Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Postcards from the Edgy

Here is is an article originally published in the independent in 2003:

Each year, the Royal College of Art sells `postcards' at pounds 35 each to raise money for its students. Most are by unknown artists, but a few are by the biggest names in the business. Caroline Wingfield meets the buyers who got lucky Portraits by Martin Salter
Caroline Wingfield



"We only went once. I was supposed to be taking my two daughters Eppie (5) and India (2) to a swimming lesson but I thought: sod it! We were really in debt and we're really into art so instead I took them along to the exhibition. I said they could have a postcard each. India kept veering towards one postcard in particular and trying to pick it off the wall. As you can imagine the staff were getting a bit paranoid about it: there were no other children in there. I had a vague glance at it, wrote the number down and that was it really. It turned out to be the Damien Hirst severed finger (right). It's a red and black pen and ink drawing of a finger in a pool of blood. I suppose I was quite disturbed by the fact that she chose it, it's a strong image. I was just really surprised, and really pleased. We haven't mounted it yet, it's still down in the cellar. We were thinking of selling it because we haven't got much money. We had it valued at about pounds 900. I wouldn't sell it at that price, no way; we'll need to keep it for a few more years - it's not worth enough yet. But to be honest, I don't really want to sell it. What I'd like to do is pass it on to India as a legacy when she's 18. I want her to appreciate art: I think she does already!

I like it, yeah, of course I do, but I'd have liked it anyway, without knowing it was by him. I do generally like Hirst's art, I like the spots and the animals in formaldehyde; it makes you think about what they are, why he did it. It stimulates the brain and I like that aspect of it.

In a way, it has made me more interested in art. I work in a school and they've put me in the art department. That's partly because I used to be a lighting designer, but I get to look at lots of art books to get ideas; I help plan some work for some of the kids. The art tutors know we own the Hirst, but I haven't told anyone else.

I would like to go back to the exhibition, but I'd only go back to buy something I liked, I wouldn't go to gamble. I wouldn't deliberately go to try and get an artwork for nothing - I'd go to get a nice postcard. We were just lucky."



"I like the fact that it's affordable; you could get something by someone who is famous, or who might be famous in the future, and it could be worth a lot of money. I was working in the college shop and was there for the very first show. I particularly wanted to get a postcard by Bryan Kneale, who was professor of drawing at the time, so I went for his style. He's not the biggest name but he's a Royal Academician and his work sells for thousands of pounds, so to be able to buy a piece of his work for a relatively small amount of money was amazing. I think that's the wonderful thing about it. I used to queue but I find it a bit stressful actually. I think the earliest I went was 1am and it was freezing, there were no loos or anything.

There's that whole thing of: `Are there dealers here?' People get paranoid that not everyone is playing fair. You're standing there for hours talking about all sorts of stuff, but people don't want to divulge their numbers, just in case somebody in front of you buys what you want. It's all a bit cloak-and-dagger - it's a terribly serious business. I've bought an Elizabeth Blackadder, four John Bellanys and an Anna Maria Pacheco, which is gorgeous. I also have ones by various artists who aren't well known but they're just lovely pictures. It's so important to go for what you like. The nice thing is to wander, I always go and have a look, if there's anything I really fancy I might put myself out for it. But it's quite an investment in time and commitment, and there's the fact that you might not get it. One year I was disappointed, I didn't get all the numbers I wanted but then you have your back ups! It sounds crazy. I think my friends thought I was mad queuing for hours and getting so worked up about it. Now, having seen what I got, I think there's a bit of: `Oh I wish I'd done it, too'." f



"I've been up in the top ten of the queue pretty much every year. Before I set up camp I go to the White Cube Gallery, down Cork Street, and look on the internet to refresh my memory and see what the artists are up to. I'm not an expert, it's not residual knowledge, it's all crammed. I've been successful in that I've got what I've liked. I've got one Damien Hirst, which took me two guesses to get. That's the problem really: you have a limited number of choices, so do you risk it and go for the Hirst when he's notorious for being difficult to spot? I've gone for Cecil Rogers, Terry Frost (right), Ellie Howitt, Mary Fedden. I've just come out of university so for me it's a chance to acquire original art which I'd never be able to afford. Sometimes I buy limited-edition prints from the Serpentine. I'm interested in art and I paint oils and acrylics. I made a mistake the first couple of years, trying to go for the big names all the time - I guessed wrong or I was fooled by a current RCA student doing a good impression.

The atmosphere in the queue is really good, everyone's friendly, and we're like-minded in that we all appreciate art so there's common ground. We're quite reasonable too, you can go off for a few hours, do some shopping, get a bite to eat. You don't have to be there rigidly for the whole day; as long as you're there for the night. One year a couple from overseas put two chairs outside and went off to spend the night in a hotel. They were first but the regulars arrived and moved the chairs. If you're not going to stay the night then it's not on. I suppose there are rivalries. Sometimes number one and number two will declare which ones they're after because they know they'll get them. People lower down are always trying to get information. I can't be bothered with all of that so I just make up numbers and really confuse them all. This year I'm not going to do a single bit of research, and just go for what I like. Who knows - I might get a complete unknown who might be big in the future. If you're going to hang it up on the wall, you might as well like it and enjoy it."



"The first time I went was in about 1997 when I bought an Ellie Howitt. I'd seen it on the front page of a magazine and it caught my attention. After that I read all the articles about the RCA sale and decided I would go along, but get there early. I queued up for two nights. I didn't have a tent at the time so I camped in a deck chair.

I have had a couple of disappointments but I haven't sold any of my postcards and I never would. I have more than 20 in my collection. One of my successes was Mary Fedden's The Melon. I didn't know her at the time, but I liked the picture so much I bought it. I did some research afterwards and to my astonishment found she was very famous. I've been buying her postcards ever since and I now have four. She is definitely my favourite. I also have the last postcard submitted by Terry Frost.

One year I bought three Nick Parks and had my photograph taken for the newspaper. My boss saw me and was really surprised; he had no idea what I'd been doing - I'd just taken the time off as holiday. He said, `You're mad queuing up for 62 hours' - I think I must be. I've bought a small tent for myself this year. As soon as the door opens you'll find me right at the front of the queue. It's fun, as the day comes for queuing up I feel excited, it's a new challenge every year. Once I'm in the queue and the sale starts to get nearer I get a feeling of relief that the day is coming. The ambience is very good, the people are very friendly and we look after one another." f



"Various people have advised over the years to go for what you like, as opposed to going for the artist. If it isn't by them, it's disappointing because you haven't got what you thought you'd got - and is it worth looking at in its own right?

In the past a lot of my hobbies have been competitive. I found the proposition of the RCA show a challenge to what little knowledge I had, and I liked the possibility of a treasure hunt. 1999 was a big year: I was first in the queue. It's always a matter of guess-work: too early and you freeze for more nights than necessary, too late and you're not first. I did three days and two nights. I bought a Peter Howson and he's since become one of my favourites. In 2002 I got the Paula Rego: I was first in the queue again, but this time I went crazy. I thought I've got to do something that nobody else can beat, I'm going to get there first. I did eight days and nights. Although in the real depths of night you find cold coming up from below, generally speaking the air temperatures have been very kind. I'm not going to say how long I'll be camping out this year because there is this competitive situation, you don't want to give away your secrets. You need two things in your favour: a bit of understanding, so you can learn what to like, and a high position in the queue. The make- up of people definitely affects what activities they do, and that competitive urge is something that for good or ill I seem to have.

I spend a lot of time going round all the galleries and I take loads of newspaper clippings with me. It's a combination of my intense interest in the subject, which has lead me to study for an Open University degree in the arts, and knowledge for the forthcoming show. I got caught out one year by an artist who was doing very good impersonations of Terry Frost. I thought, `OK, you learn'. I was a bit put out because I wanted to own a Terry Frost like I wanted to own a Paula Rego. It's the connection you make with the artist. One thing I love about the exhibition is the young artists as they are still forming and changing."




"The first year was incredible, you could just go in and choose. It's extremely competitive now and I'm afraid queuing for a week is beyond me. I do go in after it's all calmed down and you can still find some really good artists. I've only ever bought what I really like, because if you're caught out what's the point? I don't look at it as an investment, it's only for my own personal collection. Working in the shop means I've got to know certain students' work and I've often bought them, not because they're worth anything, but because they're very good painters.

My two favourites are an Anna Maria Pacheco and Nicola Hicks. The most well-known one I've got is a John Bellany, but I wouldn't necessarily say it was my favourite. I have to admit I did buy that because I knew it was his and I thought it would be a nice thing to say you owned. I am still pleased with it, and it's a good talking point; people instantly recognise it because it's `woman with fish on head'.

Listening to conversations in the queue you can tell some people do go there to strike gold, but I'd like to think the excitement of getting something they really like would take over in the end. You don't have to be an art buyer, you don't have to have a lot of money. If you've got a good eye, whatever you buy, so long as you like it, is worth buying for pounds 35. It's cheaper than buying a print. I think it's the most amazing opportunity. I hope it makes people feel more comfortable about looking at and buying art."

Having a wonderful time, wish you were sol le witt

Here is an old but very interesting article about Secret 2003 originally published in the New York Times:

LONDON WHEN I became an art historian, my mother decided that my only hope for financial security was to stumble on a Rembrandt at a garage sale. Last weekend was my chance. The Royal College of Art was holding its 10th annual R.C.A. Secret, an exhibition and fund-raiser that has become the best-loved gamble in British collecting.

The show features more than 2,000 postcard-size works by unknowns and genuine stars, including Sol LeWitt, Christo, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the designer Alexander McQueen. The catch: none of the works are labeled. They all cost $60; you buy what you like, or what you think you can identify, but you don't find out what you've got until it's yours -- it's signed on the back.

The event has become so popular with bargain-hunting art lovers that people start camping out days in advance; the doors open to a crowd of hundreds. Clearly, to find my modern masterpiece I would have to get a very early start. My friends may have 401(k)'s, but I had a borrowed tent and a stack of degrees that say I can spot a Sol LeWitt at 30 paces.

Tuesday's preview was discouraging -- I saw nothing I thought was a LeWitt, just a dozen sloppy student attempts at minimalism. The Tracey Emins were obvious and strangely beautiful -- raw drawings of naked women. Surely they would be gone in a jiffy. The Christos were the biggest disappointment -- souvenir postcards of his famous projects, some of which, returning buyers told me, were the same as last year.

On Wednesday, after a research trip to some galleries, I decided to focus on two "breaking" artists: Grayson Perry and Sophie von Hellerman. Mr. Perry, a finalist for this year's Turner Prize, makes large ceramic vessels covered with dark, witty, sexually provocative drawings. He also has a transvestite alter ego named Claire. I was pretty sure I had spotted his postcards: a village scene made up entirely of penises and a portrait of a girl with blonde pigtails -- and hairy arms.

Ms. von Hellerman, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, creates large, moody canvases, sketching a scene with a few bold lines and washes of color. A natural storyteller, she was given her first solo show in 2001 by Charles Saatchi. Three loose watercolors in shades of black, blue and rusty pink were perfect examples of her style.

On Wednesday night, I pitched camp, 12th in line, to await the Friday sale. I expected to find myself surrounded by 21-year-old art students in search of famous artists. In fact, most of the hard-core campers were closer to 50 than 20 and were looking not for today's megastars, but for more traditional British artists -- Mary Fedden, Eileen Cooper, Peter Blake.

Austin Clarke, 53, flew in from Northern Ireland and camped for five nights to be first in line. Last year he'd gone home with a Damien Hirst. "It's a buzz," he admitted. "Brings out the kid in you." And he admired his competition: "These guys are an education. They don't have the money to buy the big stuff, but they know their art."

The elder statesman of the group was Peter Sargent, 74, a London suburbanite with cropped white hair and dressed in purple Gore-Tex. He had been coming to the sale since 1997. Last year he camped out for eight nights to be first in line for a postcard by the Portuguese artist Paula Rego.

Benjamin, 20, an American student of political science who declined to give his last name, had wedged himself in at No. 4. "There's some Machiavellian stuff behind the scenes," he said, "but in the end, gentlemen's rules apply. It's very civilized." Indeed. Each participant can buy only five cards. It turned out that Nos. 1, 2 and 3 all wanted Sol LeWitts and Mary Feddens. Instead of No. 1 hogging the goods, they decided to take one each.

Around 11 p.m., I settled in to get some sleep. Mummified in six layers, I could see my breath.

Thursday morning, trouble arrived in the form of a handsome law student, No. 20, who was wild about Mr. Perry. He spent the morning telling everyone how he had to have one. I suggested that he might be better off keeping his enthusiasm to himself. He ignored me, and by the end of the day, I was pretty sure the Perrys had been publicized beyond my reach. Happily, no one mentioned Ms. von Hellerman.

Thursday night was Thanksgiving; my friend Courtney brought me a piece of pumpkin pie at midnight. By that time I had refined my list: praying for the Perrys, confident of the von Hellermans and, just in case, a consolation prize -- a beautifully painted card by an unknown artist.

On Friday morning we lined up in front of six computers and two flat screens displaying a rolling list of numbers, which turned red when the postcard in question had been sold. As I moved up the line, I saw the Emins go. Then the first Grayson Perry was gone. A pause. I was almost there when the second one flashed red on the screen; No. 11, who 24 hours ago showed no interest in the Turner Prize nominee, went home with my phallic village.

I walked away with the three von Hellermans, a Nick Park for my husband's Christmas present and a sketch by Stephen Jones, a British hat designer, for Courtney, my midnight pumpkin fairy.

When I packed up my tent at noon, two Sol LeWitts were still at large (the top three in line had missed them; so had I), and an unimpressive drawing in ballpoint pen had been identified as a Damien Hirst.

On my way home, I began to consider how to frame my new mini-collection. I wondered if my von Hellermans were a real prize or just hype. My thoughts turned to friend who had bought Warhol when Andy still had brown hair and Pop was still soda. Sophie, my money's on you.