Prolific collector Herbert Vogel recently passed away from natural causes, leaving behind a renowned collection of conceptual and minimal art. From 1962 onwards, Herb and his wife Dorothy accumulated some 4,700 works, all on their salaries as a postal worker and a librarian. The couple lived modestly: they never took vacations, they lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment, they rarely ate out, and when guests came for dinner, they would heat up TV dinners. In the 2008 documentary Herb and Dorothy, Dorothy explained that while her salary covered their living expenses, Herb’s was for the art.
The couple bought their first work in 1962, a diminutive crushed car sculpture by John Chamberlain, one of the artist’s first in that material. In 1965 they bought their first Sol LeWitt, the only piece sold from the artist’s first solo show. The Vogels bought what they could afford. While Pop Art and expressionism were popular and expensive, there was little demand for conceptual and minimal work. Because they were among the few collectors supporting these artists, they developed close relationships with the avant-garde set and acquired works for very reasonable amounts even after the artists went on to command much higher prices.
When they were starting out, they would buy works for $50 or $100 (that’s around $375-$750 in 2012 dollars), often paying in installments of as little as $10. Once they found artists they liked, they collected them voraciously, charting the artist’s development over time. The Vogels were artist’s collectors, getting to know the artists and understand their work. Artists appreciated their interest and were happy to be part of the Vogel collection, sometimes even giving them works for free. Christo and Jean-Claude once gave the Vogels a sketch in exchange for cat-sitting. Sol LeWitt told painter Pat Steir to “take off three zeros and cut the price in half” when selling to the Vogels. Over time, they also collected works by Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager, Lynda Benglis, Richard Tuttle, Donald Judd, and Chuck Close, among others.
The Vogels lived and breathed art, attending upwards of twenty-five art events a week, in addition to studio visits, and they packed every inch of their apartment with art. There was art hanging from the ceiling, under the bed, in the bathroom—Dorothy insists that there were no works in the oven. The couple collected for the love of art and never sold a painting. After turning down multi-million dollar offers from numerous museums, Herb and Dorothy decided to donate their collection to the National Gallery in Washington DC in 1992. They chose the National Gallery because the museum doesn’t charge admission and never sells work from its collection.
Even in the 1960s, the working class Vogels were an anomaly in the high-priced world of collecting. However, with the explosion of the contemporary market in recent years, one has to wonder if it would be possible to put together such a collection today.
To begin with, the average salary and retirement benefits of postal workers have eroded significantly since the 1960s. In 1965, the average postal worker made $13,782, or $100,405.73 in 2012 dollars. Today that same postal worker makes just $48,260 and retirement benefits are about forty percent less. Also, New Yorkers now spend a significantly greater portion of their incomes on rent than they did in the 1960s; back then the average person spent thirty percent of their income on rent, and now it hovers around fifty percent. Today, the average librarian with a master’s degree earns, on average, $50,759. To make up for the additional money on rent, they would have to spend about $10,000 of Herb’s income, leaving them with a $38,260 art budget.
If one were to buy works for the same prices as the Vogels, adjusted for inflation, one could buy about sixty-five works a year. At that rate, it would take seventy-two years to acquire as many works as the Vogels, about twice as long. In addition to differences in income and purchasing power, art prices have risen steeply. How often do you find a $500 artwork, particularly from a widely respected or up-and-coming artist? However, the Vogels avoided galleries and bought directly from the artists, who recognized the couple’s passion for art and wanted them to have their work. The Vogels were also collecting artists with very little demand at the time, so those prices might be possible with young, unknown artists outside the gallery system. On the other hand, the art market is much more developed than it was in the 1960s, so the likelihood of collecting the “next big thing” is somewhat lower.
Building a collection on the scale of the Vogels would be significantly more difficult today but not impossible. The Vogels were able to build their collection because of their passion for art, their keen eye, and their genuine interest in the artists they collected. The fact that they lived on meager salaries was inconsequential to their ability to collect; they were able to build the collection because the artists wanted them to build it.