Lessons of a judicious couple who won big collecting art

(MONEY Magazine) – Bill Norris, 59, loves to stand behind the life-size, cast-iron belly suspended at torso height in his dining room and put his head and arms in the appropriate niches. Belly, the 200-pound piece by artist Peter Shelton, is one of many contemporary works by Californians owned by Norris, an $83,000-a-year federal appellate judge in Los Angeles, and his wife Merry, an avid collector turned art consultant. Their 100-piece collection, housed largely in a two- bedroom hillside home in Hollywood, appears to have doubled in value in only two years to an estimated $500,000, according to appraisers, insurers and gallery owners. The Norrises made shrewd art choices -- ''I'm a judge, after all,'' he jokes -- while catching two critical cultural waves. First, Los Angeles has become a major U.S. art center in the 1980s, spurred by the city's new $23 million Museum of Contemporary Art and the highly acquisitive, wildly wealthy J. Paul Getty Museum in nearby Malibu. Of even greater importance, world art market prices are soaring. In two weeks in November, for example, Sotheby's and Christies' auctioned off an unusually high $150 million in contemporary, modern and Impressionist art. Contributing to the recent selling binge was collectors' interest in unloading pieces before the top capital-gains tax rate rose from 20% to 28% on Jan. 1. Among the buyers: people looking for new places to put their money since real estate and other tax shelters are now less appealing -- plus foreigners. These trends leave collectors like the Norrises, who amassed their collection by combining passion and investment awareness, looking downright prescient. They have shown it's not too late to become collectors if you have a sensible strategy. The Norrises' approach: buy cheap and buy local. The couple have never spent more than $18,000 on a single piece; their usual purchase price is under $10,000. As to the local angle, Judge Norris says: ''We made a decision to give our collection a real focus by buying original works by living California artists.'' Adds Merry: ''I'd love to say it was totally altruistic, to help struggling young artists, but those were pieces we could afford.'' The Norrises spent about $39,000 on art last year, a hefty chunk of a total combined income exceeding $125,000. Married 12 years ago, the two art enthusiasts began their co-collecting by attending an art history class at UCLA, hitting local galleries and even flying to New York City to compare works by local talent with those of more established artists. Their first major acquisition, in 1974, was a $1,200 DeWain Valentine abstact resin sculpture entitled Column. The purchase -- their wedding gift for each other -- is now worth more than $2,500. An even wiser buy: a 1974, 69-inch-by-89-inch painting of an armchair by John Lees, which Merry bought that year for $1,800. It is now worth more than $30,000.

The Norrises do most of their buying through galleries to support California dealers and artists. ''Auctions used to be a great place to buy,'' says Merry, ''but not anymore, because the prices are so high. Still, some primo pieces come up there.'' Although they have sold a few items to buy new ones, the idea of one day selling their entire collection for big profits is abhorrent to them. Still, they freely admit that they are investors, at least in part. ''For us to pay $5,000 for a work by a new artist is a significant amount,'' says Merry, ''so we need to weigh the potential investment value.'' But the Norrises do not give appreciation potential too much weight. Other seasoned collectors advise against it too. ''People who have gotten in as an investment alone always lose,'' insists Allan Stone, a Manhattan gallery owner. ''They tend to sell as soon as the market flattens out rather than buying out of love and holding on through thick and thin. The cycles in this world are too short. Who knows when the art market may decline again?'' Art dealers say that if you do want to try investing in art, work with a consultant whose background includes an association with at least one major museum and who comes to you with references from other clients and curators at local museums, which you can check by phone. Beware of trendy artists whose works sell at pumped-up prices now but may not be worth the canvases they are painted on in a few years. Working with a consultant can prevent that. The competition may be heavy and the prices rising, but Bill and Merry Norris prove you do not have to spend a great deal to acquire well. ''There's a ravenous appetite out there right now, and with all the high rollers, it's often intimidating,'' concedes Merry. ''You have to be very dedicated, but you can still make it happen.''