A McKinsey exec built a 1,000-piece art collection. Now he’s selling
INTERNATIONAL - Kito de Boer had been working at McKinsey for seven years when he moved to Delhi in 1992 to open up the company’s India office.
“The reality of the job is that it’s pretty much all-consuming,” he says. “Or it risks becoming that. What is work—and what is not work—becomes quite blurred.”
And yet, together with his wife Jane, de Boer began to build a collection of modern Indian art that eventually surpassed 1,000 objects. It was a process that entailed criss-crossing the country to visit artists’ studios, private collectors’ homes, and far-flung galleries.
Now he’s beginning to sell it. On March 18, Christie’s in New York will auction 83 works, with an additional 70 lots up for sale in an online auction that runs from March 13 through March 20. The high estimate of the combined auctions is $4.9 million.
“We now have two houses, one in London and one in Dubai, and we’ve filled them with the bulk of our art,” says de Boer, who retired from McKinsey in 2014 and is now a managing partner at private equity firm Abraaj Group Ltd. “We still have a few hundred objects in storage though, and that feels like a shame.”
That, combined with the fact that you eventually “want to have less stuff and declutter and simplify,” he says, meant that it was time to begin to sell. “This is the first step,” de Boer says. “It’s a life-stage thing.”
Moment of Truth
To begin with, collecting Indian art also didn’t fit with the de Boer family’s lifestyle.
“When we went to India, we were in that sort of middle-class young household formation, focused on kids and nappies and all that stuff,” he says. “In addition, we were trying to process living in a completely alien and overwhelming environment. We didn’t go into it thinking we would become art collectors.”
The de Boers bought their first work—a small painting by the artist Ganesh Pyne—for about $5,000 in 1993 after being invited to a social event at a contemporary art gallery. “That was the starting point,” de Boer says, “but we also thought it would be the end point.”
At the time, $5,000 was a lot of money for the family, and he was working the aforementioned, infamously long hours. But “we did have walls to fill,” he says, and so, with Jane leading the charge, the couple spent two years buying art until they ran out of wall space and reached what de Boer calls “the moment of truth.” Despite having nowhere to put additional art, they continued to buy. “Passion became an obsession,” he says.
Top of the Pyramid
For many executives in de Boer’s position, the time-intensive nature of collecting art—or, for that matter, doing anything other than work—would have taxed his productivity.
De Boer, in contrast, began to view his collecting as something that could augment, or at least complement, his professional life. “It demonstrated to many people in the Indian community that we were serious about India, rather than just consultants coming in and knocking over the next gas station,” de Boer says. “We were something else.”
Moreover, he adds, “When you serve clients at a senior level, at the top of the pyramid, most of the discussions I have with them aren’t powerpoint presentations.”
The goal, he continues, is to be able to speak about a client’s business but also to talk about politics or art.
“If all you are is a narrow analytic consultant, that will get you through your first 10 or 15 years,” he continues. “Beyond that, you need to have more than one engine to get you to fly high. Art was an additional engine.”
With his professional and personal lives so aligned, de Boer set out to purchase modern Indian art. While the couple didn’t have rigid criteria, “Jane was very clear. She said: ‘We buy one work at a time with love, and nothing else matters.”
Yet the two were acutely aware that “We happened to be present in an asset class that was massively undervalued,” he says. “We were not so wealthy that we could have an art collection and other stuff. I was probably the only senior partner at McKinsey who did not own any property. All of it went into art.”
“It’s quite a big decision not to buy a house and to buy more works of art,” he continues, “and I think that was a recognition, particularly in the early years, that this was an historic opportunity.”
It was, at least from a market perspective. De Boer says that he was buying works by Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde, the subject of a 2015 Guggenheim retrospective, for from $8,000 to $10,000 in the mid-1990s. Works by the artist now regularly sell for more than $2 million.
Most of the de Boers’ auction reflects the “modern” category of Indian art, which didn’t take off until the mid-2000s, says Deepanjana Klein, who specializes in Indian and Southeast Asian art at Christie’s.
That category “is still very young,” Klein says, “and it took its time. By the early 2000s, it was growing stronger, then took a dip in 2008.” (Others have called it a collapse.), The market has since regained strength, driven in large part, Klein says, from a combination of resident and expatriate Indians, the latter residing “in the tri-state and Bay areas,” she says. “Those two groups are the biggest supporters, in terms of collectors.”
That collector base has pushed up prices to the extent that the top of the modern Indian art market generally rivals the very tip of the art world: A 1972 work by abstract painter Sayed Haider Raza sold for $4.5 million at Christie’s in March 2018.
A piece by Raza appears in the de Boer sale; at a high estimate of $35,000, the work on paper probably won’t break any records.
Estimates in the live sale range from $500,000, for a rare, abstract work by Akbar Padamsee, to just $3,000 for a 1946 drawing of a seated nude by Francis Newton Souza. Prices in the online sale go even lower: A lush, 19th century painting of the Punjab Hills carries a high estimate of $1,200.
“One of the themes of our collecting journey is that we’ve gone down the highways, as well as the byways,” says de Boer. “Many of the works we love aren’t the most valuable.”
The auction, he says, isn’t just about clearing house or making a return. He hopes the sale will help boost the market.
“We want to show that this can be much more than another alternative to pork belly or gold ingots, and an auction can do that,” he says. “I hope that people will get excited.”