by Antoinette du Plessis 18 July 2006

ANDY WARHOL               MARLENE DUMAS                 YOSHITOMO NARA
Collecting art can be a fun way of spending spare time and cash and be entertained in the process. Or it can be an all-consuming occupation - intellectually, emotionally and financially demanding. The committed collector is rewarded with a lifetime of wonder, of living with loved objects and, sometimes, with handsome financial return. 

Are you thinking of venturing into the world of collecting contemporary art, but are uncertain why, what and how? Read what seasoned collectors say about themselves, their habits, their collections.

Informal conversation with several collectors put some unexamined notions of mine up for revision. So, for example, it surprised me that none of them wished to be identified in this article. Why, I wondered. I had assumed that a bit of limelight, however tiny, would be welcome; I had, I suppose, connected collecting with display and a need for acclaim, with ego preening. After all, the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Carlo Bilotti, J Paul Getty seem to have had or to have no problem being known as collectors. Indeed, their collections define them in the public domain, give them stature, a legacy, a place in history. But all the collectors to whom I spoke firmly said, no names. 

They quoted security. Privacy. Financial circumspection. Competitiveness. Secretiveness. Even modesty. One collector said, coyly, I do not want people to think of me as a dealer, as someone who owns Kentridges. Another claimed you get two kinds of collectors: those who want to telegraph to the world that they have arrived. But, you know, he sighed, there are only so many berths for yachts at the Venice Biennale. The other kind of collector wants to get on with his (sic) love of art, and not be out in the public domain. Interacts with galleries and dealers confidentially. Doesnít go to openings, gets invited to private viewings. Bids per telephone at auctions. Me, I am a hybrid, he said. 

I had assumed all dealers to be collectors, all collectors dealers. Not so. One collector said with emphasis that he believed these two activities to be mutually exclusive. I never sell he said bitterly. Every time I have sold, I have made mistakes. Like trying to help people. But of course collectors sell mostly in order to improve their collections. 

Most collectors to whom I spoke indeed concurred with this idea. Selling up, selling down, whichever one believes to be an improvement to the collection. One gentlemanís commentary sums up the general sentiment. Said he: I sell art. Not all collectors do. Iíve met one or two people who would rather have a leg amputated than sell a piece of their art. But I believe that if I buy prudently, I will be able to one day trade up the pieces I bought as an immature collector. Or maybe I could spread my collection from being mostly contemporary South African to contemporary international. I would like to have both. The world is a global village. To ignore the international art market would be shortsighted.

An obvious question I put to all the collectors, why do you collect? The answers differed. One replied, above all, for me, collecting must be fun. Dealers and gallery owners can become quite vicious; you donít want to become involved. (Laughs, winking ever so slightly, refrains from mentioning names.) They try to possess Ďtheirí artists. I actually prefer not to buy from dealers. I hardly ever buy from galleries. For me, part of the fun is buying from artists themselves. There is a financial aspect, sure, but mostly it adds to the fun. I like meeting artists, building a relationship with them. He spoke fondly about a particular artist with whom he has established a firm friendship. I own twenty works of his; I might not buy any more.

A different collector says he deals only through a gallery. One particular gallery. He puts implicit trust in his dealer, he claims never to have met an artist, nor to have been invited to a studio. He regards the dealerís commission as a kind of insurance premium shielding him from risk, from effort, from bartering.

Is collecting essentially a crazy obsession? I think there can sometimes be some craziness on the collecting side, responded one collector, but there should not be on the selling side. Yes, it is somewhat irrational for people to spend lots of money on items they do not need. But of course, financial ramifications add to excitement. If you buy with knowledge, and you see the value of your collection increase dramatically, thatís great fun. 

How did you get started collecting contemporary art? So many collectors, so many answers. One collector said his defining moment came when he watched astonished as a businessman shelled out one hundred thousand Rands for a drawing Ė Kentridge, of course - at a glittering auction for charity. Others had more mundane reasons. I want what I like. My mother gave me a box of watercolors as a kid. I had a friend who painted pictures/took nice photographs/built fancy constructions. 

Talking about the mundane, I wondered about wall space. Is that a consideration when buying art? Again, answers differed greatly. From a curt yes of course, to well, yes, I suppose so, but having a house in town and a cottage at the beach, I do seem to have a great deal of wall space, to: no, not at all. I have boxes, cupboards, beds, family, I store away art. Wall space an issue! What a question!

Do you collect other things besides art? Yes, tribal artefacts. Not really, but I suppose I quite enjoy vintage wines ... and I share my apartment with fifteen Maine Coones. Yes, Victorian jewelry. Sure, I buy signed editioned books by contemporary artists. No. Art is a consuming hobby, if I collected anything other than art, I might have to give up my day job. My wife might not like that.

So, are there conclusions to be drawn from these conversations? 

Only that, if you are thinking of venturing into the world of collecting contemporary art, but are uncertain why, what and how, you may as well go right ahead and enjoy. Collect whatever you fancy. Take heart from the words of someone who knows, Charles Saatchi: There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good. Artistís dung can be good. Oil on canvas can be good. Thereís a squad of conservators out there to look after anything an artist decides is art.

  text © vgallery cc 2006 worldwide
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