Art, artists, collectors and the gold rush
A clever collector apart from targeting big profit also climbs up the socio-cultural tower and is viewed as the prince charming by ordinary mortals on ground. The success with money is as daunting as failure with it. But a true collector collects for love and love alone shall prevail. To be rich is not a curse, the curse is if it makes us fall.
Fundamental to high speculative profits is near monopoly accumulation. Decades early in Delhi I knew of consortium of investors/speculators many of them in top jobs in IBM and multinationals in India who would accumulate individual company shares. When the market had risen spectacularly and they dumped them to reap high profits. It worked quite a bit. In art the accumulation principle is applied with a caveat. Each artist may produce works of differing quality and aesthetic value. Here the role of collector, art advisers, dealers and galleries becomes crucial in buying the right kind of art.
Collecting unsung new artists is normally low risk but may offer possibility of very high return if the collectors are able to foresee the future growth and value of particular art or artists. When Durand Ruel (1831—1922) the French art dealer supported and collected works of Impressionists—Claude Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet and Pissarro and others there was hardly a value attached to them. Impressionism was not recognized as a new art movement then. In all Durand collected thousands of works of these artists straight from their studios to the extent of going near bankrupt. People must have thought Ruel to be nuts when he bought such visionary art. It is still the largest single collection of Impressionists art. But today this collection may be worth hundreds nay thousands of million dollars.
Charles. Saatchi known to bulk collect works by artists he thinks have potential to go big time and then off loads wholesale at right time to reap big He collected YBA, Hirst Sean Scully etc, and got richer by millions of dollars.. Collectors of the ilk of Aby Rosen collect large number of works from an individual artist. Remember bulk ‘collections’ of known collectors are worth much more than individual works separately sold belonging to an artist.
Bulk buying is not same as herd buying. Some names become fashionable for a short time and then take long vacation. When market was booming some artists’ paintings were touted in the art circle as a good buy (mind it not as good art) and everyone was trying to buy without knowing any thing about her/his work/history or art journey or in some cases about what she/he paints.. I hear many of such artists are in dire straights and so are all those who were buying their works more like a stock market hot tip. The collectors in many cases are not able to sell them even for 20% of the price they paid.
Nearer home in India in 80’s Badruddin Daya a shoe-business magnate would buy up whole exhibitions of artists that were yet untested at highly discounted prices. Ashish Anand of Delhi Art gallery is also known to buy up whole collections from artists. But the obverse side too, I know of many bulk buyers who have lost quite a bit by ill advised collection of junk art or I should say only junk. But who can tell you that you have junk if you are deep pocketed dollar billionaire. What happens if the genie in bottle vanishes and has to be replaced with a fresh sea catch it still is art if the artist /collector says it. And of course other lesser mortals willingly bite the bait. I remember Bertrand Russell in one of his books on nuclear holocaust said what would happen if a mad person become President of U.S.A. who would dare tell him that and he could jolly well blow up the world.
There is uncouth speculation and possible price doctoring in art market of today. If you look at long, very long time it took for the art of Van Gogh , Renoir, Manet, Monet, Kandinsky, Juan Miro etc took to arrive at the millions of dollar value in comparison to the very short period it took many of the present day artist celebrities to arrive at stupendous prices—selling for 10’s or 100’s of million dollars. (many of them have turned their art into a factory produce churned out by coolie labour and only signed by them) Imagine and compare the creative worth of a diamond studded platinum mould of a skull with the Sunflowers by Van Gogh. Van Gogh changed our life for good with his paintings; he imbued passion, romance and freedom of soul unheard of earlier in artistic expression. What does the diamond skull proclaim other than that it required a very rich person to create it and another very rich person to buy it with no talk of virginal imagination or creativity? Unfortunately quite a few middle level artists in India have come to imitating the path of the Western current market celebrities. I would call them market celebrities for their worth—real or doctored—is seen as price leaders and not necessarily imaginative path creating art leaders. No society recognizes its boorishness, its left to later generations to recognize it.
Like the totemic cult societies of yore one of the most secretive markets in the world is art market. The mechanism of price determination is therefore one most unreliable. Who are the price players and bidders is not visible. Allegations surface that the sellers and the buyers are proxies especially in auctions. When it comes to greed of making a fast buck quite few market players are Madoff like.
There are more pitfalls in art market structure but it definitely does not mean white winged angels do not exist. Otherwise how you have such stupendous collection of art gifted to state museums or exist in private museums. There are smaller mortals who have become legends for their visionary collections and at times against tremendous odds. Dorothy and Herbert Vogel have collected thousands of art works with their very modest incomes from jobs of a postal clerk and Brooklyn librarian. They lived in one bed room apartment and stored thousands of art works from likes of Christo, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd They gifted away all their collection to Museums all over U.S. Imagine they used one spouse salary for their living expenses and with the other they collected art. They are a legend and to me and of course to many around the globe they are in line with Frick, Solomon Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and others who gifted so much art to humankind. I hope some of the Indian billionaires are listening.