Collecting art is not for the faint of heart, nor the deficient of coin. Spending three or four (or five or six) figures on that oil painting or rare figurine can turn into a gold rush or a toilet flush. Patience is key, as is a discerning eye and feel for the market. At least, that’s what one of the culture’s biggest art aficionados told us.
Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean began purchasing pieces two decades ago when he was still a newly minted millionaire. He has since amassed one of the world’s most respected libraries of contemporary art; the Dean Collection features work from KAWS’ wooden colossi statue to the socio-political fire of Deana Lawson’s photography. (The cover art for Swizz’s debut album was created by the world-renowned Kadir Nelson — 11 years before Drake would commission Nelson for the Nothing Was The Same visual.)
It wasn’t all hits, though. Before Swizz was copping Shepard Fairey’s work, commissioning statues for rising artists like Cleon Peterson, and increasing African-American artist visibility at Miami’s Art Basel by 30%, he collected all wrong. He shopped with other collectors in mind instead of himself. While he learned from his mistakes, he’s also not territorial about his learnings — and broke it all down for LEVEL. Buying art doesn’t have to be a rough ride, as long as you remember: no KAWS-copping out the gate, junior. Pay attention and let Mr. Dean get your young collection into a zone.
As told to Bonsu Thompson
Learn What You Like
One thing that I tell everybody is to buy from your heart. I see a lot of Black people buying because the artist has a buzz. Get to those names before they’re those names, so your collection grows with you. You may get a piece for $10K and by the time you pay attention it’s worth $110K. But you gotta put the work in; there’s really no way around it. When buying art pieces, money is actually the last part. The main part is beginning to know what you like about an artist and why you like their art. Whether you want African-American art, photography, or a sculpture, you should start with what you actually like.
“Early on, I was collecting for the wrong reasons: to impress Clive Davis and all the CEOs coming to my house. Later, when I got educated on how to collect for the right reasons, it became more fun.”
In the pre-Dean Collection era, I was collecting for the wrong reasons: to impress Clive Davis and all the CEOs coming to my house. I wanted them to separate me from my peers on a taste level, so I would be taken more seriously when I was negotiating deals. Later, when I got educated on how to collect for the right reasons, it became more fun. If you’re spending hundreds of thousands then I can get into those details. If we’re talking about early collecting, you should collect what you feel.
Do the research
My first major piece was a photography piece, an Ansel Adams, damn near 20 years ago. It was just a landscape of some mountains, but it felt very far at the time. I never thought I would be at that place, so it was pretty cool to look at. It took months and months for me to land on that piece because when you go into these galleries they want to sell you anything to get a commission. So I kept going to the gallery and being inquisitive.
I couldn’t understand why a piece would cost 40 or 50 thousand, so I did extensive homework. What’s an artist proof? What’s a trial proof? What’s a giclée? If you want to get a series, it should have matching numbers. Then I started breaking down why the Warhols were so expensive. Why the Sam Francises were so expensive.
I landed on the photography piece because it just felt natural to me. I knew I was going to come back and get the other stuff later, but what I wanted for my first house in New Jersey was to put it over the couch. The Andy Warhol Diamond Dust Dracula was just a lot for the living room — not price wise, but the energy of it.
Play the long game
Early on, we were all trying to collect like our white friends, and our white friends were collecting all of the African-American stuff. I understand why: We don’t want to look at ourselves in the mirror. When I met David Rogath, who owned a gallery and became a mentor to me, the Basquiats he had on his wall in Connecticut were ridiculous. All of his pieces just went crazy: Sam Francis, Degas, Picasso. That’s how my first collection looked. There were a lot of those pieces.
For the Dean Collection, I chose to invest big in that market and help drive that market because none of us were doing it. So the chances of one of our peers hanging a Henry Taylor on their wall five years ago was almost zero. Now add some context and meaning to that and you’re lucky if you can get a Henry Taylor. You gotta be ahead of it. You didn’t know a Basquiat that someone bought for $15,000 would be worth $150 million. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be a market. So we place bets everywhere, but we bet on it being good art from Nina Chanel to Jordan Casteel. I know that they are great painters, but did I know their prices would triple the same year I bought them?
Hell, no! If so, I would’ve bought the whole goddamn place. So you just have to have an eye. Matter fact, I just copped a couple pieces this week from this brother Clotilde Jiménez. A lot of people compare his style to [Francis] Bacon, but I don’t see it. I think he’s got his own vibe.
Find the artist behind the artist
The thing I used to do, and still do with the artists that are poppin’, is look at the people they follow. Say you’re looking at Kehinde Wiley, but you might not be on the [financial] level for a Kehinde yet. You look at the artists that Kehinde follows, ’cause most artists follow up-and-coming artists that speak to their vibe.
You have to give yourself time to catch a flow, and once you catch that flow it’s like a rhythm. It’s gonna lead you to something else that’s gonna lead to something else. A lot of the great artists come from where? I’m gonna go ride up there and see these shows. Yale is very hot right now. Yale is producing super superstars. These artists may not always be known, but start showing up to their shows, and requesting studio visits. That’s what gave me the real head start: I have relationships with artists that people know and artists that people don’t know. I go there and I sit in their space. I educate them and they educate me. You can go out and buy some cool shit, but it don’t mean nothing if you don’t know about it.
Look for the value
You have to know when you’ve missed something. You can’t hype-buy. It’s like, am I going to spend all this money to get something small, or am I going to spend this money to get an original painting by somebody I believe in? Maybe even for like five Gs — then when miracles start happening with that person, it feels better.
The reason I started collecting so many living artists was the feeling of growing with the artist. Like wait, the MoMA is doing a showing with this artist? The gallery is saying they want $75,000? It was just $8,000 like a week ago! How the fuck does that happen? Like, you may be a fan of KAWS, but the entry point is high because of where KAWS is at. Today, would I buy that wood sculpture of his? No, it’d be too much. With the amount I’d have to pay today, I could buy 50 paintings of up-and-coming artists. You gotta catch the people before they hit the radar. It’s like getting a feature after they’re platinum. You saw them heating up in the underground. Catch them there, not after they’ve won five Grammys.