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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Dummerston journalist Joyce Marcel and Brattleboro Museum & Art Center chief curator Mara Williams talk about art during an opening night at the museum in 2014.

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As an art addict ages...

With more and more people downsizing their lives or thinking about their wills, a new question arises: what becomes of the art?

DUMMERSTON—I am an art addict.

Looking around my house, it’s hard not to notice that every wall and shelf is filled with colorful art by local artists. I see work by Janet Picard, William Hays, Chris Triebert, Sarah Adam, Maggie Lake, Richard Foye, Mallory Lake, Leonard Ragouzeos, and others.

These works have brought me much joy over the years.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but there’s another truism at work here: art is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

Welcome to the story of my unsuccessful search for a secondary market for local artists.

If your home is filled with Warhols, Lichtensteins, Legers, and Picassos, you won’t have much trouble re-selling your art when you’re ready to let it go. But neither Warhol nor Lichtenstein, Leger nor Picasso ever lived in Windham County.

What happens, then, when you buy local and have to downsize? Or when you die?

Will your heirs — will anyone? — want the art you have spent a lifetime delighting in the living with and the looking of?

Or will paintings that have brought you joy for decades end up in a bin at Experienced Goods, along with your well-worn dinner plates and blouses?

Do my heirs share my tastes? Who knows? They will certainly welcome the antique jewelry that I inherited, as it is easily reset or sold. But what about the paintings and sculptures?

One problem for an art addict is that Windham County is rich with artists. Mara Williams, the chief curator of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, said that’s because we’re a safe place for people with talent.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said. “There’s a dialogue about art here. There’s easy access to art centers and a variety of wonderful cultural institutions — of all disciplines.

“Here you’re not facing the head winds of New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, where it’s monstrously expensive to connect. Here, at least you’re having a dialogue about art with intelligent people. And you can raise a family here. That’s why there are so many artists here. What other little town with 12,500 people has a museum like BMAC?”

Supply and demand

In an economy built on winners and losers, Williams explained: there’s blue-chip art, and then there’s everyone else. Although we claim them as residents, New Yorker painters Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason are blue-chip artists; their work sells in New York, Paris, and probably everywhere else.

Who else? After a certain amount of obsessive Googling, I found an auction site reselling the work of Eric Aho, an internationally recognized abstract painter who lives in Saxtons River. Other searches came up empty.

But if you watch Antiques Roadshow on public television, you know how often someone brings in a painting from the family home and finds out it’s worth $35,000. Don’t we all wish?

Williams told me the secondary market takes many forms.

There are international high-end auction houses, like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. There are lesser auction houses like Skinner’s in Boston. There are many art auction sites on the internet, including Artnet, Etsy, and eBay.

Galleries often resell; in Brattleboro, Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts is just beginning to resell work.

Then there are the antique dealers and thrift shops. Meet “the pickers.”

“They have pickers all over the country,” Williams said. “Pickers know what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re hobbyists, but sometimes they’re professionals.

“My late husband, when he was just Jim Oakes, lawyer, Brattleboro, in that life before he went on the bench and became Judge Oakes, had a passion for early American furniture and prints. You could do some significant picking at country auctions and estate sales up here in the North Country.

“Any prints he found, that he wasn’t going to keep, he sold at Ye Olde Print Shoppe in Kipps Bay, N.Y. It was a whole sideline business. How do you think his kids got to private schools? Not on what he made as a country lawyer.”

Market disruption

Art may be just another business the internet has disrupted.

“When Granny dies and Mom and Dad are in a nursing home, and you’re a pediatrician and your husband is a real estate sales person and you live in Boston, and you have to go to Jericho, Vermont, to clean out the house, do you think you’re going take the time to find out what everything is worth?” Williams said.

“So things used to be dumped at estate sales and family auctions. But now people are much more savvy. You can find out what a piece is worth. That’s how the secondary market is starting to work now.”

Still, Williams said buying local art and expecting it to increase in value is not realistic. She mentioned a friend who trolls for art in thrift shops and on the internet and pays a fraction of what the art was originally sold for.

“So if you’re looking at a local professional artist — someone earning their living as an artist — and you find a painting or a piece at the primary gallery or the studio and you buy it, thinking you’re going to make money 10 or 15 years from now, that is not a wise investment,” Williams said.

But I’m not trying to make a profit. I’m just trying to keep my art out of the recycling bin.

What will Williams do with the pieces she has collected, I wondered? For example, a large painting by Cai Xi Silver of Brattleboro dominates her living room. It’s a powerful portrait of a screaming Chinese woman.

“I have a note taped to the back of the painting,” Williams said. “It says, ‘This must be returned to one of the Silver children.’ It’s a picture of their grandmother. That is an explicit demand.”

For the rest, her husband will inherit her estate, if she predeceases him.

“But I have a niece who is a potter who can have a pick,” Williams said, “All my personal effects go to my two sisters. The rest will to the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center to be sold at auction.”

BMAC is not a collecting museum, but it will take donations of art; it sells them to benefit its general fund.

“If someone’s cleaning out Granny’s house, the museum gets a good price and they’re going for a good purpose,” Williams said. “The museum can auction my Wolf Kahn, or my Eric Aho, or my Doug Trump, or my Petria Mitchell and Jim Giddings, or my three Ed Korens.”

Looking for a home

With her artist husband, Giddings, Mitchell, another nationally well-known painter, runs their eponymous gallery in Brattleboro. She said she has been approached by collectors wanting them to sell a piece from their collection.

“There are people who would like to move on with some of their collection, so they come to a retail gallery because we’re the most likely candidates,” Mitchell said. “There’s not much of a resale market. so people have been sniffing us out.

“We just created what we call Gallery II. We’ve gone to this one particular person’s house to look and see what artists we feel familiar with. We think it’s an important opportunity to offer works that are not necessarily current. There’s a need.

“A lot of people are getting older, and they would like to be able to recover money from their collections. Or if they downsize, they might not be able to show the work any more. It’s a really wonderful opportunity to be helpful to a collector and reward the artist by giving other people the opportunity to live with the work.

“We don’t make a lot of money out of it, but we need to be paid for the time and the wall space and shipping.”

In search of more answers, I visited Hays at his home in Brattleboro. You can tell he has a sophisticated sensibility. His place is exquisitely renovated, painted, and decorated with his art and the art of his friends. Even his potted plants are gorgeous.

Before he was a printmaker, he was a painter, and he has many of his own oils on the walls. “What’s going to happen to all this?” I asked.

“It’s hard to sell art,” he said. “It’s a job. If it wasn’t hard, there would be a lot more people making a living as an artist. It’s a privilege and a blessing to make a living as an artist. So I don’t want to will my work to someone who didn’t ask for it.

“I want to give my art to the people who love them most. So I have a long list of people who will inherit from my estate. I’ve given it to my executor. Each person on the list can take one piece.”

I bought Janet Picard’s work in the early 1990s, when she was living in West Townshend and running a bakery. I even used one of her paintings as the backdrop for the cover of my first book. I still love that painting.

She has a completely different life now, and her work is all over town, decorating restaurants and stores. I asked her what I might do with her paintings.

“I am wondering that too!” she said. “A lot of customers from the bakery days must be in their 80s now. I don’t have emails for them and some have moved, so I can’t get in touch with them.”

She said she placed four mural-sized paintings in a restaurant in New Canaan, Conn., and the restaurant was sold and redone.

“The paintings are gone,” she said. “I contacted the original owner and asked if he knew where they went. He never responded. But about your paintings? I’ll take them back.”

All well and good if I predecease Picard, but who knows what will happen in the future.

You gotta have a plan

Susan Osgood is a nationally-recognized abstract-from-nature painter whose work is shown in many galleries.

I asked her the same question I asked Picard. Oddly, she had a similar response.

“Good question!” she said. “Walker’s Restaurant sold my copy of Manet’s ’Bar at the Folies-Bergere,’ that was over their bar through Twice Upon a Time. I heard through Twice Upon a Time that it went to a home in Walpole, so that was kind of nice.

“Another painting went up for auction in Burlington through Merrill’s auction house. Donating to local places who might be interested is an option, and yes, there is always Experienced Goods.”

Collectors are not the only ones with the problem of bounty. Artists make art. If it sells, it leaves the studio. But some prolific artists face other problems.

Take Mallory Lake, a gifted and well-selling artist who lived in Marlboro and died in 2017. She left behind a studio filled with artwork: 400 prints, stacks of photographs, between 800 and 1,000 posters and boxes of paintings, etchings, pastels, etc.

Lake’s husband died six months after she did. So her close friend of 30 years, botanical artist Bobbi Angell, took on the daunting task of finding homes for Lake’s work. After two years of open studio sales and auctions, she’s still not finished.

I met Angell in Lake’s downtown Brattleboro studio, where she immediately offered me a huge free partners’ desk that was too large to be moved. The studio had to be cleared at the end of the August, and there was still no end in sight.

“Mallory did multiple versions of pieces,” Angell said. “If she liked them, she filed them. She was going to work on them later. I approached her Northampton gallery and asked if he would buy pieces back and he said no.

“It’s something a gallery would do if he didn’t already have 75 other pieces of her work. But he’s 63, and if he decides to go out of business, what will he do with her work? He loves her and will push her, but if somebody else buys his gallery, would they love her and push her?”

Lake also had a collection of local artists’ work. Most of them did not want them back, Angell said.

“An auctioneer took the furniture,” she said. “I donated her art supplies and some of her work to the River Valley School auctions. I donated her camera supplies and photo collection to InSight Photography. Mallory wanted her books kept together, so I donated them to Marlboro College.”

At the end of her life, Lake wanted to simply enjoy life and didn’t want to talk about distribution, Angell said.

“She was an only child,” Angell said. “She didn’t have children. It would be so different if she had family.”

Precious provenance

I left Lake’s studio with two more pieces of art. Anything to help, said my inner art addict.

If Lake had had family, they would have been in for a rude surprise, according to Williams.

“Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason have a foundation,” Williams said. “If you’re a prolific artist who had any success in the market, and if you don’t have a foundation to put those works in, and some kind of operating budget to cover storage care and ongoing research, your family is going to drown in this. The IRS will come in.”

Senior artists often call Williams for advice, she said.

“If your paintings sell for $10,000 and your prints sell for $4,000, and you have 200 paintings in your barn, the IRS will figure out the value of the paintings, deduct 50 percent of what you’d be paying your dealer, and then they have a formula for discounting it,” she said.

“Because if you sell everything at once, you’ll flood the market and the value of each one will plummet. So the IRS comes up with a number, and if you’re the heir and the work hasn’t been put in some sort of vehicle, your estate is going to get that tax bill. And that is due within nine months of date of death.”

For collectors like me, there’s a different protocol, said Greg Worden, who has a large art gallery on Main Street in Brattleboro, on the top floor of his Vermont Artisan Designs crafts business. It’s all about provenance.

“On the back of your painting, put the date you bought it, the price you paid, whose work it is, and where you bought it,” Worden said.

“Look at Antiques Roadshow. If people have provenance, they say, ‘My grandfather bought it from Grandma Moses at a country fair.’ And that’s good provenance. Grandma Moses did sell a lot of her early work at country fairs. Art can be a very good business or a labor of love.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #526 (Wednesday, September 4, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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