Collector based in New York, USA
“It's a nice frame of reference to see through objects or paintings how your taste and knowledge has developed”
Robert Downer is a London-born finance and strategy professional, who has worked in high profile companies including UBS, EY, and Uber where he was an early employee. He is now based in New York City where he lives surrounded by works from his collection. Robert is a founding patron of the Design Museum in London, and a member of the Acquisitions Committee for the Young Collectors Council at the Guggenheim Museum. Robert has catalogued his collection and displays an ever-evolving selection of 100 works on his website.
When did you start collecting?
I think the first piece of art I purchased from a gallery was while on holiday in Miami the summer after I graduated. One morning I woke up and I remembered part of a dream - colours and lines - and I thought nothing of it. A few days later, I walked past a gallery, and I saw a sculpture of a blue dog with the same colours and lines. I must have walked past the sculpture before, and without realising, subconsciously committed the sculpture to memory. I went into the gallery, talked to the consultant, and learned about the artist named Romero Britto and his sculpture called Blue Dog. It was the first piece of art I bought.
Would I buy a Britto now? No, but I think that's fine. I think a collection is autobiographical and the pieces you acquire are vignettes of a time and place. It is like rings on a tree: you can look at a collection and be reminded of where you were, and who you were. It's a nice frame of reference to see through objects or paintings how your taste and knowledge has developed, how you develop as a person, or as a ‘collector’… if I dare call myself that.
What do you collect and what’s in your collection?
I started with print mostly, and now also have some original paintings, photography, drawings, sculpture, some textiles, collectible design, and cars (space permitting!). I collect a mix of modern and contemporary, probably in equal measure. I started collecting design first, and through design I began to get deeper into art. Today, half of my collection is modern and has its roots in very rational Bauhausian principles - think Corbusier or Mondrian - as well as very minimal works that nod towards graphic design. My collection also has a link to the commercial, the iconic, and concepts of ‘value’ in art. The narratives of rationality and commerciality are present in both my modern and contemporary collections: from the rules and commercial imperatives present in design and architecture, to the coming together of art and commerce which is so prevalent in the art world.
This theme of art and commerce interests me greatly and that is why I started acquiring Hirst and Warhol as both embraced and played with the ideas of commerciality.
Do you buy at auctions?
Yes, I love browsing and buying at auction. It’s very egalitarian. Everyone is welcome to participate. Auctions are events which I find thrilling. This is unlike some galleries where you can’t just walk in and buy a piece. You have to come to an opening, get to know the gallerist, buy a small work, show your credentials and so on... In my early days, especially as a young collector, I felt less welcome in this world. Today, I find auctions exciting because through them I can spot sleepers and mispriced artworks. I look through two or three online auction catalogues a week from the auction houses I follow, from the comfort of my sofa. I think the more you look the better you understand what you like and what you don't like, what’s good value, what’s rare or innovative. It’s also interesting to see complete collections come to auction, to learn and be inspired by these assemblages. I treasure the physical auction catalogues I have from important auctions like the collections of Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Bowie, Lagerfeld, and the product (RED) Auctions.
Do you sell your pieces?
I have never sold a piece. Worse perhaps, some pieces are still in their original shipping packages. I think this is part of the psychosis of the collector - there's something in the acquiring. In 2017 I visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art and they had a small exhibition dedicated to the art of button collecting. There was a text on the wall saying something like, whether you're collecting buttons worth pennies, or artworks worth millions, collecting is about wanting to catalogue and put the world in order. When you collect, you create a universe. Collectors play God with their pieces and it’s impossible for them to be satisfied with just looking, they need to own these things.
When collecting, you bring artworks together, and this can create more value than the respective artworks existing independently. They speak to each other, and once you start to assemble and display a collection, you start to see narratives between works emerge that you never thought about when you were buying a single piece. I think the value of a collection is specifically in that: rather than just owning multiple individual objects, you create a narrative across many pieces that mutually reinforce or argue with each other. A theme appears and pieces work together to kick off something new.
What drives you to collect?
As a young collector I found it thrilling to find a misprice or an alternative opportunity to buy from artists that I found interesting but couldn’t necessarily afford. One such opportunity was in 2014, when I learned about a collaboration between Damien Hirst and the designer Alexander McQueen. The collaboration celebrated the tenth anniversary of McQueen's iconic skull motif, and featured Hirst’s trademark butterflies. Together they designed and released a series of thirty scarves, which were both limited edition prints and limited edition pieces of fashion, questioning the boundaries between art and commerce. To me this was an absolute misprice because firstly, instead of one artist, the scarves were the work of two artists, and secondly, instead of paper the artwork was on silk – an interesting and ideal medium for the designs of ethereal skulls and delicate butterflies. As a young collector, this was my opportunity to acquire a Hirst work for around £1,000 at a time when Hirst butterfly prints on paper probably cost ten times that.
Similarly, and around the same time I discovered Hirst’s Last Supper series. The series consisted of thirteen prints of pharmacological labels where the names of the drugs were replaced by everyday British foods. I couldn't afford the prints, however, they were also being sold as limited-edition t-shirts, which I thought was interesting in light of the narrative of ‘you are what you eat’. I bought all thirteen t-shirts, and now the complete collection of t-shirts is probably rarer than the art prints, because no one thought of acquiring them as art. Discovering these alternative ways of acquiring artists that interest me, through subverting what is art to begin with, is something I still find exciting about collecting.
What’s your process for collecting today?
Today, my collecting is focused more on narrative and intuition. I’ll look at several hundred works a month and when I see something that I like, I’ll ask myself ‘what is it about this piece that made me stop?’ Is it purely aesthetic? Does it have something to do with the artist, or provenance? Does it have a link to existing pieces or themes in my collection? I find this back-calculation or rationalisation to be a useful exercise, but also, it’s totally fine for there not to be an immediate answer other than ‘I like it’. I learnt from a strategy professor at Stanford University in 2019 that gut intuition when coupled with general experience in a field can be a very effective way of making decisions that also mitigates analysis paralysis.
I take the same approach when it comes to how much I might pay for a work. Sure, there is data out there for established artists, but art, like anything, is worth only what somebody is willing to pay for it. That’s why I like auctions. It’s a matter of my desire multiplied by my means to own a piece, minus the same two variables for any other bidder. I’ll also factor in the likelihood of being able to acquire the work again at any point in the future, if for example it’s an edition. If it’s not something that’ll likely come to market again, then I’ll be far more aggressive in bidding.
What advice would you give to your young collecting self?
Quality over quantity. It’s far better to have a collection of three great works than 30 mediocre works. That means doing your research to know what great means – in general, but also for yourself.
I’m not the biggest believer in allocating a budget for art collecting. I didn't have a budget when in 2020 I bought an incredible Warhol screenprint on wallpaper from the Andy Warhol Foundation. At the time, I had never before spent anything like what I went on to spend on this artwork but it was a great work with exceptional provenance. I decided to make it happen financially so I could buy it, and I’m glad I did. My advice is, if the artwork is of good value and provenance, make it work. As a young collector it’s okay to spend slightly above your means because hopefully, your means will increase, and in my opinion it’s better to live slightly ahead of your means and then have your circumstances catch up. Of course, it goes without saying that you need to be very disciplined if you follow this approach.
Is your collecting driven by the value of the artwork?
Yes, but not for the purpose of profit or resale. I’m not like a banker who buys a company because it's under-priced to then flip it to make a profit. Value might be part of the impetus but it's rarely the object or the subject. My incentive to collect is driven by the thrill of the pursuit and the research through which I discover what I like.
Besides originals, I own art that is purely decorative and lacks any commercial value. Chris Levine did an iconic series of portraits of the Queen from 2008. The gift shop at the National Gallery sold the image as a lenticular postcard, and I bought nine of the postcards and had them framed. I’m as happy to frame a cheap postcard that I find aesthetically pleasing or with an interesting narrative as an original piece of work, because for me art, first and foremost, is about visual enjoyment and the instigation of a thought or narrative. It’s not necessarily always about owning the original work.
Some years ago, I discovered a sculptor from Romania who studies Brâncuși and produces solid bronze versions of some of Brâncuși’s most iconic sculptures. One of them, Bird in Space, is one of my favourite artworks of all time. I love the extreme simplicity of its bronze blade, its poise and elegance. However, it’s also one of the most expensive sculptures in the world – an edition sold at Christies in 2005 for almost £30m. So, I purchased the 50% scale replica of Bird in Space, and I love it. It doesn’t purport to be by Brâncuși, it isn’t sold as one, and I don’t think anyone believes I have a £30m Brâncuși on a pedestal in the entrance hall! – But I don’t mind that it’s not the original piece because I’m drawn to its form and narrative, whether it’s made by Brâncuși or not. It’s a nod to Brâncuși the same way a postcard is a nod to Levine.
Do you like to have a conversation with the artist before buying a piece?
I don’t think that’s necessary for me. There’s the famous quote “never meet your heroes because they’re bound to disappoint you”. So, in some way I like the idea of the artist and the collector being in separate worlds and not interacting. I’m not sure that I subscribe to the idea that the artist should know where their work goes or who acquires it.
If money was not an object, what would you purchase?
The sculpture Bird in Space by Brâncuși, without a doubt.
What is your most prized possession?
Ironically, I didn’t even buy it, it was a gift from a friend from Hong Kong who gave me a 2000-year-old Han dynasty pottery warrior head because I helped him get a job. Having a work of art on my shelf that was made by humans 2,000 years ago is incredible.
Robert Downer was interviewed for ArtULTRA in September 2023