Any old collector will do

FreudNude.jpgNow that we know who has been paying top dollar at the auctions (Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club as well as a whole lotta gas and oil) this more or less proves that we are relying on the super-rich to hold the buoyant market aloft. There has been a lot of talk about how the art world is staving off signs of a recession thanks to these new ‘emerging market’ buyers, but might this trend have further ramifications for the business?

For example, will the dealers cease to hold back their best work for the supposed ‘best’ collectors and museums, preferring instead to keep cashflow high by offloading to those simply holding the biggest, loosest purses? Maybe galleries have been disingenuous all along, merely paying lip service to the sacred idea of artist representation and not really carefully vetting what sells to whom at all. While you can’t stop anyone from buying at auction (indeed, Abramovich might start to be taken seriously as a collector after his recent purchases), will money run roughshod over the hearts and minds of those in the primary market in the same way? Or should I just take my rose-tinted blinkers off?

7 thoughts on “Any old collector will do

  1. In response to Ossian, an educated guess would be that Abramovich’s art buying is in fact due to his partner Daria “Dasha” Zhukova, 26, who is opening an art space in Russia. She was interviewed by The Art Newspaper (May edition). Mr Abramovich himself might be more interested in football and business, and be happy to leave culture to Dasha.
    Secondly, I believe that dealers are simply not getting to these new super-rich buyers, so do not have the chance of offloading art onto them.
    Buyers new to the market tend to favour the auction process which they see (erroneously in my opinion) as being transparent, and they like the fact that there is visible competition. Those that come from former communist countries (and from still-communist China) have little experience of a gallery system anyway. Prices in China are established by the auction process.
    I am afraid I lost my rose-tinted blinkers some time ago, and believe that any dealer, faced with the chance of selling to one of these super-rich buyers, would do so with alacrity. And why not? There would be nothing wrong with “placing” an artist in a collection that included Bacon and Freud, after all.
    Georgina Adam

  2. I am afraid I have to agree with Georgina. Let us not kid ourselves. The history of collecting is full of new money acquiring Art as a legitimisation of their “arrival” wherever they may have arrived. In the end this is no bad thing. Some of this new money becomes old money and real collections are often built therefrom. And if it doesn’t, then the works come back onto the market at some stage and the whole cycle of buying and selling starts all over again.

    In this way, Art works as a facilitator for the transfer of capital from New Money to Old. Better than taxes really…

  3. One question, one comment:

    1. What does our “ideal” collector look like? New or old money, who do we think should or “deserves” to acquire and hold this material? An art historian with a trust fund? The Indie-Film Starlet? The philanthropically-minded heir to an energy fortune? Perhaps we should allot more time to assessing–i.e. criticizing–collections (and collectors) the way we do art works (and artists).

    2. To expand Ian’s point about art work facilitating capital redistributions, I think the transfer here is not between new and old money, but between all of these ‘emerging markets’ for expensive works of modern and contemporary art, and the US. If the majority of the sellers at the auctions in New York have been American collectors, that means huge influxes of capital, albeit concentrated in very few hands. But of these ‘old’ money collectors, if buying art, and contemporary art in particular, is a priority, well, $50mm goes a long way towards new purchases and, possibly, capital donations to the public institutions and non-profits that keep the culture industry humming.

  4. I find the categories of old and new money outdated and burdened by regional notions of power. When the major institutions of New York were built, it was with lots of new money and plenty of exploitation. And collecting was very different then – when Frick began purchasing art it was some really sentimental Victorian stuff that he liked, but once he realized he was collecting with some sense of public endeavor, he began checking of the Vermeer, the Titian, the Gainsborough and the Manet from a list. “Art history” was built on the grand tour.

    The really exciting collectors today are wanting to participate in the making of that history, and we can learn a lot by attending to what the collector-driven non-profits are doing. Take note of the fact that Darya Zhukova is opening an art space.

    It is very exciting to me that this desire can come with the sense of there being something at stake, that it is not simply a matter of acquisitions and proper names but that what you acquire counts historically and for a public, even if there is no actual public. There are no private languages in art, it is always of and for a public. I would want a collector to have a full sense of this as a joyful calling and to hunger for the knowledge it takes to establish their own criteria, criteria that extends beyond the concerns of their own life, even if their collection is only taking up the space of a tabletop. The ambition is all in the endeavor.

  5. The games some galleries play with collectors — waiting lists, bait and switch, snob and dis, only selling through approved art advisors — can grow a bit tiresome, to the point where the brute imperatives of money might seem preferable. Undoubtedly this is why newer, deep pocket collectors gravitate to auctions, where the illusion of a level playing field (however spurious, as implied above) is maintained, where money alone might seem to command respect, where they do not have to cope with the arcane antics of gallerists. The idea of a new world order of collectors, who might circumvent or augment the established modes of art buying, has been previously discussed on these pages.

    On another tack: Post-auction headlines that proclaimed “Bringing Home the Bacon” did not know how truly they spoke. Abramovich is possibly the wealthiest, and certainly one of the most visible Russian oligarchs currently making London his playground. His acquisition of both the $86.3 million Bacon and the $33.6 million Lucian Freud has great symbolic value. Not only is he able to afford these expensive paintings (something no wealthy Brit is currently achieving) but he is also able to repatriate the work to his adopted homeland, suggesting a new nationalism in this age of multi-nationalism.

    re: Jonathan’s note on who is “worthy” to collect, the ideal homo collectus would combine unassailable connoisseurship and erudition with infinite gobs of cash. Until this amazing amalgam is located, it will be necessary to sell to lesser mortals. The fact that Darya Zhukova is planning to start an art space in Moscow is certainly a good sign. As Ian and Catherine note, new money in the past has led to collections that are today regarded as unassailable. This is partly due to the healing passage of time, but also to the good advice that robber barons and railroad magnates were able to purchase along with their art. Let’s try to remember that new money is not always vulgar, that it generally arrives with some native intelligence, and that filthy lucre often finds (or is found by) the proper courtiers who are able to channel its expenditures along culturally “acceptable” avenues.

  6. It’s difficult to have this conversation about “ideal” collectors and “less than ideal” collectors without being influenced by the very large sums of money involved. For context, and as a way of bringing these astronomical prices closer to the ground, it may be worth noting that according to today’s NY Times, certain apartment owners in the swanky condominium building at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan have been approached with offers to resell their homes for prices of $100 million or more. We’re talking 3-4 bedroom apartments — nice ones, to be sure, but hardly Versailles.

    We are inclined to attach a moral dimension to extraordinary sums and the objects that merit them. In fact, with so much money chasing trophy objects of every conceivable kind, we may be projecting more meaning into extravagant luxury purchases than they actually deserve.

    At any rate, and more to the point, I side with those who say that the ideal collector issue is a bit of a red herring. We all know that historically some of the less pleasant gentlemen have ended up with some of the nicest pictures, and that neither noble purpose nor good character are reliable predictors of where the pictures will ultimately end up.

    The kids and widows of these collectors may be the ones who deserve a closer look. Will they liquidate their parents’ collections or disperse them in bits and pieces? Would they consent to placing the best works in a public collection, or will they use them as a piggy bank to sustain all sorts of expensive habits.

    A more useful way of separating the wheat from the chaff may be to see some art collecting as a form of deferred philanthropy. The hunt for trophies may not be a pretty sight. It may not be done for entirely the most wholesome reasons. And it may not be undertaken by the world’s most charming or unassailable people. But in what I would consider an ideal circumstance, the amassed collection may end up serving the public good. If and when it does, the failings of the acquisitor will be forgotten and forgiven.

  7. In the category of “more ideal paintings for (possibly less than) ideal collectors”, Christie’s is seemingly hoping for lightning to strike twice. They plan to offer both a Bacon triptych and a Freud nude at their London contemporary sale on June 30.

    The Bacon, Three Studies for a Self Portrait, recalls the triptych they just sold in New York for $28 million (at the lower end of its estimate). But unlike this sale, which had a fairly long provenance, the London offering has been with the same collector since it was painted, and has never been previously auctioned. The Freud painting, a recumbent, fleshy nude splayed on a tattered sofa, also includes a pair of legs in the corner, apparently a reflection of the artist in a mirror.

    Will London sales reflect recent New York successes? Any interested London-based oligarch might at least take comfort in the fact that he will be able to avoid transatlantic shipping costs.

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