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The Thrill of The Chase: Art Collecting Tips from Ajax Gianopoulos

BY THE RUSSIAN ARK |  JAN 21, 2021

The Russian Ark  You have built a prominent collection of turn of the 20th century Indiana/Cincinnati artists. How did you come up with the theme and what is your deepest motivation for collecting?

Ajax Gianopoulos  My collection, the art I spend my money on, is mostly by artists who were born, grew up, studied, worked, and/or lived in Cincinnati and Indiana (more specifically, Brown County, Indiana). I fell in love with Monet at an early age, but I’m not French and I've never been to Paris or his gardens. I fell in love with art at 14 when I saw Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, but unless I marry a very wealthy woman, I’ll never be able to afford an original Michelangelo.

I've driven the back roads and experienced summer sunsets that only Indiana can provide. The emotions I get from that atmosphere is the same set of emotions I get when I look at a really good landscape painting by a Brown County artist. When I look at their combination of colours and brushstrokes, I can feel Indiana. That’s a powerful thing and not every artist can authentically create that emotional interaction.

Those personal connections go deeper than any connection I’ve had with a Monet painting or a Manet, and I’ve had some once a lifetime experiences with those.

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First encounter with Monet in person at Cincinnati Art Museum, 2010, Rocks at Belle-Ile, Port Domois. Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos

"I fell in love with Monet at an early age, but I’m not French and I've never been to Paris or his gardens."

—AJAX GIANOPOULOS, FINE ART COLLECTOR

AJ  I spent two years in Cincinnati for grad school and encountered the work of Frank Duveneck and Lewis Henry Meakin and their circle of artist friends. I wrote my thesis on how these two artists went to Europe to study, they came back to Cincinnati to teach and display their work, and then they started advising wealthy collectors in the city that eventually donated their masterpieces to the Cincinnati Art Museum (similar to how Mary Cassatt was advising wealthy American collectors).

I learned all there was about Duveneck and Meakin, but out of the two, I was always drawn to Meakin’s landscapes. His ability to create an illusion of depth with a combination of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes and subtle changes in colour are absolutely brilliant.

In regards to Cincinnati artists as a whole, it’s their stories that I’m attracted to. They left their city to study in Europe under the best artists, and rather than chasing fame and fortune in Europe or New York and Boston, they came back to Cincinnati to teach at the art academy, participate in various art organizations in the city and region, and through many other ways, made a huge impact on the artistic identity of Cincinnati. That’s dope to me. When it comes to collecting, Meakin’s work is my main priority. However, his really good pieces go for $8,000+, and that’s completely out of my budget, so I have to be patient and wait for the right oil or watercolour to come along.

Lewis Henry Meakin, Sunset, Watercolor.j
Lewis Henry Meakin (Cincinnati), The Dan
 

Lewis Henry Meakin, Sunset, Watercolor, circa. 1900 (left), Lewis Henry Meakin, The Danube Near Donauworth, Bavaria, 1880’s-1890s (right). Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos

Lewis Henry Meakin, Landscape (possibly

Lewis Henry Meakin, Landscape (possibly Bald Mountain in Maine), early 1900s, oil on canvas. Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos

RA  When did you start collecting? What triggered you?

AG   In the past several years I've bought a few pieces but never really considered myself a collector, they were more like things I could hang on a wall but no overall theme, they were just ones I liked and were affordable. But when COVID-19 hit and places started to close, I was very fortunate to keep both my jobs and with the stimulus checks, I realized this is a rare time where I can afford works by artists I never dreamed of collecting, Cincinnati and Brown County artists.

I bought my first two pieces, a watercolour and etching by Meakin, from the Cincinnati Art Galleries. But when I got my Meakin watercolour in an auction, the flame was sparked. The high from winning a piece at auction is unmatched. Once I won it, and I picked it up, I had no choice but to keep chasing that feeling. That's when Ajax was born.

 
Robert Webb, Shenandoah, Date unknown.pn

Robert Webb, Shenandoah, Date unknown. Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos


"One of the very first pieces in my collection. Webb was my great uncle and was an apprentice for John Singer Sargent when Sargent painted the Boston Public Library. Webb isn’t from Indiana or Cincinnati, but it’s the coolest connection I have to the world of art and a gift from my Grandma’s sister."—Ajax Gianopoulos

"Webb was my great uncle and was an apprentice for John Singer Sargent <...> it’s the coolest connection I have to the world of art <...>."

—AJAX GIANOPOULOS, FINE ART COLLECTOR

RA  What are the pieces you are most proud of and why?

AG  I'm most proud of either my Meakin watercolour, or the Hazel Barker Hayes or Kate Reno Miller pieces.

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The collector holding House in the Hills by Hazel Barker Hayes, oil on canvas, 1942. Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos

Meakin's because it's the first one I got at an auction, but I drove 15 hours to New York to pick up the Hayes (my sister lives on a farm in New Hampshire so I didn't drive that long just to get the painting) and 15 hours back to Indiana. It's also my first Brown County landscape. When I stand in my apartment and stare at my art, her piece is the one my eyes find more than the others.

Kate Reno Miller (Cincinnati), Roses wit
Hazel Barker Hayes (Brown County, Indian
 

Kate Reno Miller, Roses with Vase, Watercolor, Date unknown (left), Hazel Barker Hayes, House in the Hills, Oil on Canvas, 1942 (right). Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos

The Kate Reno Miller piece I'm really proud of because I got it at a crazy good deal. Miller taught at the Cincinnati Art Academy and is part of the circle of Cincinnati artist I love, but her work rarely comes up for sale. I got it for $130 and it could be worth anywhere from 3x-10x more than that (that's just a random guess). The auction website mislabeled her name as Kate Reno Millet, but since I'm addicted to checking auction websites, I was able to spot it and get it.

RA  What qualities you are looking for in a piece of art (other than the attribution to the specific geography / period)?

AG  The qualities I look for other than artist/geography/period, is subject matter. I tend to be drawn towards landscapes more than figural or genre paintings. I'm a sucker for colour, and I feel landscapes allow an artist to show their skill at mixing colours and putting on display their brushstroke. Nothing against genre, abstract, or figural paintings, but it's gotta be special for me to spend my money on it.

Emma Mendenhall (Cincinnati), Country La
Lillian Dunnigan (Brown County, Indiana)

Emma Mendenhall, Country Landscape, Watercolor, 1906 (left), Lillian Dunnigan, Covered Bridge, Date unknown (right). Photo © Ajax Gianopoulos

"I'm a sucker for colour, and I feel landscapes allow an artist to show their skill at mixing colours and putting on display their brushstroke."

—AJAX GIANOPOULOS, FINE ART COLLECTOR

RA  How to distinguish between artists who may become the “next big thing” and those who will be quickly forgotten?

AG  Great question, and partly why I like to collect artists from the late 1800s and early 1900s. If they're being circulated through galleries and auctions after 100 years, their market has been pretty established by now. Their value may fluctuate throughout the years, but there's a strong group of Indiana and Cincinnati collectors (knock on wood that it continues that way) out there.

I have a ton of envy for contemporary art collectors that have an eye for spotting talent and end up being artists with shows at major museums and festivals. I don't buy art for the financial value, but it gives me a sense of comfort knowing that I'm not taking a risk at spending money on something that could end up in a garage sale when I die.

Caroline Lord (Cincinnati), Sailboat in

Caroline Lord, Sailboat in Dry Dock, Oil on board

RA  Are you collecting for pleasure or rather as an alternative investment?

AG  I collect for the enjoyment. Looking at art is extremely meditative for me. A great piece of art can make you realize that you’re a different person than when you last looked at it, and as a human you need that reminder and humbling experience. As goofy as it sounds, sometimes when I’m not at home and I’m stressed, I think about my art to calm down.

RA  In buying art, are you relying more on data / expert opinions or on your personal taste?

AG  I rely on my tastes. I know what I like and know what I don’t like. After years of studying and countless trips to museums and galleries, I have a lot of confidence in my tastes, if that makes sense. 

"Looking at art is extremely meditative for me. A great piece of art can make you realize that you’re a different person than when you last looked at it <...>"

—AJAX GIANOPOULOS, FINE ART COLLECTOR

RA  How and where do you keep your collection?

AG  I keep my pieces at home (under the most intense security measures possible). My dream is that in 30-40 years the Cincinnati Art Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art call me and ask to curate an exhibition about my collection.

RA  What is the most difficult about art collecting?

AG  The most difficult part of collecting is staying focused on works that are within your budget and within your collecting strategy. It can be hard to see something come up for auction and know you have no chance, too. It also sucks when you think there's a work in your budget, and it skyrockets out of it.

For weeks or possibly months you daydream about that piece being yours, and ten seconds into the auction it's out of your grasp. It's like having a huge crush on a girl and asking her to the school dance and she says she already said yes to this other guy whose dad bought him a Mercedes for his first car and has a million-dollar house. It's like damn, that sucks because I just can't compete with that. The silver lining is that the world of art is a humongous place and you never know, the very next day an auction catalogue could be released that has all the work you want.

RA  What is the most exciting about art collecting?

AG  I think there's three parts that are the most exciting parts of collecting.

1) When you find the piece

Searching everyday through auction websites can get boring, especially when you don't find anything for a few weeks. But when I get that alert that something is up for sale, my heart starts racing. I'm sure if you're collecting works that are hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, you might have seen that work before in a book, exhibition, gallery, etc. But when a piece that fits my collecting strategy, there's a 99% chance I didn't know that piece existed until it went up for sale. That's a pretty addicting feeling, seeing a work of art for the first time.  

2) Buying the work of art

It's the same feeling as winning a huge bet in a dramatic way. There's a long period of anxiety beforehand, just trying to stay calm, but then that gavel bangs and you're the new owner, that feeling is incredible.

3) Picking up or getting the piece shipped  

During COVID-19, everything is online so you don't normally don't get a chance to see the actual piece until you pick it up or it gets shipped to your place. Once you open up the box or the person comes from the back room and hands it to you, seeing it for the first time is a great feeling. There's a lot of anxiety leading up to that moment because in the back of my head I'm thinking, did I spend a ton of money on something I don't want? But then you see it and you're like, ohhhhhh yaaaa, I love this. 

"That's a pretty addicting feeling, seeing a work of art for the first time."

—AJAX GIANOPOULOS, FINE ART COLLECTOR

RA Top tips you could give to someone who is just starting to collect?

AG  My three tips are:

1) buy something you like;

2) be patient, but don't be afraid to pull the trigger;

3) only buy pieces you're willing to overspend on.

If you're willing to overspend it's because you want it for its artistic and personal value, not its financial one. The pieces I've overspent on are some of my favourites and the ones I don't have any plans to sell.

RA  Ajax, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your vision with us. We wish you to continue enjoying this thrill of the chase and hope to see your collection in the museums soon!

Photos: Courtesy of the Collector

The Russian Ark | 21 January 2021

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