Insider's guide to the New Zealand art market

16:00, Nov 13 2012
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LONG-LASTING: Michael Smither's Harry folding napkin, 1968. Smither is one of a handful of 20th-century New Zealand artists whose work goes for a high price.

Spontaneously splashing out on art on the assumption it must be a quality investment because you personally like it is just plain silly in Warwick Henderson's world.

He is a dealer with a long-standing Auckland gallery and has been buying and selling art one way or another for three decades.

"Whether art is good or not is not subjective any more. You can find out whether it's good, but you've got to go to someone who knows something. You need advice. It's a big, wide world and there's so much art out there," he said. "Unfortunately, with a lot of events and outlets, it's the blind leading the blind."

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WHEELER DEALER: Warwick Henderson, the man behind a new guide to our art market.

Henderson, author of Behind the Canvas: An Insider's Guide to the New Zealand Art Market, says his best tips for would-be art buyers are: "The two Rs, read and research. Build up a knowledge. This is what you need to do to be confident in your own mind."

Don't, he says, rush in and buy "junk" off the internet. For a would-be collector, buying art from an unknown artist is "a stab in the dark".

"Buying from a reputable gallery is less of a stab in the dark. Every dealer gallery has work under $1000. All art is not $20,000. And $1000 is still hard-earned money."


He advises seeking the work of career artists "as opposed to someone on Trade Me or eBay whom you don't know. So many people want to get into the market and it's very confusing." For example, people sometimes don't know the difference between a print from a limited edition of 15 or one of 100.

"Talk to people. Go to galleries."

Another tip: "Never buy art on holiday, and don't go to a charity auction and have a few drinks and buy something you don't want."

Henderson says the art world has changed dramatically since he first began collecting and there is a greater empathy for it. Collecting is still a specialist field, however.

Just how specialised came home to him after his book was published. A friend told him he was unable to buy the book because of the queues that had formed outside the Queen St bookshop selling it.

The crowds were not there in trembling anticipation of learning the secrets of the New Zealand world of art, however, but to read about the career of Richie McCaw.

It says something of the appreciation of art and rugby, says Henderson, "that there were 60,000 of his printed and I think about 3000 of mine".

But art is still big business, fuelled by the rise, in the past few decades, of auction houses fostering a secondary art market, sometimes to the detriment of dealer galleries. Since 2005, he says, 25 dealer galleries have closed in Auckland. That city still remains the "engine room" of the country's art market with more than 50 dealer galleries and with five auction houses regularly selling New Zealand art.

Henderson started collecting art "as soon as I was earning" and when the works of big names like Colin McCahon went for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars and even then were hard to sell. The art market now, he says, is reputedly worth more than $50 million annually, and with more than $12m in exports.

The number of people clamouring to be part of it has increased accordingly. Each year more than 2000 people graduate from visual arts and craft institutions, more than science graduates.

"A lot of people see it as an easy tertiary qualification and there are a lot of talented people in the arts. Back in my day [he is 59] it was a waste of time pursuing an art career. Now it is a big industry."

He estimates, however, that there are only about 50 artists in New Zealand making a good living.

"But thousands of parents are paying for their children to do art thinking they could be the next Bill Hammond. Very few make it."

And only the best can find a dealer. Usually in a week, Henderson says, he will receive the portfolios of five hopefuls. Sometimes they come from the hopeful's husband or wife.

"You get people taking up painting in a mid-life crisis, people my age or older who want to get into a gallery. And unless they're Picasso or Grandma Moses that's not going to happen."

The Dominion Post