How To Spend It

Art | Finders Keepers

Contemporary photography

Rebuilding a personal portfolio of cutting-edge photography has been a five-year voyage of discovery for this collecting duo. Claire Wrathall reports. Portrait by Jude Edginton

May 11 2013
Claire Wrathall

The end of a marriage may seem an unusual inspiration for an art collector. But after his divorce, it was Javier Macaya’s former wife who kept the collection of contemporary photography amassed during their decade together – “which was fine”, he says equably. Except that he missed it. His solution was to buy works for himself.

It’s now five years on and Macaya has accrued some 50 photographs. As founder and CEO of New York-based Athelera LLC, which provides strategic advice on mergers and acquisitions, he travels frequently to Latin America, hence his initial interest in photographers from that region. His collection began with Las Meninas (after Velázquez) by the Brazilian Vik Muniz. Works by another Brazilian, Miguel Rio Branco, Colombian Fernell Franco and Venezuelan Paolo Gasparini followed. His latest acquisition, however, is a pair of photographs from US artist Roni Horn’s Bird series of the backs of the heads of taxidermic Icelandic wildfowl. They join a distinguished portfolio of pieces by Alex Prager, Idris Khan, Walead Beshty, Taryn Simon, Liu Bolin and Japanese artists Nobuyoshi Araki, Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama (Tights, 1987) and Sohei Nishino.

Indeed, we are looking at Nishino’s collage-like Diorama Map New York as we talk. It hangs in the office of his friend and adviser Michael Hoppen, London’s foremost photography dealer, but Macaya already has an immense 2.3m by 1.2m version of the same piece (Nishino’s works are produced in editions of five in this format and 15 smaller-scale versions), as well as the artist’s study of Istanbul.

To date, Nishino has “mapped” 12 cities, a process that involves a month’s scouting and photographing locations, then a further period printing perhaps 10,000 images, 4,000 of which are cut up and arranged to form a reimagined city. Nishino then shoots the collage to create the final image. “It’s the making, not the taking,” says Hoppen, lest anyone confuse it with reportage. In May, Nishino intends to show Jerusalem at the ICP (International Center of Photography) Triennial in New York. “We’ve had 40 or 50 enquiries about it already.”

“It’s like getting a tip about an IPO!” says Macaya, his eyes brightening, although he’s quick to stress that he loves Nishino’s maps for their “storybook” quality. “I can look at them for hours. In any case, I’ve never bought art as an investment. But as you start committing greater and greater sums of money, you want to make sure you’re not throwing it away.” So he’s interested in what Nishino has planned: New Delhi, Venice (for which Philippe Starck has put in a request), a yet-to-be-decided African city. “And Madrid?” asks Macaya, who is Spanish by birth.

Yet one senses his Nishinos were a smart buy. (“Michael has asked me if I want to sell the New York piece, but I don’t,” he says.) In the past, up to $60,000 has reportedly been paid for these maps. And demand suggests they are poised to become pricier still.

Macaya and Hoppen met through another collector, “a very dear friend” of Macaya’s sister. “When I told her of my interest in photography, she said: ‘You must meet Michael.’ It’s been quite an education. Since then I’ve been having a lot of fun discovering different media and techniques.”

And, of course, the artists themselves, not least the Dutch photographer Desiree Dolron, whose Xteriors IX, a captivating, mysterious, highly stylised image of trees, was Macaya’s 40th birthday present to himself and has pride of place in the study of his Manhattan apartment.

“I’d been struck by a Rembrandtesque portrait by Dolron that I saw at an exhibition,” he says. (Dolron’s work often makes reference to old masters – Vermeer, Van Eyck, Hammershøi.) “I just loved it and kept going back to look. I didn’t buy it, unfortunately, but after that I began to observe her work closely. I mentioned it to Michael, and he found me a piece.” It was a task harder than it sounds, for Dolron’s output is very small.

“Desiree is a phenomenal artist,” says Hoppen, “but she doesn’t engage with the marketplace and put out a new show every year. She only makes pictures when she feels inspired.” And, of course, their scarcity only fuels the desire collectors have for them. When, for example, the investment banker-turned-philanthropist Henry Buhl sold his outstanding photography collection at Sotheby’s New York for $12.3m last December, his Dolrons were among the works he kept.

“We haven’t seen a new picture from her for five years,” says Hoppen, “which is incredibly frustrating given the demand for her work.” And, indeed, the prices it commands. In 2011, Phillips de Pury New York sold a portrait, Xteriors VI, from an edition of eight in the same series as Macaya’s, for $194,500 against a lower estimate of $40,000. The day after our meeting, however, Hoppen was going to see a new series by her. No wonder Macaya was keen to see it, too.

He visits London, where he has an office, eight or nine times a year, so he and Hoppen catch up regularly. “Our lives are busy, but we’re in touch every few weeks,” says Hoppen. “Javier will email me, saying: ‘What do think of this?’ And I’ll try to be as objective as possible. There are fantastic galleries in New York, and lots of great artists we don’t represent. And whenever I’m there, I’ll go and see him and the new work that’s appeared on his walls.”

Not that photography is their only common interest. “We both love Spain, food and travel,” says Macaya. (This year, they’re planning “field trips” to Tokyo and Amsterdam.) “And we both like to hike. I could very easily spend a weekend with Michael and not talk about art at all.”

For Macaya enjoys the social side of collecting as much as the art itself. Through Hoppen he has met not only artists, but other collectors, whose own purchases have introduced him to artists he might not otherwise know about.

“Art does take you to wonderful places, and you do meet wonderful people,” says Hoppen. Macaya concurs wholeheartedly. “As you’re compelled to focus more and more on work, your social circle can shrink,” he says. “My responsibilities as a father [of three] and to my business and my clients leave very little time for other things, but art opens a window onto a whole new world. You have conversations with fascinating people you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, not just other bankers, other Spaniards who’ve moved to New York or people whose children happen to go to the same school as yours. Meeting people from different backgrounds is fundamental to the richness of life, and collecting photography provides a structure through which to do that.”