Demystifying Art Finance: An interview with Rebecca Fine at Athena Art Finance

Managing Director of Athena Art Finance, Rebecca Fine, speaks to art market journalist Riah Pryor, about the art financing landscape today.

Starting with the basics, can you introduce us to Athena Fine art a little?

Of course, so Athena Art Finance, is a dedicated specialty independent art lending business founded in 2015 to focus on loans collateralized by high value fine art. I like to think of Athena as “the art collector’s financier,” because we provide financing for people who really want to keep and enjoy their art collections, but otherwise want their lender to stay out of their way or their business: no margin calls, no pressure to sell or consign their art. 

Most of our due diligence is focused on the artwork collateral, researching title, provenance and understanding the value of the art. This differentiates us from private banks, where focus is really on the client’s broader financial portfolio or an auction house, where loans are offered principally to drive their consignment business. Many clients don’t want to be pressured to sell and we are also the more discreet option, for those who prefer that the auction houses not know what they have, and who want their art assets to remain entirely separate from the rest of their financial portfolio. 

Picking up on that notion of discreet, art finance has a bit of a reputation for being quite opaque and complex- is that fair?

I think this idea of it being complex is a bit of a misconception, there are certainly a range of different models but I’m happy to demystify!  Basically, banks are in the banking business, auction houses are in the auction business and specialty art lenders, like Athena, are in the art lending business.  

The underwriting of the artworks is extremely thorough, and the team spends a lot of time doing research. If there is a catalogue raisonne or an authentication body, the artwork needs to be included or certified. We research provenance and exhibition history. The borrower must have full right to pledge it as loan collateral.  We need to thoroughly understand the chain of title, so we need proof of payment - invoices and possession are not sufficient proof of 100% ownership. On the borrower side, we need to understand their collecting history, their source of wealth generally and their ability to service loan interest. 

We also conduct ALR (Art Loss Register) searches of each piece, and we register with the ALR. We are big proponents of industry standardization, and if all art lenders and anyone who had acquired a partial interest in artwork registered with The Art Loss Register, for example, it would virtually eliminate the possibility for bad actors to double pledge or sell competing interests in the same artwork. 

I am actually putting together a symposium on this topic and am very pleased that Caroline Taylor will be participating to discuss the important role that blockchain and technology can play here.

What advice would you give someone keen to learn more about this area and opportunities there may be for them?

Be patient. I am super proud of my all-women finance team. They all have deep market expertise and several of us have been working together since we started Athena in 2015. But none of us had a straightforward career path. 

I have been very fortunate to work at the intersections of law, art, and finance all my professional life. I studied art history before going to law school and working as a lawyer. In the decade before starting Athena, my law practice focused a lot on disputes around title, ownership, authenticity, and attribution. It provided valuable insight into the art-specific risks associated with lending against art and the importance of using contracts - as opposed to invoices only.

Do what excites you, professionally and personally. I am the third generation of women working in the arts and knew that I wanted to be involved in the arts. My great aunt was the gallerist Rose Fried. Rose gave Alice Neel her first NY solo exhibition in 1944 and introduced Duchamp, Klee, Kandinsky, Leger, Malevich, Schwitters, the Delauneys and many others to the U.S. My mother grew up working in Rose’ galleries and she’s a sculptor. All three of my siblings are workings artists (2 painters and a filmmaker). It’s an amazing legacy and I am lucky to be able to continue the family tradition.