Herb and Dorothy Vogel were not from rich families and never earned more than an average income. Yet they were among the most successful and influential art collectors of the twentieth century.
Herb worked for the post office, Dorothy was a librarian. They did not advance their careers and they did not talk to their office colleagues about their extraordinary hobby. But the artist community knew them well. If the Vogels bought a painting, it could launch an unknown artist’s career – other collectors would follow.
Their collection was so valuable that after only ten years of collecting, they could have sold their paintings and retired to a millionaire’s lifestyle. But they never sold a single work. By the time they finished, their collection was described by a curator at the National Gallery as “literally priceless”.
I have identified some of the methods the Vogels used to build their collection:
They understood what they were collecting. Herb originally wanted to be an artist but after a few years realized he didn’t have the talent. But the years of study and practice must have given him a great insight into what makes a painting great.
They picked the trends. When they started in the 1960’s, the fashion was for Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. They could not afford to buy the art that was already popular so they bought Minimalist and conceptual art, which the art establishment had not recognized yet. By staying ahead of the fashion, they could afford to buy works which otherwise would soon be too expensive for them.
They were systematic. Herb and Dorothy visited dozens of studios and galleries every week.They budgeted for how much they could afford to spend on art. They developed rules to guide what type of artworks they would buy.
They worked as a team. They took advantage of each others strengths. Herb had the talent for spotting a hidden masterpiece, Dorothy had the organizational skills and a tight hold on the money.
They did not buy retail. Although they visited galleries and knew all the important art dealers, they only bought directly from the artists.
They engaged with their community. The artists got to know them and they knew the artists. They understood the prices and how the art market worked. They didn’t only buy from their big-name artist friends, but helped unknown artists too. They had the knowledge to discuss art matters intelligently with artists, curators and other collectors.
They found ways to make the art cheaper. They would try any method to negotiate a lower price. They always offered to pay cash but if the item was too expensive they would buy on credit. They even offered to mind an artist’s pets.
They lived frugally. Their apartment was small, but crammed with art works. They never took an overseas holiday and they ate cheap food. You might think there was room for nothing else in their lives, but somehow they also managed to keep a huge number of pets: 20 turtles, eight cats and an enormous aquarium full of fish.
They lived in New York. The greatest art market in the world was around the corner from them. Artists who live in small towns seldom become world famous. We can still enjoy their works, just don’t expect to resell the art you buy from them for the same price as for an artist who lives in New York or London.
Herb has now passed away and Dorothy has stopped collecting because it was something they had always done as a couple. Their achievement is proof of what greatness ordinary people can achieve.
Most people would not go to the lengths Herb and Dorothy went to. It’s a path only for those who are passionate about what they’re collecting. As Herb said, I he wanted to make money he would have bought shares. Many people buy art in the hope of making money from it, few actually do make money.