“Ipswich in the 1980s,” says curator and art dealer Henry Miller, “was not the place to be buying Andy Warhol film posters of one man licking another’s ear.”
Henry was 17 at the time, and “pretty wild”, as he puts it. Having left school at 16 and experimented with being a jockey, he was then living in Suffolk and working in London as a trainee stockbroker. He then left the City because it was “like an upmarket bookies and although I was earning more money than I could imagine, it wasn’t the best place in the world to be gay.”
“Growing up, I was interested in where art met counter culture. Watching Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Caravaggio got me interested in art. I went to university to study law but continued to buy art I liked. The buying of art was quite random. I didn’t go to auctions, I bought mainly from galleries but often found them quite intimidating. I still find some of them imposing now.”
The real “buying of art” started in Henry’s thirties. “I started buying stuff at auction, gaining the confidence to go into auction houses, learning about stuff and then buying art from auction houses both in the UK and Paris; Paris auctions for the first time was completely terrifying.” Henry’s interest developed to such an extent he decided to take a break from his 70 hour weeks as a lawyer and study an Art History Masters at Christie’s Education.
Henry focuses on the theme of the male form, but is not restricted to any particular period or style. “That’s another quite unusual approach for an art dealer to take,” he says. “Galleries tend to sell pictures according to a period, so maybe Dutch 17th century, modern British and Irish, etc, which I think can be a little restrictive. In reality the way people live with and buy their pictures is far more eclectic. Selling as I do means buyers can look at pictures from different time periods, different countries and different styles.”
“When I started really getting into figurative pictures of men I couldn’t find anywhere that seemed to have a concentrated resource of what I liked. There are contemporary galleries that sell highly erotic paintings, which have their place, but I want pictures that I can have on my wall, and when friends and family come round I’m not worried about what they’re seeing.”
One of Henry’s own favourite paintings is by Noel Coward. As a man who lived his life in the public eye and mixed with royalty and Hollywood, his love of painting was one of the very few areas that Coward kept private. A very successful collector himself, Coward’s works were sold by a family member. “The painting leapt out at me before I knew it was by Noel Coward,” says Henry. “I thought it was a strikingly modern picture, beautiful in its simplicity and very obviously about Coward’s own desires and attraction to men.”
Henry and his partner, Jin, bought a period home in East London which seemed to lend itself naturally to becoming a gallery space, and Henry decided to display the works he hoped to sell alongside those he had owned for many years. Potential buyers, who have already seen his works on www.henrymillerfineart.co.uk, then visit Henry at home to see the paintings informally, in an informal domestic setting.
“To a certain extent people can get a sense of what pictures are going to look like within their home,” he explains. “Commercial art galleries can be quite imposing. It’s all white walls and picture after picture. For some people that’s too intimidating for them to make a personal connection with the art and get a sense of what the piece will be like to live with. You don’t need to know much about art as long as you make a connection with it. My partner and I live with our collection, it’s part of our home and our lives.”
You can find find out more about Henry’s collection at henrymillerfineart.co.uk
How to develop an art collection – Top tips from Henry
01. Spend as much as you possibly can on one object rather than buying three pieces that are less good. In 20 years you will have 20 stunning pieces.
02. Buy what you like, what you have a connection with. You have to live with it.
03. Don’t expect to make money on buying pictures! Prices, especially for contemporary art, can go up and down more erratically than the Euro against the dollar
04. Don’t necessarily be put off at auction by the physical condition of a picture. Restoration can work wonders.
05. Don’t be afraid to ask dealers and auction houses questions
06. When buying at auction, learn the standard terms that are used to describe the attribution of a painting; e.g. if there is a debate over the origin it will be ‘attributed to’ an artist, rather than catalogued by the artist’s name alone.
07. Buy from a reputable dealer. You’ll pay more but it can give you some assurance that what you are buying is the real thing.
08. Don’t be afraid to ask dealers whether they’ll do a deal.
09. It is important to go and see the picture before buying it. Seeing the real thing, not just online, will transform your view of it; sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.
10. Buy artists with an established auction record. If you buy something from someone who is completely and utterly new, you may have found the new Damian Hirst; but the chances are you haven’t.