Lawyer John Morrissey is buying artists of his generation – and banking that one of them becomes the next Warhol
By Scott Eyman
Some people are just born to be collectors.
When he was a kid, Morrissey collected baseball cards and comic books, just like all the other kids. As he grew up, he collected George Nakashima’s mid-century furniture. Now, at the age of 45, he collects art.
Since he’s a lawyer, specializing in probate and guardianship law — “dad dies and the kids fight over the money” is the way he characterizes his normal day — it follows that there is an element of strategizing in his art collection.
Art needs to be displayed properly, and Morrissey has consecrated his Trump Tower condo in West Palm Beach to showcase what’s on the walls. The floor is gray, the walls are white, the furniture and belongings are sparse. A few hairs are obvious, and Morrissey quickly picks up anything that disturbs the pristine surroundings, the better to showcase the art.
“Those people who collect a substantial amount of art are kidding themselves if they don’t treat it as an asset class,” he says. “That’s not to say it’s the reason you do it … there’s always some stuff you love and would never sell. But the fact remains that collecting art is now a lifestyle. There are people who cash out of stocks and bonds for trophy paintings.”
Morrissey favors strong, evocative work by modern artists; Justin McCallister’s fire paintings, and Su-en Wong’s acrylic and pencil works of of teen-aged Asian women in various poses of supplication that could be viewed as either post-feminist satire or pre-feminist soft porn. Another room features a suite of Katy Grannan’s large format photographs of nude working-class women from Grannan’s Poughkeepsie Journal, so called because that’s where the women were all living.
Grannan’s work is particularly resonant for Morrissey. “This is how I was raised,” says Morrissey, gazing at the Grannan photographs. “Those kinds of chairs and curtains. It’s a connection I want to keep.”
To be specific, Morrissey was raised in Lantana and Lake Worth. His mother was a nurse, and his father bought a couple of small apartment buildings for income — Morrissey compares him to Mr. Roper in “Three’s Company.” While mom worked, dad brought up the kids.
Morrissey graduated from Georgetown law school in 1993 and began buying art shortly thereafter. He didn’t have much money, so he took out a loan to buy a couple of Keith Haring screen prints.
Comfortable in mid-life and mid-career, Morrissey styles himself a student of contemporary culture. Like any good investor, he believes in buying low and selling high — the most he’s ever spent on a painting is $100,000. “I have to enjoy it and like it to some extent before I’ll buy it. I gravitate toward painting that’s figurative. I like to collect in depth. I’m confident in my decisions.”
Morrissey also likes work by minorities and women for reasons both aesthetic and strategic. “Traditionally, paintings of women sell high; paintings by women don’t. But demographics are changing. Our society is changing. Over the last 20 years there’s been a substantial increase in wealth. Russia, China, a lot of people of different ethnicities now have wealth. Not only that, a lot of women are collecting women artists. I see more women and minorities getting exhibits; at Christie’s and Sotheby’s the ratio of women to men artists in auctions used to be ten or fifteen to one. Now it’s under ten to one. Women artists are the bargain of our time.
“Take Joan Mitchell; her work has increased from three million to nine million. When the recession hit, the market for Damon Hirst and Jeff Koons recessed. The market for women artists didn’t.”
The trick is to find artists before they get picked up by major galleries, at which point their prices ramp up by factors of four or five. In 1981, Cindy Sherman photographs were selling for $1,000, compared to $450,000 today. In 1998 he bought a Cecily Brown for $11,000; paintings from that same artist and the same period now sell for more than a million.
Morrissey has been steadily buying young African-American artists, paying an average of $20,000 per piece. Many of them — most of them — will still be selling for the same money in 15 years, but, as Morrissey says, “You only need to buy one Rothko or one Warhol.”
Morrissey’s logic is unassailable, but the world of art often privileges emotion and publicity over logic.
John Pankauski — another West Palm Beach lawyer who collects art — agrees with Morrissey that a lot of people are investing in art and seeing spectacular returns. But, as he points out, “There are a number of risks and potential downsides: unlike, say, stocks, which are traded on a public market, artwork is unmarketable in that sense and illiquid. You can’t sell it fast from your Vanguard account. The winds of change can blow fast and abruptly: taking a hot young artist to a lower level when interest wanes or the galleries or critics push another new upstart.
“The truth is we all hope it will increase in value, (but) 90 percent of art decreases in value.”
Every day Morrissey trawls through the major online art sites, and he finds that, besides dealers, other artists are also a good source of information about what and who is happening.
Morrissey owns about 250 pieces, far more than he can display on the walls of his home. As a result, he regularly lends out work to museums and exhibitions.
“John learned about art by reading,” says Marisa Pascucci, curator of 20th Century and Contemporary Art at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, which has several paintings on indefinite loan from Morrissey. One of them is a spectacular, larger than life portrait of Big Daddy Kane by Kehinde Wiley, a picture Morrissey also loaned to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a few years ago.
“He believes figurative art is coming back because it’s figurative art that best stands the test of time — even Warhol is a figurative artist.
“He collects with his eye, but he collects with a plan. Up-and-coming artists, women when possible, African-American when possible — so many museums are trying to go back and fill in history instead of just showing the white male artist. He believes in letting the public enjoy what he owns. And if it adds value, it adds value.”
Morrissey is secure in his values, secure in his taste, secure in his sense of the marketplace.
“I want very few paintings, but I want historically significant paintings. Ownership of the object is very important to me. I’ve seen lines of Van Goghs on a wall, but looking at it doesn’t mean anything. Owning it means something.
“Even if money were no object, I would still collect my own generation. I have no interest in spending $30 million for a Warhol; I would feel I was half a generation behind.”