Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Art of Collecting Art

Isn't the whole point of things, beautiful things, that they connect you to some larger beauty. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

I am an art collector and I am an artist. Those are two identities that I claimed with a bit of self doubt at one time in my life. First came the title artist. As a child, being an artist was one of three potential chosen professions. But being an art collector; hadn’t crossed my mind until years after I had begun to collect art. Like calling myself an artist, thinking of myself as an art collector somehow seemed too high blown for someone like myself raised in a working class family from Iowa. Both the title artist and art collector beg the question of definition. Being an artist is easier to define, whether we are talking professional or amatuer, an artist is someone who makes art. But then does it follow that an art collector is someone who collects art? Of course that is the case. But I think what is even more important is to differentiate  an art collector from someone who buys art simply for decoration. An art collector is someone who loves art. Whether it is the beauty or the perfection of design or a myriad of other emotionally and intellectually scintillating effects, the work of art sets the heart afire. The pulse increases, the air you breath somehow seems lighter and more invigorating. As Donna Tartt's character in The Goldfinch says,

A really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles in ways that are unique and very particular, 'yours yours I was painted for you?'

Historically when I've purchased art, it was not something I expected to do at that time. In fact when I have gone looking to purchase, intentionally from an artist, I've rarely done so. For example, I was at an art opening of artist Stephanie Molstre-Kotz and had made the circuit around the gallery to see her art. I thought it was very nice but nothing particularly hit me. About a half hour later I was standing talking to another attendee looking over the shoulder of this person and I semi-consciously saw one of the paintings, a nude lying on her side that I had seen earlier. But this time it hit me, wow! That's's great! I have to have it. Another time, I was at an artist’s reception for a group art exhibit. The artists were asked to talk about their work and while Richard Brown, a sculptor, was talking about his work I suddenly realized that I had to have one of his sculptures in the exhibit.  I felt anxious and was concerned that someone else was thinking like me and would purchase it before I could, before he even finished his ten minute talk. Irrational I know, but those are the sorts of impulses that drive my collecting.  Another time I saw one of Derek Davis’s paintings online, on facebook!  It made me feel something...more than simply being impressed with his skill, the image struck me; the way the light of the winter day refracted off the fallen tree so crisply and the cool and warm shadows that were cast onto the snow.  I had to have it.  It was the perfect melding of mind and body response. Entirely positive.  Again, Donna Tartt describes the phenomenon,

Images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flowers. Images that open up some much larger beauty.

There are many types of art collectors and many different reasons and methods. Some more planned and intentional, others more economically driven and another more driven by emotion. As varied as humans are they can range from the famous art collectors such as J. Paul Getty to the humble art student who trades with her fellow  student for works of art.  Interestingly, a collector like Getty actually manipulates the art market simply through the act of collecting art. A piece of art that finds itself in such a vaulted collection can easily double in value simply by the association with such a highly respected collection. The provenance of the painting is golden!

Provenance is everything when it comes to the economic and sometimes emotional value of a piece of art and provenance includes many things but especially the history of the painting, from its creation through its sales history.  Even the title of the work of art is important in its provenance.  Two paintings being equal; the painting with a title is worth more than the one without.  And too, an interesting history, a unique story associated with the story can also have a positive influence on the value of the work of art; for who doesn’t love a good story. The veracity of a good story is important and of course, proof of provenance includes bills of sale and additional associated records. Below is a list compiled by myself and  Art Business News of recommended documentation to include with an art sale and painting records.

* Receipts, certificates of authenticity and other relevant written or printed materials.
* What the art means or what its significance is, either according to the artist or to the gallery that sold it to you.
* Date and place of creation.
* Any stories the sellers/artist tell you specifically relating to the art.
* Any memorable moments about making the purchases.
* Biographical and career information about the artists.
* How or why or any other information about the ways the artists made them.
* Materials and methods of the work.
* Exhibition history of the work
* Save all related books, exhibit catalogues, gallery brochures, reviews and the like.
* Whenever possible, photograph the artists who you collect, especially photograph the artist with the art. Have them sign or inscribe catalogues or gallery invitations for you.

Another distinguishing feature of a good collection is its intentionality or focus.  Is there a theme or a purpose to the collection. A theme may include such things as winter paintings, a certain subject rendered in various media, such as trees, or marine subjects such as the Minnesota Marine Art Museum is centered around.  Or maybe you are intrigued by a certain school of work such as the Northwest US glass artist’s movement.

A collection can be organized in many ways including by date, artist, style, or region. Or it can also be divided into subtopics. For example:
* Pepin County Wisconsin artists organized by date.
* Still life painting of Pepin County artists.
* Still life painting of Pepin County artists including  native trees, plants and other forms of vegetation.
* Nineteenth century paintings of Pepin County artists.
* Modernist painting by Pepin County artists.
* Small format paintings of Pepin County artists organized by size.
* Watercolors of Pepin County artist.

Collecting art can also be an intellectual exercise.  If you don’t personally know the artist, research the artist and their sales history.  A well organized collection can often be more valuable as a whole than the sum of the individual works.  One new art collector was told by the great collector Chandler Coventry to try and amass as many diverse pieces by an artist as possible, and these include incongruous works, so by the time your collection is mature, you have depth and breadth.

Head and heart. Someone once said that when you look at art that moves you, you see it with your eyes but that it goes directly to the heart, bypassing the brain.  Another says, ‘it’s like falling in love’, which may be the closest to the truth yet.


Donna Tart, (October 2013), The Goldfinch, Little Brown and Company, Art Provenance: What it is and how to verify it. Art Business News, How to Collect & Buy Art, Art Business News