art and Arte Povera, in their Texas warehouse space.
Rachofsky deftly negotiated the art-market crash of 2008- 2009. In June 2008 he sold Jeff Koons’s 1995-2000 sculpture “Balloon Flower (Magenta)” at Christie’s International for a record 12.9 million pounds (then $25.8 million).
“We sold it specifically to buy a suite of four Sigmar Polke paintings from 1982,” said Rachofsky. “At that time the market seemed unsustainable and unimaginable. If you want to continue to collect, it is highly unlikely that one has the resources to play the game without occasionally selling things.”
Rachofsky attributes the rise in prices to what he calls the concentration of wealth. “After you’ve bought three homes, two yachts and a plane, the most visible manifestation of affluence is what’s hanging on your walls -- particularly if your friends know what’s there,” he said. “Bragging rights are important.”
He thinks a cataclysmic event like last decade’s subprime crisis would cause a “pause” in the art market. Otherwise he can only envisage the business growing as usual. “There seems to be something new that rises each season,” he says.
He buys established names combined with more affordable works by younger artists. He owns paintings by Polke, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans, as well as pieces by Richard Aldrich, Katy Moran and Jacob Kassay.
The former partner at Regal Asset Management in Dallas finds Damien Hirst less to his taste. “I don’t own any paintings by him,” says Rachofsky. “I respect the work. It just didn’t follow the paths of our collections.”
He’s altogether more dismissive of Chinese contemporary art, which was bought speculatively by Western collectors during the last boom. “Don’t get it, don’t like it,” he says.
Rachofsky is saddened by the commodification of art. “We’ve all become so quantitatively preoccupied,” he says. “When we look at a work, we don’t say that’s an extraordinary painting, we say that’s $10 million. It’s sad, if you’ve been around for a while, though not surprising.”
He’s still happy to encourage new collectors. “I tell them to get a good adviser, pay him a fee, not a commission, and go to art fairs and exhibitions,” Rachofsky says. “Have a look around. You don’t have to buy things straight away. Begin the journey. You may start at point A and wind up at point K.”
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