Don’t buy this, buy that
A guide to building a collection that is comprehensive but a little too polite
By Benjamin Eastham. From Frieze New York daily edition
Published online: 11 May 2013
Art collectors are “ruthless, greedy, tyrannical and disreputable” in the words of art historian Kenneth Clark and redeemed only by their possession of “one principle worth all the rest: the principle of delight”. Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, by the influential art advisers Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, promises an insider’s insight into the small world populated by those people whose maladjustments finance the commercial art market. It is both a guide to those looking to start or expand a collection, and a rumination on the compulsion to collect.
The ten chapters into which the book is divided each address a simple issue pertaining to building a collection, from how to manage a budget appropriate to your means to dealing with gallerists, auction houses and dealers. The advice provided is drawn from the authors’ own experience and from the historical examples of celebrated collectors like John Quinn and Gertrude and Leo Stein. The text is rich with anecdotes that illustrate how the great collections were built around the aesthetic or intellectual preferences of visionary individuals, and these asides make the book a more diverting read than might be expected of a vade mecum to the art market.
The book is written in a conversational, intimate tone that suggests the authors are experienced at putting people at ease. Discretion and diplomacy are further qualities essential to any art advisory service so it is hardly surprising, though nonetheless disappointing, that even the most tepid criticism of any artist or gallery (and any good art adviser will have trenchant opinions on both) is prefaced by “some might say that”, or “many people would consider that”. On those occasions when the authors do draw attention to familiar flaws in the operations of the blue chip contemporary art market—“A hard look at other artists in [Gagosian Gallery’s] programme, and surely certain artists at other mega-galleries, begs the question: can high prices be sustained over time when artists fail to engender any serious critical and curatorial interest?”—the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.
The art world is plagued, or blessed, with endless scandal, intrigue and fallings out. While the media attention afforded to these enmities and rivalries has undoubtedly contributed to the overall rise of the market, these internecine squabbles are also hugely influential upon the careers of individual artists, whose reputations depend upon those of the people who are buying and selling their work. Charles Saatchi is the subject of damnation by faint praise (in a chapter entitled “The Vicissitudes of the Art Market”), but the reader is left longing to know what the authors really think about the sway that he and others hold over individual artists and indeed entire movements. Their reticence can occasionally frustrate, but does not significantly impede the book’s primary aims.
Collecting Art… reminds the reader that buying art is subject to the same rules as more mundane investments, and the authors are to be applauded for their efforts to demystify the process. As with any purchase, the buyer should be knowledgeable about the product and informed of its critical reception, should resist fads and buy for the long term. Yet, despite taking obvious pains not to explicitly condemn any motive that inspires the purchase of art, the authors clearly align themselves with a tradition that values the patronage of specific artists and the establishment of a publicly available legacy above short-term financial profit. In the book’s most interesting passage they discuss the widespread anxiety over the appreciation of contemporary art, specifically the fear that inexperienced buyers who “view the market as an easy-to-compute indicator of artistic significance” are skewing the production and critical reception of new work. Their conclusion, that quality will always ultimately be recognised, is convincingly argued and, perhaps not coincidentally, reassuring to any reader making their first steps towards buying art.
Readers should not expect the authors to share Clark’s appraisal of the peculiar personality traits that drive individuals to amass collections of objects that they often do not have the time or space to display. Instead, the titular “more” that they append to the all-pervading impulses of love and money is summarised as a combination of social status, “intellectual satisfaction”, “emotional stimulation”, egotism, a craving for public attention and the peculiarly human desire to leave a historical legacy. Yet none of these quite matches the capacity for “delight” that Clark identified, and indeed Collecting Art for Love, Money and More is less successful as an analysis of the compulsion to collect than as a handy guide to those already bitten by the bug.
Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, Ethan Wagner & Thea Westreich Wagner, Phaidon, 192pp, £22.95 hb
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