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Homing In On Art: Art collectors derive emotional pleasure from plying their pastime.

By Bob Brink
Palm Beach Illustrated
January 2002

Fernando Botero's The Family, posing rotundly in blackened bronze, greets visitors to the Palm Beach mansion of William Koch, which rises with muted majesty at the end of a lush, blue-green lawn across from the aqua Atlantic.

The famous sculpture only hints at what awaits inside -- a treasure trove of artworks. Paintings hang on every wall and sculptures adorn the hallways and rooms in a palatial dwelling that surely rivals any on this posh island.

Koch's is among a number of residences in the Palm Beaches that hold some of the finest representations of art in the world. Such homes, including those of Shirley and Miles Fiterman, Eileen Fisher Landau and, to a lesser extent, John Morrissey, resemble the exhibition halls of ornate museums.

The works in Koch's collection include many of the great artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and some who hark back even further. There's the hallway painting by an unidentified artist, for example, that has the antiquated pastoral scenes and dark background shadings of the Old Masters.

"I found it in a trash can," Koch says nonchalantly.

Although he doesn't, for obvious reasons, volunteer the amounts he paid for the other works, many doubtless carried price tags equal to the net worth of an average middle-class adult. He began collecting 23 years ago and bought all of the pieces after the artists were established.

The house holds about 400 works, enough to fill a small museum. In fact, this domicile, while resplendent with the accoutrements and comforts of an opulent lifestyle -- the wine cellar is stocked with 20,000 bottles -- is as much a museum as a home.

That conclusion is inescapable when the browsing eye falls on an immediately identifiable painting, Modigliani's Reclining Nude, and one realizes it is the original -- as are all the pieces in the home.

Koch's collection, part of which is in his home on Cape Cod, is eclectic, ranging from the Old Masters to French impressionist masterpieces to signature contemporary works, and everything in between. An entire room, for example, is devoted to nautical scenes -- 23 paintings of old ships and battles. Koch, who earned three engineering degrees, including a doctorate, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells the story of each battle in minute detail. An avid sailor, he and his crew of the America 3 won the America's Cup in 1992.

Koch's artworks have been displayed in many top museums, including the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Koch is different from many art collectors, who concentrate on a particular period. And he doesn't buy them as investments.

"I've been lucky in that they have been good investments, but I buy them for my emotional pleasure," he says. "I rarely will sell a painting."

At the other end of the art-collecting spectrum is John Morrissey, 33, who lives in a waterfront condominium in downtown West Palm Beach. He started collecting in the early 1990s, and says, "Everything is current."

Morrissey looks at pictures in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and W. because "those images epitomize what contemporary culture is and those magazines have very good articles on young artists. In the gym at night, I many times watch channels like MTV. I try to figure out where contemporary culture is headed -- you know, art imitates life -- and I try to extrapolate the trends and what pieces of artwork are identified with those trends."

He acquires pieces mainly from galleries.

"By the time they reach auctions, they're too well-known," he explains. "At times, I've bought directly from the artists. It's good to reach them before the galleries do, because the cost is much lower. But that's tough to do."

Morrissey looks for emerging artists for several reasons.

"One is that I can afford them," he says candidly. "Also, there's great satisfaction in having discovered someone who becomes well-known. It's a 'feather-in-your-cap' thing. And, of course, they're good investments."

Indeed, he says, "In a very short period of time, the value of an artist's works many increase exponentially." He points to an abstract painting replete with sexual imagery, by an artist named Sue Williams, and says it is worth eight to 10 times more than what he paid five years ago.

"But you know," he adds, "it's hard to find a work under $10,000 these days -- even one by an emerging artist. A lot of people are speculating, and galleries and artists know that."

Morrissey's apartment is spare -- even stark, with small pits in the bare, gray concrete floors, only a few pieces of simple modern furniture, and a white bed conspicuously occupying the center of an otherwise nearly empty bedroom. The dwelling mirrors the artworks -- or vice versa -- and both are diametrically different from the collector's conservative profession: He's an attorney specializing in probate and estate planning.

A visitor remarks on the austere decor, and Morrissey replies, "My mother refused to talk to me for two days after she saw the place. It's really pretty pathetic."

The comment is all the more amusing because Morrissey doesn't intend for it to be. He's being dead honest. His apartment is like his art, and both reflect the quirky and the bizarre, along with pathos -- a sense of compassion. There are the paintings of tattooed, counterculture bikers by Helen Garber, a runaway who spent months on the road with rock bands and witnessed their sexual exploitation of pathetic young groupies. The figures are somewhat haloed, the backgrounds becoming ever browner in a grisaille style that the Old Masters used, rendering a dark, gloomy effect.

Black-and-white photographs of nudes, by Malerie Marder, depict situations that are taboo, sometimes incestuous. On a hallway wall are photographs by Katie Grannan, who placed an ad for females to pose nude and turned out a series showing women with physical defects -- as much a sociological as an artistic statement.

"You look at the expressions on these women's faces, and you know that for one day they are trying to be glamorous, when their daily lives are depressing," Morrissey says unemotionally. "I walk through the hallway and just feel sorry for these girls."

The Grannan series exemplifies the kind of art he seeks, he says, explaining, "I always like works that are challenging."

Besides the works lining his walls are a lot that are in storage in his apartment.

"I collect continually," he says. "An obsessive hobby. You might call it a second job."

The same is true of Emily Fisher Landau, who lives part-time in a Palm Beach condominium, where a small part of her total collection is housed. Most of the rest is in a museum in Long Island that she established to house her collection exclusively, and in her Manhattan residence, which houses her European works.

"I'm very hands-on," she says of her collecting. "It's an involvement in my life, not just buying art."

Landau, like Morrissey, has collected a large number of works by up-and-coming artists. But she began as early as the late 1960s and, blessed by considerably more wealth (her first husband was a New York real estate magnate), has amassed a much larger collection -- more than 1,000 works. Many are by mainstream contemporary artists: Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly, Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith and numerous others.

"I know all of the American artists whose works I collect," she insists. "The only one I met only for a very short time was (Willem) De Kooning. I don't just go to a gallery and buy a painting. Part of the fun of collecting is involvement, knowing the artist, visiting them in their studios. For me, the thrill is much more than just having the artwork on the wall. Every picture has a story.

"We went to New Mexico [where she has a ranch] and met Georgia O'Keeffe. I bought six pictures of hers in three years."

Art collectors often are ambivalent about their favorite works, but Landau isn't.

"The Jasper Johns flag is first," she says unhesitatingly, referring to a painting of an American flag. She adds, however, "My Warhol [The Shadow] is very important to me because I think Andy, Jasper, Rauschenberg, and Twombly will go down as the greats of the 20th century. Warhol I would almost put first; it was the influence he had on the younger generation of artists."

Morrissey has no top pick among his artworks, but chooses Sue Williams, who did the abstract painting with sexual imagery, as his favorite artist.

Koch says of his artworks, "I don't really have any favorite. It depends on my mood." Sitting in what he calls "the cowboy room," he gestures toward a painting titled Trail of the White Man or Wagon's Dust Cloud by Charles Marion Russell, and muses about "the majestic beauty of the West, with those noble Indians, and a wagon train bringing the white man to destroy this natural environment."

Hanging below it is Evening on a Canadian Lake, by Frederic Remington, showing two men and a dog canoeing on a placid pond, the men's alert faces and the dog's perked ears indicating danger.

"If I'm tired of Palm Beach and am thinking about moving out West, I look at these," says Koch, a native Kansan who amassed a fortune in the field of alternative energy sources. Chuckling, he adds, "But if I'm [feeling amorous], right before I go to bed I look at the Modigliani. Or if I come home from a hard day at work, I'll get a glass of wine, turn on Handel's Water Music and look at the Water Lilies [by Monet]."

Shirley and Miles Fiterman, who became wealthy building homes, have similar feelings about their large collection of contemporary-style paintings and sculptures from the 1960s to the present, which they keep in their homes in Palm Beach and Minneapolis. Shrugging, Shirley says, "I just love it all. Art brings such joy to one. It is so special. If you're feeling down, and you look up and see a beautiful painting, it makes you feel good. It really does."

Like Koch's home, the Fiterman's is a virtual art museum, though on a smaller scale. Every room and hallway is stunningly adorned with paintings, lithographs and sculptures large and small by Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miro, Hans Hoffman, Willem De Kooning, Helen Krankenthaler, Warhol, Johns, Alexander Calder, Rauschenberg, Jean Dubuffet and others.

"We've opened our home when the museums asked us to, so groups of people could see the collection," Fiterman says. "And we always have something on loan somewhere." For example, they loaned David Hockney's Looking at Pictures on a Screen for a show exclusively on that painting at the National Gallery in London, and Sam Francis' Towards Disappearance was recently exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum.

The attraction to art is natural for Fiterman, who minored in the subject in college, and Landau, who painted before she began collecting. Koch claims to have no artistic talent, but says his mother did and persuaded his dad to build a modest collection. Morrissey became fascinated with art through friendships with artists.

Many collectors have art experts advise them on what pieces to buy.

Landau is assisted in her collecting by Bill Katz, who organizes shows for New York galleries, "but I make the decisions. We will look at the art together, and instinctively we will both like a piece. He knows all the artists; many of the paintings I've gotten directly from the artists."

Koch, who began collecting in the late 1970s, relied on two experts for guidance during the first five years. But one adviser was basing his choices on his own tastes, "so I decided, I know enough about art now, I'll do it all on my own.

"I buy a painting or statue because I get an emotional reaction to it. I generally like to buy only things that give me happy, pleasant emotions."

He buys from auction houses and galleries.

"I get auction catalogs, go see a piece, then bid on the telephone," he explains. "And I go to art fairs and shows. I've bought several paintings from the Palm Beach International Art and Antique Fair."

Fiterman, who was board president of the Norton Museum in 1986-87, and Morrissey likewise do their own researching and searching for artworks.

"You go to different museums and just educate yourself," says Fiterman. "You read and you travel. Most of the pieces are from reputable galleries in New York and Paris. And we have good galleries here."

For her and Miles, Fiterman says, choosing pieces is "intuitive. We've never had an art director or a person from the art world select our art. We selected every piece ourselves. We've gotten great enjoyment from it."

The Fitermans and Landau, like Koch, don't choose an artwork for its potential to appreciate in value. Appreciating its beauty is their concern.

"We have never done it as an investment," Shirley Fiterman says. "We always buy what we love, not because it's popular or a good investment. It's something we really enjoy looking at. We rarely have sold anything."

"That's not on my mind," Landau says of investing. "But a lot of them have appreciated a lot, especially the ones I bought early on." These include works by Pablo Picasso, Dubuffet, Fernand Leger and Henri Matisse.

Before the Fiterman's collected art, Shirley's hobby was antiques. "My husband would take me to the various little places in the country, and we would see a sign for antiques, and we'd stop, and he'd sit in the car and read the newspaper while I tried to find an antique at a good price. He was very patient."

They began visiting two museums in Minneapolis, and "he became interested in art. We realized it was something we could be doing together. It's wonderful to be able to share the same interests with your husband."

Landau, who married Sheldon 20 years ago after her first husband died, has gone mostly solo with her pastime.

Nonetheless, she says, "I've had a wonderful time collecting in my life. I've had a ball."

Article Source: Brink, Bob.  “Homing in on Art.”  Palm Beach Illustrated, January 2002, pp. 97 - 101, 176 - 177.


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