Gallery Owner Philip Slein Explains How To Amass An Enviable Art Collection Without Excessive Wealth

St. Louis gallery owner, artist and prolific collector Philip Slein calls collecting art “a knowledge quest.” He is also emphatic that no one needs excessive wealth in order to collect art successfully. Rather, what you need is information and a well-trained eye. “What I’m trying to tell people—and what I’m trying to spread with my Johnny Appleseed-sort of sentimentality or sensibility here—is you really don’t have to be that wealthy,” he says, before slightly backtracking. “You don’t have to be wealthy at all to be a collector. Of course it helps, but in a way it also takes all the fun and the sport out of collecting.”

When Slein starts talking about collecting, his gestures and expression freely expose that he has immediately become prey to about a hundred tangential thoughts on the subject, and the second he starts talking about one, a hundred more pop into his head. It’s a front-row seat to what passion for creativity looks like: thirsting like a dying desert flower, exhilarating and exhausting. Is there another way to live?

phil-slein-portrait Portrait of Philip Slein, photo by Suzy Gorman

To dissuade any naysayers, Slein gives two clear examples of what he means when he says patrons, young artists and anyone interested in collecting doesn’t need to be rich. “I can think of two examples that I have acquired recently, one this year, one last year, where I bought a work of art for a dollar. One is a print by Rockwell Kent that’s worth at least $1,000, and the other is a wonderful piece from 1968 by British artist Peter Blake, called ‘Babe Rainbow.’ I got it for a dollar and it’s worth at least $1,500.” He explains that Blake, a pop artist, is best-known for crafting the album cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Think of Blake as the British Andy Warhol. In 1968, when Blake screen-printed 10,000 “Babe Rainbows,” which depict female wrestlers on aluminum, they were worth about a dollar. Almost fifty years later they’ve become a rarity, driving up their value. With his vast knowledge of art he was also able to quickly recognize the work of Rockwell Kent, but thought it might be a reproduction. Upon further examination, he was able to deduce that it was not.

“Babe Rainbow” by Peter Blake, photo courtesy of Philip Slein

However, Slein probably won’t be selling them anytime soon. “My problem is that I don’t like to sell anything because I like everything so much. It inspires me,” he says, before selecting another tangent to follow and launching into the artistic importance of surrounding oneself with inspiring objects, which is how the great Dutch artist Rembrandt went broke—twice. “This guy was ravenous to learn. He was visual, and he wanted all this stuff. It inspired him. And we all know that Rembrandt’s a great artist. But Rembrandt wasn’t the only artist collecting,” he says, citing photographs of Picasso in his French chateau, surrounded by African masks and 19th-century paintings. “It’s just this cacophony of visual excellence that inspires him.”

Both of Slein’s valuable $1 finds were purchased at estate sales, which is where Slein recommends young collectors begin their journey. “People might say, “I don’t have any money.” Well, you certainly have a dollar. I do want to be very sensitive to people who have big debts and student loans, but a dollar is something you can spend,” he says. “I’m not saying you’re going to find these every time. But I have learned that it’s not luck, really, that I found these things for a dollar. It’s consistency. I don’t find them every day, and I’ve made mistakes, but there are opportunities out there.”

rockwell-kent Rockwell Kent print, photo courtesy of Philip Slein

He is also insistent that young collectors not give up upon making a mistake, which could be overpaying for an item or spending all day at an estate sale without finding anything. Collecting is an homage to one’s own thirst for information, harkening back to Slein’s original thesis that more than anything, the art of collecting is a personal quest for knowledge, which he personifies in his own collection. “I collect many, many things,” he says emphatically. Among them: prints, oil paintings, sculpture, photography, folk art, vintage advertisement signs, furniture, clocks, antique weaponry, glass, plants, general oddities…on and on and on. “It’s about living creatively, living visually, living with things, understanding how to get things without spending a fortune, and not being afraid to see collecting as an asset, as a vehicle to make a little bit of money.”

A Few Key Collecting Tips From Philip Slein

1) Stake out estate sales, auctions, antique malls, junk shops—even Goodwill.
But for estate sales, get there early. We’re talking 4 or 5 in the morning. “There’s only one thing, and maybe five or six people or more are going for that one thing,” says Slein. “Estate sale-ing is a whole world unto itself. It’s not for everybody. But it’s one avenue for people to collect, because the prices at estate sales are usually low.”

2) Don’t throw out all of your grandparents’ stuff.
One thing Slein has been seeing lately is young adults dismissing family heirlooms and making mistakes. “Once they know Grandma’s painting is worth $10,000, and there’s a history behind it, Grandma’s old painting is a lot more interesting. This is why I try to be a super broad-base collector, because I don’t want to just focus in on paintings—which I do focus on—but I don’t want to go charging past the fabulous—I don’t know what—furniture, clock! If you go running past the thing, you miss it.”

3) Start when you’re young.
“I didn’t really accelerate my collecting until my thirties. But if you’ve been doing it, you’ll get a lot of your mistake-making out of the way. You’ll be more sophisticated and so ahead of the game. That’s the myth—I’m just trying to bust the myth that you have to be super wealthy to be a collector. We want to break this invisible membrane of, ‘I’ll collect one day when I’m rich.’ You don’t have to wait that long.”

4) Bring your smartphone.
Slein says this is an invaluable tool that helped him identify the Peter Blake piece with some on-the-spot Googling research. “I didn’t think it was an authentic. I thought it was something newer, like maybe from the 90s or the early 2000s,” he says.

5) Hone Your Eye
A basic knowledge of art history movements, genres, trends and artists will prove vital to identifying an original, valuable piece. This proved useful for Slein when purchasing the print by Rockwell Kent. “When I bought the Rockwell Kent, I knew that it was a Rockwell Kent. I didn’t know exactly what the value was. I knew it was decent, but again it was only a dollar, so I figured I would take a risk.”

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