Investing in art better than money in the bank

Webb’s head of art Charles Ninow cut his teeth by auctioning off mattresses and box lots. Now he auctions off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of iconic artwork. He talks to Jane Phare about the art of selling, how auction houses have changed and what makes a good investment.

The teachers at Auckland’s Rangitoto College ought to have guessed where young Charles Ninow would end up. He rarely took notes; instead he doodled, scribbling drawings all over his books where the notes were supposed to be.

He studied art at school, and later did a Master of Fine Arts degree at Elam School of Fine Arts, but never became an artist. Instead, Ninow sells artwork and other collectibles for eye-watering amounts as an auctioneer with Auckland company Webb’s. Fresh out of art school with not a clue what to do, it was a natural fit: he loved art and he knew he could sell.

Now Webb’s head of art is riding a wave. New Zealand modern art from the 1960s to the 1980s is hot, way better than money in the bank is the thinking. As he puts it: “It’s a great time to be a young man selling paintings.”

Ninow, 34, is sitting elegantly on a $33,000 couch wedged in a glass picture window in architect Ron Sang’s first modernist home in Remuera, built in 1973. In a piece of marketing brilliance, Webb’s has teamed up with boutique real estate agents the Wall clan – dad Graham and sons Ollie and Andrew – to market the “Sang House” in a tasteful art-lovers’ package.

The walls are hung with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work by New Zealand artists from the 60s and 70s – Don Binney, Pat Hanly, Ralph Hotere, Don Driver, Gretchen Albrecht, Ian Scott – all for sale. The paintings are a nod to Sang, who died last month, and was a collector of paintings, sculpture and ceramics, and an arts publisher and benefactor.

The “Webb’s x Wall” bespoke catalogue is a piece of marketing brilliance in itself. Apart from beautifully staged photographs of the Sang House, the publication doubles as an art catalogue subsidised by advertisements for suppliers of all-things-beautiful for the sophisticated homeowner. The combo marketing plan is working. As many as 400 people have turned up to each open home leading up to the auction on Sunday.

The home’s fastidious owner has spent the past six years tastefully renovating and restoring the property in keeping with Sang’s original architecture. He’s a software developer, so naturally 1973 has gone high-tech. As the sun sets, lights automatically come on, the blinds slowly lower and the trees in the garden light up – touches Sang probably never dreamed of when he designed it nearly 50 years ago.

Surrounded by iconic New Zealand architecture and art, Ninow is in his element. He knows this house and its owner; he sold him a large 1984 Gretchen Albrecht work back in 2016. There’s a story behind the sale of that half-moon shaped painting, Colloquy #4, which now hangs in the Sang House dining room with a price estimate between $50,000 and $70,000.

Beneath the painting is a note about its provenance: “Collection of the home owner. Acquired from Bowerbank Ninow, Auckland, 2016.”

Back then Ninow was running Bowerbank Ninow, a boutique art gallery and auction house in Auckland’s Karangahape Rd, with business partner Simon Bowerbank. It was during Ninow’s five-year stint away from the established auction houses trying, but failing, to compete with “the big players”, selling expensive art to buyers with plenty of dosh.

He soon figured out that finding a niche market was the answer, persuading not-so-wealthy investors to buy art that was similar to the works being sold by the big players, but not as valuable. Like Albrecht’s Colloquy #4.

“Albrecht is really hot now. But there was a time when they were not that easy to sell.”

Nor was it easy to get into Ninow’s car. Each time a client showed interest in the huge painting, he would drive to a rental company, pick up a van, drive back to the K’ Rd gallery to load the painting, drive to the client’s house, discover the work wouldn’t fit through the front door or on the proposed wall, drive back to the gallery, unload and return the van.

It took him three years to find the owner of the Sang House, who luckily had an enormous front door – Sang was renowned for his signature 5.5-metre tall front doors – and loved the painting. Now both Ninow and the Albrecht have moved on. He’s selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art and collectibles at Webb’s and the painting is destined for a new home.

Ninow has no doubt he’ll sell it easily this time round, plus the other art hanging in rooms throughout the home. He first learned the art of selling working at a men’s suit shop while he was at art school.

From mattresses to masterpieces

At Webb’s, his first job was to wrap paintings and man reception, before progressing to running estate auctions. Mattresses – “they always sell well” – were up first, followed by box lots and Great Aunt Joan’s precious possessions.

And here’s the truth of the matter, Ninow says. “To anyone out there who thinks your things are important, when you die your family gets all of it and they take it to an estate auction house and it gets sold for whatever someone is willing to pay.”

They were hard going, those auctions. The traders, who did daily rounds of auction houses looking for treasure to hock off on TradeMe, would heckle young Ninow if he was going too slow or he missed a bid.

“But it was good training. If you can sell well with interruptions, then you can sell.”

He remembers his first big art auction in November 2013 when, still in his 20s, he found himself selling work by greats like Colin McCahon and Bill Hammond.

“I remember that night very clearly because I was terrified.”

But he must have done alright because he sold Bill Hammond’s Farmer’s Market painting for $328,300, just $50 shy of a record price for a living artist at auction at the time. Ninow has a memory for detail. He never forgets the provenance of a painting, nor the person he’s sold it to, nor the vendor. Those relationships are a slow burn, he says.

If he hears about a piece of art in a private home, he doesn’t ask the owner if he can sell it. “I would say ‘can I come and meet you?’ The knack with sales is to get people to agree to small things first.”

Major works take a long time to come to the market, he says. He’ll often fly out of Auckland to talk to the potential vendor.

“It’s not an overnight decision. It might be years, it might be months and you’ll meet with people many times. You have to work out what they want from selling the work. It’s never just about money.”

Since the days when Ninow sold box lots to heckling traders, technology and live streaming has had a major impact on what was an “antiquated” art and auction market.

“It seems bizarre that we ever had a business model where people had to turn up at a certain time to buy. Auctions used to be quite difficult for people to participate in and now they’re not.”

Now buyers will pay $300,000 online for a work they’ve never seen in person. As well, Webb’s, owned by Auckland businessmen Bruce Qin and Ewen MacKenzie-Bowie, has hyped up preview nights, adding a touch of pizzazz. There’s not a drop of mediocre wine in sight.

“We’ve got DJs, oysters, champagne,” says Ninow. “Not sparkling wine, champagne.”

The rest of the industry think Webb’s is crazy; the champagne-and-oysters lure comes at a cost. But it works.

“People never used to come to auction previews but now we get hundreds and hundreds of people to come to ours because it’s fun.”

They might not buy but they tell their friends, re-post on special media and generally create a “vibe” that has long been absent in stuffy auction houses.

Since Covid-19, the art and collectibles market is booming. All that money not going on a Rhine cruise or a tour of the Galapagos is being channelled into high-end collectibles – art, watches, jewellery, furniture, classic cars.

Ninow’s filling his own home, a 50 sq m apartment in K’ Rd with white walls and a white floor, with art. He has one blank wall left and has lined up a large orange collage by Australian abstract artist John Nixon, who died last year.

“People are looking at art as an investment who simply weren’t before Covid.”

He’s increasingly seeing young professionals turning up at previews, and bidding.
He has a theory about this, setting aside the investment potential. Collecting art and buying timeless pieces is more in line with the world’s values now, rather than buying something that will eventually be thrown away and end up in landfill.

“It’s in line with the way the world wants to consume.”

This month Webb’s sold $3m worth of cars at auction and recently a 1970s Ford sold for nearly $500,000. Last month a buyer paid $100,000 for a steel Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo wristwatch.

And there are still art bargains out there, he says. Remember Albrecht, Bill Hammond and Gordon Walters were once hard to sell.

“With the art market there are things that are out there that are great but nobody’s cottoned on to yet,” he says. “Over time, quality sells.”

• The Sang House has a price indication of between $4m and $6m, and will be auctioned on Sunday at Webb’s.

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