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The Art of Collecting: 'You don't have to be rich'

Philip Slein, in light shirt, sits in front of a Hi-Fi-FoFum sign in his advertising room.
Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2013 - Craigslist may not be a place you imagine art collectors trolling for new finds. But where else could you locate an eight-foot-tall Hi-Fi Fo-Fum sign?

And does that even count as art?

In the Washington Avenue loft of collector, artist and gallery owner Philip Slein, it does. There, the smiling giant face with a treble-clef ear and eighth-note hat harmoniously coexists with the works of internationally known abstract and figurative artists.

Not in the same room, though. The 1960s St. Louis music store icon, flanked by K-SHE radio and Burger King signs, dominates an area dedicated to the art of advertising. Paintings by the likes of Michael Toenges and Fred Stonehouse are more apt to live in the gallery-style foyer, at least this week. Slein is constantly reconfiguring his collection of fine art, signage, taxidermy, lights and toys.

“Collections are living things; they’re constantly growing,” Slein said. “And every time you bring a new object in, it changes everything.”

CAM director visit and a close call

Soon after Contemporary Art Museum director Lisa Melandri arrived in St. Louis last August, she began hearing about the eclectic mix hanging from Slein’s walls and ceilings, and dotting almost every inch of his 1,250 square-foot loft.

The idea of something so "totally idiosyncratic” piqued her curiosity. It’s a style that’s dear to her heart.

Slein greets CAM director Lisa Melandri and her husband Jordan Gaunce into his Washington Avenue loft/personal gallery
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Philip Slein greets CAM director Lisa Melandri and her husband, Jordan Gaunce, into his Washington Avenue loft/personal gallery.

“I grew up with that kind of collecting,” Melandri said, referencing her dad’s penchant for amassing artwork and other objects. She also had another motive for wanting to visit Slein’s loft: “I’m nosy,” she laughed.

On a recent summer evening, Slein invited Melandri to be the guest of honor at his viewing soirée. Telling stories about his pursuit of this clock or that landscape, Slein led Melandri and her husband, Jordan Gaunce, through the loft. The tour ended in his studio, which contains a few of Slein's satirical portraits and a wunderkammer, German for “cabinet of wonders."

Behind the wunderkammer’s glass doors are antique microscopes, vintage anatomy models, antique coral, human glass eyes, a mortar and pestle collection, along with taxidermic rare fowl, a fox, coyote, armadillo and two turtles. No turtle doves, however, and no partridge in a pear tree, but, still, an assortment that seems worthy of its very own holiday tune.

Slein’s wunderkammer and his entire loft collection add up to much more than the sum of their parts, according to Melandri. Together, the objects and their exhibition are a work unto itself.

The Wunderkammer holds personal treasures.
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
The Wunderkammer holds personal treasures.

“The whole apartment is Phil’s artwork,” Melandri said. “It’s not a single moment of a single thing -- they’re all totally integrated into the way he lives.”

Nearly 30 party guests weaving through the jam-packed loft may sound like recipe for disaster. In fact, there was a near-miss that night. Shouts of “Oh, no!” echoed through the space when one of Slein’s 30 works by printmaker Tom Huck somehow lurched forward from the wall. But the half-dozen hands, including mine, that shot up to catch the piece, saved it from crashing to the floor (and possibly on top of a guest or two).

“No damage,” Slein surmised.

Buying for a fraction of the cost

Displaying and curating his collection is a time-consuming pursuit. It’s time spent on top of looking for and purchasing art and odd objects, something Slein’s done since childhood, but which escalated into high gear 20 years ago.

But his research and relentless combing of shops and shelves saves him in another area: his budget. He’s bought many works of art and other objects for far less than market value.

“You don’t have to be rich to collect art,” Slein said. “If you do your homework and develop your eye, you can often buy things for a few hundred dollars that are worth thousands.”

With so much art, is all of it secure? The question comes after a work by Tom Huck almost landed on guests.
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
With so much art, is all of it secure? The question comes after a work by Tom Huck almost landed on guests.

Slein is inspired by fabled New York City couple Dorothy and Herb Vogel, who amassed a multi-million dollar collection over 50 years on a librarian and postal worker’s salary. Making friends with promising young artists and buying directly from them was one way the Vogels were able to begin and expand their collection, as shown in a 2008 documentary called “Herb and Dorothy.”

The Vogels were even known to cat-sit in exchange for a piece of art. Bargaining is also commonplace in the St. Louis art world, but with cash, not cats. Offering 75 percent of an art gallery’s asking price is a good place to start, according to Slein.

“Sometimes, it won’t get you anywhere but it’s always worth a try,” Slein said.

Another money-saving tip: go to estate sales on Sunday. But there’s a caveat.

“By Sunday, things are usually half-price, but the best stuff tends to be gone,” Slein said.

Favorite mistakes

Days off work often find Slein in one of his two classic Buicks -- a 1966 Wildcat and 1975 LeSabre convertible -- tooling up to Alton or down to Ste. Genevieve for buying opportunities. In town, he’s likely to troll for treasure at estate sales and antique shops like R.Ege and Davis Place.

With so much art, is all of it secure? The question comes after a work by Tom Huck almost landed on guests.
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Philip Slein sees art collection as constantly changing and growing.

Then there are the cyber classifieds: eBay and Craigslist. With eBay, you don’t get to actually see the item until you’ve already paid for it. But with Craigslist, you can examine the item first. And its database is easily searchable.

“You could type in something like ‘antique scrimshaw’ or ‘vintage taxidermy’ of a certain type or ‘1966 Buick Wildcat convertible with a custom 425,’” Slein said.

Another perk of Craigslist is that you can set up alerts to notify you when a desired item is listed. But whether you’re dealing with online purchases or in-person transactions, you’re bound to make some poor choices, especially in the beginning. Don’t be discouraged by reconditioned clocks devalued by new parts or works of art eventually revealed as fakes, Slein cautioned.  He actually enjoys displaying a few of his favorite mistakes.

“They’re a reminder to myself to learn from it and to educate other people,” Slein said.

Collecting is “a little bit of an addiction,” Slein admitted. Like making art, it’s also a form of expression.

About this series

From time to time, we will take readers into the homes of people who work in visual arts or who have built art collections of note. With the first group, the reader may discover the private tastes and curiosities of those who determine public displays or choose what to offer for sale. The other articles are a chance to glimpse works no longer in the public domain. In all, those who collect will talk about their inspiration and tips for others on their own path of collecting.

“A lot of people want to be artists. But they don’t know that the collector is also a very creative person,” Slein said.

Collecting on a shoestring serves to ramp up the creative process, according to Slein. Unlimited funds can make it too easy.

“Once you have a certain amount of wealth, collecting almost becomes like hunting animals in a cage,” he said.

Ever since the days when cave people hunted and gathered, collectors have been displaying rocks and stones and other found objects. For Slein, it’s a driving passion, a creative outlet and a pursuit that transcends a mere hobby.

“Every time you bring something home, you live with it, you learn from it, you share it,” Slein said. “And you want to keep doing it.”

Philip Slein’s Art Collecting Tips

  • Do your research: Books, museums, exhibition openings, art fairs, open studios and even TV shows like “American Pickers” and “Antiques Roadshow” are good resources
  • Stay true: Collect things you really like
  • Broaden your search: Antique stores and malls, eBay and Craigslist are great sources
  • Accept mistakes: Every beginner makes unwise purchases
  • Make friends: Get to know artists and gallery owners
  • Negotiate: Offering 75 percent of asking price is a good place to start
  • Learn to deal: Serious collectors often sell and trade from their collection to buy more

“The Art of Collection” is an ongoing, occasional series of stories about how St. Louisans amass and display their treasures. In future installations, you'll discover a world of African-American art here in St. Louis and see the home collections of some of our town's top art excecutives.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.