Elite home stagers decorate with gallery, museum art

High-end open houses feature art that normally hangs in museums or galleries.
By Bonnie McCarthy • April 23, 2016

Art: Untitled, by Mark Dutcher, courtesy of Jason Vass. Price: $30,000

Art (over fireplace): Rinso, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, courtesy of Hamilton Selway. Price: $80,000

In Los Angeles, Picasso and Warhol pieces don’t hang just in museums — they grace the walls in extravagant open houses.

At real estate’s most rarefied level, when homes are selling for $10 million or more, “you’re not going to be putting up Z Gallerie pieces anymore,” said Billy Rose, president of the Agency in Los Angeles.

Instead, elite home stagers coordinate with art galleries to rent original art pieces to use during home showings. Like the houses themselves, the art is for sale.

Realtors and galleries say it’s a win-win: The pieces make the homes feel more luxurious and one-of-a-kind, and the art is more likely to be sold if it’s brought to a place where wealthy buyers are sure to pass through.

When staging a newly renovated estate in Pacific Palisades on the site of President Ronald Reagan’s former home, the developers brought in Picasso sketches, works by David Hockney and Donald Sultan, a Vija Celmins ocean lithograph and two Ethan Murrow drawings.

The house was redone to appeal to a buyer with a deep affinity for the Golden State, so nearly all of the pieces “reference California or classic Western imagery,” said Janus Cercone, principal of Los Angeles-based Jaman Properties.

Rare art rentals from places such as Jason Vass Gallery in L.A. and Hamilton Selway Gallery in West Hollywood are in line with other open house practices designed to help sell a luxe lifestyle: the vintage prestige cars sitting in the garage, the lavish custom furnishings and the catered champagne-and-caviar parties.

Although the artwork is lent without charge, Cercone said she spends tens of thousands of dollars on insurance, professional art packers, transporters and installers, “not to mention around-the-clock armed security.”

“It adds up,” said Paul Lester, principal partner at the Agency. “But it definitely creates a secondary level of depth and gives more credibility to the house itself because there’s a richness to it, a fullness you don’t get from a lot of the staging art you see.”

He said the lighting and appeal of multimillion-dollar spaces provide the perfect venue for exquisite artwork. “It’s like a gallery,” he said, “because when the art is in a space like that, it’s so beautiful it speaks.”

In many cases, it begs to be taken home.

“I’ve seen the art sell to the person buying the house, and also to the person selling,” Lester said. “And I’ve had the experience where a potential buyer isn’t right for the house, but they come back for the art.”

After one recent open house that Cercone held, film producer and director Shawn Levy didn’t make an offer but purchased a couple of Warhols, as well as pieces by Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg.

“You never know what will sell,” said Cercone, who noted that Realtors do not take commissions on purchased artwork. “Some buyers appreciate the vision — buying the furniture, art, accessories, even the potted plants..”

She said she has been offered art reproductions for staging purposes with the suggestion that no one will be able to tell the difference, “but we believe our buyer will absolutely know.”

“If we put ourselves in their position, we’d have to ask: If there’s fake art on the walls, what else isn’t authentic?”