Feature on Elie Hirschfeld’s New York Scene Art Collection in Long Island Business News

Art Collector Hungers for more of the Big Apple

By Ambrose Clancy
Published: May 14, 2010
Tags: Andy Warhol, art, art collectors, Pop art

When Elie Hirschfeld met Andy Warhol, he expected to get a master class in pop art and the avant-garde. Warhol had other ideas.

It was 1983 and Hirschfeld, a King’s Point resident and real estate developer, met Warhol for lunch at his famed Manhattan studio, The Factory, where sex and drugs were once indulged in as ardently as artistic expression.

Hirschfeld, looking out the studio’s windows, noted in passing that a building rising across the way was one of his, a residential tower with 684 apartments. He then began to question the artist on his work, but Warhol cut him off.

“All he wanted to talk about was the building project,” Hirschfeld said with a laugh. “I was trying to get him to talk a little art, but he only wanted to talk about business.”

The meeting eventually led to Hirschfeld buying an image of the Brooklyn Bridge that Warhol had been commissioned to create for the bridge’s centennial.

Since then, Hirschfeld’s collection has swelled to 200 works worth more than $15 million and limited to New York City scenes and themes.

Although he said he collects because of his twin passions for art and New York and not as an investment, some experts said Hirschfeld’s collection – which includes such names as Thomas Hart Benton and Christo – will continue to grow in value, defying a recession-ravaged fine art economy.

Last year, the two great international auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, made a total of $482.3 million in fees from art sales, according to Bloomberg News. The year before, the art houses took in $1.97 billion.

The market is continuing to plunge even with last week’s spectacular sale of a midcareer Picasso for $106.5 million, setting a record for the most expensive painting ever sold. The Mei Moses index, which tracks prices in the art world, reported that the art market was off 5 percent for the first quarter of 2010.

Terry Wallace, a long-time fixture on the Hampton’s art scene, also owner of Easthampton’s Wallace Gallery and a collector himself, said Hirschfeld’s style of collecting is “very smart.”

Since 9/11, works of art with a New York theme done by recognized artists have soared in value, Wallace said. And with Hirschfeld’s sole focus on New York, works by artists in the second tier are elevated by association in a collection containing works by the masters.

Hirschfeld said the weak art market has allowed him to find bargains, since the overall economy has forced some collectors to turn art into cash.

He picked up a painting by one of the founders of the photorealism movement, Richard Estes, for $250,000, a work that normally would have gone for twice that. He also bought his Christo, a model of Madison Square Garden wrapped in cloth, at a bargain basement price.

Hirschfield has never sold pieces of his collection to acquire something new or better, but has kept his possessions intact since

The early 1980s when art sparked an interest. He’d gone to NYU Law School before joining his father in the real estate business. Thumbing through an auction catalog one day he saw something that made him say aloud, “That’s it.”  The painting was a Washington Square Park scene, set directly in front of his alma mater, NYU law school, by Benton, one of the most revered names in American art.

“I’ve never seen another New York scene by Benton,” Hirschfeld said. “He had an aversion to urban life. I could’ve looked for years and never found something on New York by Benton.”

A quick $80,000 lighter in the wallet, Hirschfeld was on his way to building a unique collection.

“From that first painting it was an immediate passion,” he said.

Although sitting on a potential fortune, Hirschfeld said his collection is not for sale and that its purpose is to satisfy his love for the city and his love of beauty.

Now in his 60s, the collector hasn’t yet decided what eventually will become of the art, whether he’ll will it to a family member or an institution.

For now, though, he’s on the hunt for more.

“It’s like fishing,” he said. “There are so many fish out there.”

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