Celebrating Entrepreneurs: The fine art of good business

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Jack Morris (seated), David Leahey (left) and Ben Whiteside — the men behind Morris & Whiteside Auctions.

Men behind Morris & Whiteside Auctions celebrate successful longtime partnership

Morris & Whiteside Auctions’ annual Hilton Head Art Auction was more than a day late, but definitely not a dollar short.

Usually held in October, Hurricane Matthew forced partners Ben Whiteside, Jack Morris and David Leahy to postpone the 16th annual event until Nov. 5, but art collectors showed up as usual to take home some of the finest works from renowned artists from the Lowcountry and beyond.

“We did $400,000 in sales,” Whiteside says. “That was a good day, better than what we usually do.”

Whiteside and Morris have been business partners since meeting in 1999 when Morris, then living in Texas but furnishing a second home on Hilton Head Island, asked Whiteside to frame several paintings he was having shipped to his new home away from home. Whiteside, who owned a local frame shop, completed the job and then found buyers for the art that Morris didn’t have room for in his condo.

“I was doing a lot of work for interior designers on the island, and their clients,” Whiteside says. “So I had a ready client list that had an interest in art.”

Though Whiteside started in the photo developing and framing side of things, Morris’ professional journey in the art world began when he accidentally enrolled in an art class as a freshman at the University of South Carolina, where he was on a football scholarship and had plans to major in engineering.

By the early 1980s, he was involved with art auctions and art galleries in Texas; when he moved permanently to the island in 2000, he joined forces with Whiteside to host their first Hilton Head Art Auction. In 2002, they bought Red Piano Art Gallery, which became home base for their growing business.

“Fine art is a quality of life thing,” Whiteside says. “People surround themselves with things that they enjoy. So my job description is that we dispense happiness and joy.”

In 2005, Morris became a founding partner of the Scottsdale Art Auction in Arizona, where he also had a gallery for four years. That auction continues to encompass a large chunk of their annual business and time; in fact, Morris sold his interest in the retail side of the gallery business to concentrate on the auction side. (Today, Whiteside and his wife, Lyn, own the island gallery.)

“I like the immediacy of (the art auction). A person has about 60 seconds to make up their mind if they’re going to buy something,” Morris says. “They can’t say ‘Let me think about it,’ or ‘Let me talk it over with my wife.’ It’s on the block and they’ve got about 60 seconds to make up their mind.”

In addition to the auctions in Scottsdale and Hilton Head, the trio (rounded out by businessman Leahy) puts on an annual small works auction in July in Charleston. The auction of “itty bitty paintings,” Whiteside says, has a simple purpose.

“The goal is to get the younger collectors started. Thirty-somethings and 40-somethings have the interest, but they’re broke, they’re trying to have their first kid, buy their first house. But if you have an auction with nationally known artists and everything in it is painted for that auction and the prices range from $100 to $1,500, people realize they can go with a couple grand and buy a couple of paintings, a ‘starter kit,’” Whiteside says. “And once you walk into your home with your first original painting, everything else gets demoted. You get to the point where that’s all you want.”

The average age of the established art dealer is 55, Whiteside says, which means Morris, who’s 77, has more than earned his reputation as one of the best in the business. 

“It’s perfect; it’s like having a mentor on a daily basis who has known the answer to every question I’ve ever asked,” Whiteside, 58, says. “(Morris) is a legend in this business. It’s fun to hang out with a legend.”

Thankfully for Whiteside and Leahy, that legend still loves what he does and has no plans to retire.

“As long as I can be active and work, that’s my game plan,” Morris says. “I honestly feel like I haven’t worked a day in my life.”

Ben Whiteside’s Five Tips for Collecting Art:

1. Do your research — know your tastes and the kinds of art you like. “Spend some time, immerse yourself in discovering what you are interested in. Once you have a sense of what you like, then become as well-informed as you can about that particular aspect of painting or drawing.”

2. Consider a piece on its own merits, as well as on its part of the whole. “Some people just accumulate, they just buy without any particular thought in mind. Try to keep as high a standard as you can to your growing collection.”

3. Trust your emotional instincts. “If it appeals to you, it’s something you should consider owning. Give it a couple of days and your mind will discard anything you’re not truly interested in, but the things you’re interested in will stay with you. In those moments when you’re relaxed and not thinking of anything in particular, it’ll pop into your head. Those are the pieces you should really consider. Because they’re not going to leave you alone.”

4. Never settle. “If you can’t afford what you want, wait until you can. Remember that you can sell — trade up — to bigger pieces. So start with the highest quality you can afford. We’ve taken paintings back in on trade.”

5. Remember that art collecting is not just for the extremely wealthy. “Anybody can build an art collection. When you look at what it costs to buy prints or posters and frame them, it’s just taking that money and investing it differently.”