Paris, 13 March 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).
“My painting’s just about entertaining people, I’m surprised it’s lasted so long”.
This was the sentiment expressed by Andy Warhol who, in the 1980s, was already surprised by the longevity of his works. The artist, it seemed, certainly hadn’t presumed that his own 15 minutes of fame would extend into the 21st century. According to Art Price’s Art Market Trend report 2013, Warhol was the most profitable artist at auction last year, with the sale of 1,459 of his works realising a dizzying overall total of $367,410,717. And this is not taking into account Warhol’s influence in popular culture – screen prints by the artist have now become iconic representations of Pop Art.
The artist’s popularity provokes a number of questions: how does an artist’s renown – and the subsequent value of their works – endure? Is this value intrinsic to works, or does seemingly unshakeable popularity express a broader inertia within the art world? And – if the latter is the case – how do works become popular in the first place? Do certain bodies have an influential, or prescriptive, effect on the works we see and buy?
Warhol was well aware of these challenges, declaring: “No matter how good you are, if you’re not promoted right, you won’t be remembered” – a sentence which proved to be strongly indicative of the artist’s prescience. Integral to Warhol’s visibility was Irving Blum, the Director of Feru Gallery who, in 1962, became the first to present the artist’s work to the public. The exhibition, which featured Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can, prompted scandal, receiving a negative response from critics who attended. Art Historians refuted the notion that an art gallery could be made to resemble a “grocery store” and, confronted with a lack of sales, Irving Blum was forced to purchase the works himself.
Despite this, however, Blum’s efforts would later come to be seen as exemplary by those who sought to promote the artist’s oeuvre. The gallerist invited Artforum to the exhibition, introducing Warhol to John Coplans, who would become one of his biggest advocates. In 1987, Blum furthered the artist’s visibility when he placed Campbell’s Soup Can on public display, giving the piece to the Washington National Gallery of Art on permanent loan. Blum finally sold the work to MoMA in 1996, who paid the gallerist $15 million – he had originally purchased the piece for ten monthly payments of $100.
This anecdote demonstrates the potentially significant influence of collectors in the promotion of an artist’s career. Whilst the role of Irving Blum as art dealer is of incontestable importance, his association with John Coplans, the visibility of the National Gallery of Washington, and – finally – MoMA’s decision to purchase the piece were all actions which served to build Warhol’s legitimacy, advocating his entry into the history of art hall of fame.
In the contemporary art world, Charles Saatchi has had a role of comparable importance: his 1997 “Sensations” exhibition is widely credited as having launched the formerly “undiscovered” group which came to be known as the YBAs.
Today, collectors play a central role in the art world: they support artists, have a significant effect on current tastes, and frequently make the contents of their collections available to museums. The latter has the additional benefit of quashing the scathing accusations or critiques which portray the art collector as a particularly cold figure. It is not uncommon for those who buy art to be associated with a particular financial shrewdness: a desire to establish a lucrative portfolio, to dodge tax, or to lend works to museums in an attempt, not to share works with the public, but to raise their value. Those who critique collectors in this way appear to suggest that they are a body whose actions manipulate the art world, producing anomalies which have the dangerous potential to alter the face of the contemporary art world entirely.
But, between ideology and pragmatism, idealism and cynicism – what is it that motivates art collectors? At what moment did they arrive at the forefront of the art world, and do they really play a central role in its structure?
The collector: art enthusiast or investor?
Art Vantage LTD PPC, the specialist art pension fund, states that it has made a cumulative net return of 27.5% since 2011, demonstrating that it is possible to build a profitable portfolio in which art becomes an asset.
Yet the assessment carried out by Art Vantage LTD PPC’s has since been nuanced, with studies such as Knight Frank’s Wealth Report 2014 offering a recent analysis of art’s potential profitability. The latter showed art to be the least profitable collector’s item, with an overall profitability of 3% – compared to 28% for cars. Despite this, art remains the more coveted item: whilst 44% of collectors questioned expressed a keen interest in collecting art, only 32% were interested in accumulating cars. The practice of collecting, it seems, lies somewhere beyond rational concerns.
Two recent studies have attempted to elucidate the motivating factors behind a collectors’ decision to buy. The first, Axa Art Survey 2014, was compiled from 1,000 questionnaires filled out by collectors across the world. The second, Art & Finance Report 2013, carried out by Deloitte and ArtTactic, was the result of a study focusing on 81 top-ranking international collectors.
Each of the investigations revealed emotion, and a sensitivity to art, to be the leading motivations for those who invest in art. 88% of those questioned for Axa Art’s survey said their decision to collect was influenced by an appreciation of beautiful objects. This sentiment was reiterated by the Art & Finance report, in which 83% of those surveyed cited a fondness or feeling for art as the driving factor behind investments.
In second place in the Art & Finance report was a collection’s potential social value (a motivating factor for 60% of respondents) and its associated advantages: access to exclusive networks, social prestige, and invitations to private events. 53% of those surveyed considered art as an addition to their existing assets – a figure which nevertheless merits some clarification: most of those who saw art as an asset also collected for pleasure, with only 7% of those surveyed citing investment as the sole reasoning behind their decision to purchase art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study as a whole presents the collector as something of a hedonist, whose acquisition of art is accompanied by a strong desire to retain – or gain – money, rather than lose it.
The Axa Art Survey 2014 similarly touched upon the notion of art as investment: an analysis of the motivating factors behind surveyed collectors’ decisions to purchase art concluded that almost 24% had elected to buy pieces as a means of diversifying their investment portfolio. 37% of collectors surveyed described themselves as art amateurs, whilst 16% described themselves as “traditional” collectors – perpetuating a family tradition.
The decision to purchase a work of art was frequently found to be relatively instinctive. Of those surveyed, 65% admitted that rather than collecting systematically, they acted upon initiative, with 30% stating that their decision to buy was informed by the quality and value of a piece.
The results of these surveys offer some means of quantifying a phenomenon which otherwise remains private, shedding some light on the activities of the world’s foremost art collectors. Despite this, however, neither survey quite begins to contend with the more complex relations between intuition, investment, and pleasure. To better understand the phenomenon of collecting, it would be worthwhile to return to its earliest roots.
The evolution of the studiolo: the origins of contemporary collecting
Versions of the contemporary “collector” can be seen throughout history: purchased works served as a sign of social status, providing a visible attestation of their owner’s wealth – the tombs of the Pharaohs and the Palace of Babylon being a prime example. Already, at this early stage, collectors were the subject of criticism; in the 1st century BC, Cicero condemned the greed of the collector Verres, the praetor of Sicily.
It was not, however, until the emergence of the studiolo – or Cabinet of Curiosities – in the 15th century that the idea of a collection – and collector, as it is understood today – was formed. Though frequently confused with patrons, these early collectors were not solely interested in funding commissioned pieces, but were also active buyers. Statesmen such as Federico da Montefeltro, the Medicis and the House of Este set their sights on paintings, sculptures and antiques, expressing a particular predilection for decorative objects or commissioned works (with portraits being a notable example).
Lorenzo de Medici – frequently referred to as the laudatory “Lorenzo the Magnificent” was one such example: though he commissioned very few works himself, he helped to secure commissions from other patrons, and was an avid collector of both arts and literature – establishing the Medici library. Lorenzo the Magnificent also recognised the social ramifications of collecting, joining an increasing host of 15th century notaries who were using art as a means of demonstrating their political – and financial – weight. The Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465) by Piero della Francesca, or the Medici-commissioned frescos of the Palazzo Vecchio are examples of this power-loaded form of artistic production.
Between the 1470 and 1480, the majority of Italian Princes collected. In Rome, Pope Paul II (1461-1480) began to gather medals and antiques under the guidance of Cyriacus of Ancona – an early art advisor – in order to reinforce the domination of pontifical power. In order to ensure that the decoration of her studio was of the highest level, Isabella d’Este would invite the finest artists of the period and impose strict rules upon their work. The latter established a conflation between patronage and collecting, funding works by artists including Mantegna, Perugino and Costa. She contributed to the emergence of the Maniera Moderna, promoting the movement by commissioning works by artists including Correggio.
The Italian wars and the powerful influence of Humanism allowed Italy’s influence to spread across Europe. Cities and monarchic courts became hives of collectors: this was the era of Arnolfini – the epoch which saw King Philip of Spain acquire almost 1,500 paintings across the course of his reign. Collections began to develop a coherency, were rationalised and – importantly – exhibited. From the 1530s, François I created his eponymous gallery at France’s Château de Fontainebleau, whilst Francesco I de’ Medici and Ferdinando I de’ Medici installed their collections in Florence’s Uffizi in 1581, the Cabinet of Curiosities falling gradually out of favour.
This initial stage of art collecting developed further still with the appearance of dedicated painting galleries, first opening in Venice in the 17th century before spreading across Europe in the 18th century – a period which saw fine art and those who studied it elevated to the level of “liberal arts”. Collectors were viewed as patrons, assuring the success of the artists they promoted. Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a patron of Caravaggio, owned almost 600 paintings. The banker Vincenzo Giustiniani had a number of paintings purchased directly from Caravaggio and Carraccio. The gallery became an essential component of both the Palazzo and art more broadly, presenting not only works themselves, but particular styles, personal tastes, and evolutions in artistic practice. This model lasted until the 19th century, becoming strongly associated with arts academies.
The role of collectors has changed significantly since the appearance of the first Cabinet of Curiosities: collectors have influenced stylistic evolutions, provided funding for art, and increased its visibility. Collectors have grown to be amongst the biggest influencers for art world trends, with the history of art having been significantly influenced by their actions. Our brief study of their activity, however, also highlights their capacity to somewhat subordinate the status of artworks themselves: art has a complex social history, with collectors using pieces as components of broader, solipsistic hagiography, or as a means of propagating very personal ideologies.
The post-1980s avant-garde: the development of the contemporary collector
Political and social difficulties, combined with changes in the history of art in the 18th and 19th centuries, saw the importance of arts academies increasingly devolve in favour of a new dealer-critic model. This new approach to the consumption of art was better adapted to the numerous changes provoked by the industrial revolution and the 19th century avant-garde. Registering this new trend, collectors began to change their practice, beginning to work closely with prestigious advisors such as Paul Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard, Pand L. Rosenberg, D. Kahnweiller or the Steins.
The system rapidly saw collectors integrated into the art world, with figures such as Peggy Guggenheim becoming overwhelmingly influential. Advised by Marcel Duchamp and Jean Cocteau, Guggenheim began to build her vast collection of contemporary art in the 1930s. Quickly declaring herself an “art addict”, she fervently worked to democratize modern art – following the interest of her uncle, the now infamous Solomon R. Guggenheim.
She opened the Guggenheim Jeune in London in 1938 with the aim of promoting young artists, dedicating her first exhibition to Constantin Brancusi. Guggenheim’s promotion of modern art continued with the opening of the New York-based Art of this Century Gallery in 1942, followed by the opening of her now-renowned Venice museum in 1952. Before this, the collector had used her influence to protect artists during the war, providing them with false papers and financing their journeys to the United States.
At the close of the Second World War, the collector began to play an increasingly influential role. Nevertheless, the heavy investment of both time and money which art collection required meant that the practice remained the preserve of intellectuals and the creative. In the 1970s, only 25% of collectors were leaders in business or industry – half had come from creative industries, such as fashion, media, or design. Nevertheless, the political and financial power asserted by this 25% minority allowed them to create major collections, many of which would later become major foundations – as was the case for the Guggenheim Foundation (1937), the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation (1940), the J. Paul Getty Trust (1953) or the Maeght Foundation (1964).
In the 1980s and 1990s, the demographic of art collectors changed further, with a number of factors further eroding the profession’s association with an intellectual and creative elite. Art collecting became at once more democratic and closer to business, with a decisive factor in this landscape’s evolution being a cycle of capital explosion since the 1980s, and the development of emerging economies. Between 1987 and 1990, a rise in the stock market freed up significant capital, which translated into significant investments in contemporary art.
In the 1990s, arts investment was fuelled not only by these new emerging economies, but by the rapid expansion of the internet. When she spoke to Art Media Agency in February 2014, sociologist Nathalie Heinich described the 1990s “art-finance bubble”, stating: “The reasons for this bubble were only partially linked to art, being strongly associated with the evolution of the world economy, financialisation, the emergence of traders and rapidly-established wealth, and new economies in emerging countries – so this mass of available money which could be spent.”
The profound economic disruptions of the 1980s and 1990s, along with successive “bubbles”, and an increase in globalisation, provoked an explosion in collecting art, further diminishing the gap between the economic and artistic spheres. Collecting became a distinctive, more developed act, with the art world becoming “hotter, hipper and more expensive” – as described by Sarah Thornton in her work Seven Days in the Art World. In 1992, the new shape of the art market had already been noted, with sociologist Raymonde Moulin declaring: “Today’s well-informed collector represents the original enlightened amateur.”
Together, these changes contributed to an explosion in the number of contemporary art collectors worldwide. Commenting in French newspaper L’Express in 2013, the CEO of Art Price, Thierry Erhmann, said: “At the end of the Second World War, there were 500,000 collectors. Now, there are 37 million collectors and amateurs who have a million dollars with which to make their purchases.”
Yet this major shift in the number of art collectors has not always been positively received. In 1959, Peggy Guggenheim was already expressing her discontentment at the commercial turn which art had taken, describing her frustration in her autobiography (released during the inauguration of her uncle’s museum). More recently, John Walsh, the art historian and former director of the J.P. Getty Museum declared the end of the “philanthropic era”. For Walsh, the contemporary collector approaches art as they would any other product: our interest in the works we buy – and our attention span – is considerably less than that of the esteemed collectors of centuries past.
Whilst it would be easy to dismiss Walsh’s comments as generalisations, the art historian’s comments may contain a morsel of truth. Nevertheless, it seems important to acknowledge the two-tier system of modern collecting, and the fact that many buyers no longer have the same networks and purchasing powers. Today’s art market is split between two parallel realities: the influential art collectors, and the rest. Though the number of collectors globally has increased, 51% of all art works sold internationally reach a price inferior to €1,500, and 81% for less than €12,000. According to the Axa Art Survey 2014, only 10% of collectors had collections with a value exceeding one million dollars.
Sarah Thornton analysed this two-tier system, heavily influenced by the “right of first view” – a privilege reserved for only the most distinguished collectors. Thornton states: “Only neophyte collectors offer more than the requested price… When a gallerist is confident about the demand for an artist’s work, he doesn’t risk selling it on a first-come first-served basis, or to the highest bidder. They build a list of potentially interested clients, seeking to place the work under the most prestigious ownership possible.”
Thornton’s comments demonstrate the infinitely complex nature which a discussion on art collection has. Contemporary art collection remains a domain which is at once highly confidential and difficult to document, and highly diverse. Nevertheless, a historical survey of the practice does offer some elucidation: collectors, it seems, remain an important influence in the contemporary art world – and their collections still hold an important place not only in the private, but in the public sphere. It also reveals that – in many ways – art collection has changed very little: though today’s art collectors may be different, art collection still follows the foundations laid down in the 16th century, closely adhering to both economic and social developments.
In Le marché de l’art, Raymonde Moulin states that the 1980s witnessed a “picture-mania” comparable to that formerly seen in 1st-century Rome, 15th-century Florence, the Netherlands during the 17th century, and in Paris during the 1770s. The contemporary art world seems to have once again fallen to the “picture-mania” of the 1980s – though of all its attributes, it is perhaps only its remarkable volume which is its most significant.