“The brilliance of art as a collectible is that it has a way of reaching out on an emotional level. It touches on mystery, even spirituality.”
–Robert Glenn, Canadian painter and wise sage
It is a compelling time to be involved in the business of art. There has been an explosion of interest from all corners of the globe in making, understanding, appreciating and investing in art. Unsurprisingly, this has shaken up the scene. Gone are the traditional parameters that had confined the world of collecting to an elite few: new kids are on the contemporary art block. A younger, more diverse, smart, savvy collector, whose starting point is less likely to be a family background in the subject, and more likely to be a personal passion, curiosity and a desire for the pieces, has arrived.
It may seem a romantic notion, but art has an unrivaled ability to speak about the world we live in and the people in it, while at the same time saying something intensely personal about the world of the individual. You only have to look at the recent exhibitions of Ai Weiwei’s work. Glaring visual essays of his personal situation and the current political landscape in China, they demonstrate the ability of art to communicate a message from a significant moment in time.
It is therefore not surprising that more people, especially the current inspiring group of younger enthusiasts, want to be involved in collecting. A carefully constructed collection can be hugely significant and meaningful, each seeking to be singular in language and universal in message.
As recently as ten years ago, the contemporary art scene was dominated by Europe and the United States, the melting pots of Western art, where the patrons, the money, the artists and the collectors were coming from. But now the world has shrunk, and it is no longer sufficient to know what is happening in New York and London.
Last year we traveled a combined total of more than 120 trips, exploring more than 20 countries across the globe. Artists and collectors are now being discovered from all over the world. China in particular has established itself as a new world-class center for contemporary art.
The media also has a role to play in this — stories from the art world now regularly make it on to the front pages, moving the subject of art into the mainstream, as well as making superstars of the main players.
Some key artists can also take credit for attracting a younger, cooler crowd. Andy Warhol, a name synonymous with a fresh, exciting, dramatic style and whose iconic works have pushed him to the top of many collector’s wish lists, is a good example. Warhol transformed art into a lifestyle, blurring the lines between consumerism, fine art and challenged the use, the need for art itself. For that reason, it has become almost impossible to build a new important collection without including a significant work by Warhol.
But once someone makes the decision to get involved, to take the first step, how easy is it to build a first-class collection? The answer is, not very. It is a jungle out there, and for a novice collector it can be completely overwhelming.
In our experience, it takes at least four to five years to develop a good understanding of art and a sense of your own personal taste. Many new collectors will end up disliking the works they liked most when they started out, and appreciating artists and pieces that they didn’t understand previously. Novice collectors may visit an art fair and find 100 pieces they would consider buying, whereas we may only find three. This is because we know the context, we know when a work is of original value or simply an imitation, and we know when an idea is important and has the potential to influence future artists and become the mainstay of future collections. Critically, we also know what is, and isn’t, a realistic price point.
It is also about possessing a deeper understanding of the art scene, which will take significantly longer than developing a particular taste. It is a world made up of unwritten rules. Break one of these rules and you may be blacklisted by galleries, auction houses and artists from buying works ever again!
The next barrier is access. You may have the finest eye on the planet and complete clarity in terms of how you want to build your collection, but if you cannot get your hands on the pieces you are after then both of those qualities become worthless. Take as an example the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami: he has a cult following across the globe, and the pieces he produces are in red-hot demand. Call a gallery representing his work and you’ll be in plentiful company. You may count yourself lucky to be added to a “waiting list,” but the reality is, there’s no such thing; or if there is, you don’t want to be on it. You want to be on the priority list, and at the top of it.
As advisers, the huge diversity of collectors is extremely welcome both on a professional and personal level. When we work with an individual, he or she becomes much more than just a client. We become partners with a shared goal, and in most cases we become very close friends. The fact that there is no longer such a thing as a “typical collector” therefore makes our job interesting, rewarding and exciting, and our only word of caution is once you get started you might never want to stop.
Nicolai and Michael Frahm are contemporary art advisers. In their Collectors’ Column they tell us how new, young collectors emerge amidst the changing terrain of the global art scene.