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Lisa Schiff weighs in on the state of the global art market — and what she learned from advising Leonardo DiCaprio.
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These days, top collectors tend to rely on art advisers for guidance as to what they should or shouldn’t buy — and one of the better-known names is the New York-based consultant Lisa Schiff.
Ms. Schiff, who counted Leonardo DiCaprio as a client until a few years ago, has been in business since 2002 and now has an office in TriBeCa that doubles as an exhibition and production space for artists.
In a recent phone interview, Ms. Schiff spoke about the effect of the pandemic on her business, the NFT craze and the state of the global art market.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How has the pandemic affected business?
A lot of my clients bought more houses and started renovating them, so they had more empty walls. That provided a lot of business. The pandemic also pushed all of us really far into the online sector.
What are the implications of that?
I now see two modes of value making: a traditional system, and a new system, where investment value and critical and aesthetic values get separated and the art is lost.
Traditional value making happens over many lifetimes, as an artist goes through a bunch of consensus-making benchmarks: other artists, curators, institutions, academics, collectors. Over time, some artists, and some of their artworks, move up into blue chip.
Today, it’s quite confusing. Certain auction houses are mimicking the collectibles market. Everything is a tchotchke to flip. Evening sales are for stuff that those auction houses know they can profit on this week. You have sneakers, dinosaur bones, some NFTs, 50 artists you’ve never heard of, and then three artists who actually should be in an evening sale.
This is really disturbing. I don’t understand how I can pay $3 million for an artist who’s 30 years old and has no museum shows. I’m terrified about this weird marketplace that is based on nothing but information and chatter.
So where are we heading?
We’re heading into really dangerous territory because this has inspired a whole host of new financial mechanisms. The new banking system does their own appraisals based on what’s trading at auction today.
What are your thoughts on Beeple, who sold an NFT at Christie’s for $69 million last year?
That’s not art. That’s a different thing.
Why is that not art?
The second that the sole qualification of your success is based on what someone’s willing to pay, it’s totally divorced from any aesthetic and critical value. NFTs, by the nature of how you define them, take the art out.
I don’t have a problem with the editioning of digital art, or needing it to be more secure in a blockchain. I have a problem with something being tethered immediately to how much it’s selling for.
By the way, I buy and sell NFTs. I just don’t look at them as art: I’m gambling.
You’re an art adviser, but you also sell art that your clients own. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
I treat them as very different businesses. I have clients who sell things. I can’t offer my clients’ things to my other clients, because then I’m representing both sides. You have to be transparent.
What was it like advising Mr. DiCaprio?
It was a huge treat. He is 1,000 percent a real collector. He collects dinosaur bones, stuff from trips and travels, odds and ends.
Can you give examples of artists he likes?
Camilo Restrepo from Colombia, who had shows at Steve Turner in L.A. I would never have looked at Camilo Restrepo if it wasn’t for Leo. I saw the work through his eyes and loved it.
Art prices seem to just keep going up, particularly when it comes to blue-chip art. Is art a bubble?
Right now, it is absolutely not. These four artists are having a bubble, but these 1,000 artists are having a drop.
I tell new collectors: Art is not liquid. If you feel like you might need to get your money out for an emergency, do not collect art, because your transactable window is, like, two weeks long — unpredictable. And when it’s not there, do not try to sell. Yet everybody does, and they hate it, and they’re furious.
On any given day, even your $100 million Jean-Michel Basquiat head is worth zero — until you match it with the person who’s willing to pay what you believe it’s worth.
That’s not the impression that people have of the art market.
Because they just see the auction prices and everything going high. They also don’t understand the whole system of auctions. How many works were guaranteed? That will tell you a lot about the sale. Things can fail to sell completely without a guarantee on them. It’s hard in any industry right now. We’re in a ruthless, capitalistic kind of space.


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