Working with the great characters of the art market is the most delightful aspect of being the head of a private bank’s art section. From what I’ve seen, serious art collectors tend to fit into one of four categories, each with distinct traits, vulnerabilities, strengths, and reasons for looking for, buying, and enjoying art. Some people collect more covertly and are mostly known to the sellers who fuel their obsessions. You might spot them roaming around fairs or waving their paddles at auctions. The kinds I’ve met are listed below.
This is the group that is most involved in the fads, rumors, gossip, litigation, disputes, and dynamism of the contemporary art market. Enterprise collectors are receptive to the new and experimental, unlike connoisseurs or trophy hunters (described below). These collectors, who have their origins in the Medici tradition of religious patronage, are fighting a moral war to find and elevate the works of art that will be important in the future. They think art historians should not be in charge of art history because it is simply too crucial.
First-generation business owners who often come from market-driven industries like banking and real estate, they see art as an asset class rather than a pure investment, even if the majority of them keep credit lines attached to their collections. They lust for secret; to them, knowledge is valuable. Their aim is to disrupt the old system, destabilize the canon, and rewrite art history through collecting, as they are too financially motivated to be connoisseurs and are priced out of prize hunting. A select few—names like Guy Ullens, Charles Saatchi, and Robert Scull—cut through the hoopla and contribute to the canonization of their era’s art, even though their desire frequently surpasses their talent.
This is not an open society, albeit there is receptivity to new ideas. There is fierce rivalry for access to the best photos, the best dinners, the most private events, and the most prominent museum boards underneath all the charm and flattery. To this group, having the perfect painting confers a prestige boost more powerfully than the strongest public relations campaign.
Consider purchasing a large-scale painting by Kerry James Marshall from a gallery, where prices for these pieces can reach $1 million. Money is insufficient. A dealer wisely picks whom to put their prestige in when selling a sought-after piece. These days, a new artist might gain recognition more quickly through placement with the proper collector than through the endorsement of a curator or critic. Aspiring collectors need to demonstrate to renowned dealers that they will be responsible for maintaining the artwork. Paradoxically, it frequently requires a non-commercial act to demonstrate one’s gravity in order to do this.
After making such an acquisition, Bob Rennie, whose collection has developed into a private museum in Vancouver, British Columbia, told me how his access was much increased. He acquired Mike Kelley’s enormous conceptual installation, John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (2001), in 2001. It is not to be confused with an investment item. “I hadn’t realized I was excluded from new avenues of discussion that soon opened,” he informed me. Rennie’s extravagant purchase communicated to dealers his intention to do more than just profit from an artist’s creations. The acquisition by Kelley served as an icebreaker, allowing him to view pieces by Rebecca Warren and Kara Walker, two artists he had previously tried in vain to acquire. He remarked, “I just wasn’t aware of the kind of ice it was breaking.”
Because they are drawn to an object’s provenance, nuance, and attribution, connoisseurs are the intellectuals of the art world. They seldom purchase as an investment; instead, they buy carefully. When they work well, they slow down time and compel us to pause and reflect.
I’ve found this sort to be fiercely independent, so undisturbed by conventional taste that you might almost call them the new avant-garde, despite the trappings and absurdities of their stuffy culture. But they have a strong stake in the opinions of a small number of people—not because they have a higher calling than others, but rather because, to them, professional judgment frequently prevails over truth.
They mingle in a selective fashion, frequently ostracizing the layperson who is inevitably going to overlook the small details. At a meal recently, I was seated between two boisterous antiques collectors. I was surprised by how much enjoyment each person took from the talk, even if I had to curl my toes at one point to keep from passing out from the shear boredom of it.
Being a connoisseur might be profitable at times. Robert Simon, an Old Masters merchant and collector, has studied art for decades, particularly pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, who he saw as a fourteen-year-old and who was born in Vinci, Italy. A hazy, painted-over figure of Christ on a panel was purchased by Simon and fellow art dealer Alexander Parish in 2005 at an estate auction in Louisiana. Simon told me, “I was drawn to the painting’s aura.” He, Parish, and a few other dealers sold the image in 2013 as Leonardo’s lost Salvator Mundi for an estimated $80 million after six years of restoration and investigation.
Usually starting with a spark, connoisseurship is cultivated over time with unwavering effort and dedication. According to Simon’s investigation, he discovered that Kenneth Clark, the writer of the 1939 book on Leonardo, was present at a London Sotheby’s auction in 1958 when he passed on Salvator Mundi, which went for $60 that day. The piece fetched $450 million at Christie’s in November of last year.
After searching for decades, Simon was able to gather, process, and retain enough visual information to be able to recognize something when he finally came upon the Leonardo. “There was something familiar, but I certainly didn’t think it was a da Vinci,” the man remarked. Upon initially viewing the image, “I started to mentally bracket what it could be.” 1500s? Italian or European? Florence? Studio?”
The Hunter of Trophies
Clients have reportedly heard art dealer William Acquavella say, “You can remake your money, but you can’t remake the painting.” This group finds it simple to make money. What matters is how you use it. The wealth of trophy hunters is sometimes more ethereal than the paint on the picture. Although they are wealthy enough to overlook the social structure of the art world, they are also self-aware enough to know better. Could a picture truly make the purchaser feel like a Rothschild or a Rockefeller? Most likely not. But nobody has said that to them.
I was amazed at how the owner of one of the major private art collections explained each piece when I recently took a tour of it. Don’t worry about color or composition. Every image in the search served as a lesson in anthropology. He added, “Art delivers two types of pleasures: the joy of looking and the adrenaline of procuring,” when I brought this to his attention. As long as I can enjoy the latter, I’ll let future generations enjoy the former. Acquisition is an aim in and of itself for him.
A lot of people have psychoanalyzed this kind of conduct. According to Sigmund Freud, this kind of collecting made up for past disappointments, such having a cold and unresponsive mother. According to Thorstein Veblen, it was ostentatious consumerism masquerading as elitism. It was symbolic capital, or power, in Pierre Bourdieu’s view. They collect voraciously, whatever their obsessions or fears may be.
They also frequently represent our largest debtors. In the world of private banking, there’s an old saying that says you’re a great candidate for a loan if you don’t need the money. This group utilizes their creativity to leave a legacy when they pass away and to do great things during their lifetimes, such as taking over a big firm.
They seem to be the least ostentatious to me, given their wealth of resources. In fact, a lot of people engage in sporty negotiations, frequently via middlemen and mostly for secondary-market projects. I came across a collector around Christmas who was still beaming from a successful purchase he had made at the fall auctions. He used his collection as collateral to raise the necessary funds to get a picture at auction. He negotiated his own house guarantee while concurrently consigning a piece from his own collection. On the eve of Congress’s eventual removal of this tax loophole, he turned the works, hedged his bet, and utilized a like-kind exchange to avoid paying capital gains taxes all in one night. The agreement was obviously an artistic creation, but he never did say who the artists were.
Aesthetes are by far the most solitary people and the least self-conscious about their status as art collectors. Theirs is a life of sight focused on the unadulterated stare. More in the Platonic sense than the painting-must-match-the-couch kind. They view art as a conclusion, an end in and of itself, and an expressive expression of who they are that is unrelated to prestige or material success.
The stunning $484 million sale of Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Bergé’s art collection in 2009 was made possible thanks in part to Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman at Christie’s. “These unique individuals possess an innate eye and tend to be more aesthetically aware of the world around them.” “A visceral reaction to the item drives true aesthetes like Laurent. Although they nearly never purchase on the cutting edge of fashion, they are frequently aware of what is in style.
Aesthetes, motivated more by instinct than fashion, gather passionately in the moment, but with a broad vision that brings unrelated items together. Rendell mentioned Frederic’s, Lord Leighton’s, or Paul Walter’s industrial heir collections. “These collections take you to far-off locations. Walter, on the other hand, would dive down the most bizarre rabbit holes, meticulously collecting everything from Raj coins to Anglo-Indian Empire art.
Working with aesthetics has been both a delight and a nightmare for me. Their short attention span and contrarian sensibility might make doing business difficult. However, they frequently have highly developed taste that is so subtle that it goes unnoticed for years, making them excellent information synthesizers. When I asked a well-known artist why he concentrates on what he called “Chinese cynical-realism,” his response was quite self-assured: “You’ll understand one day.”