Collected Wisdom

Letters to a Young Collector

I’ve been collecting since I was a boy and have worked my way through many a collection over the years. In the process I’ve sought the advice of countless dealers, collectors and curators. Often, the counsel has been of a generic nature; well-intentioned but pithy truisms like “buy the best you can” and “work with someone you trust.” Once in a while, though, I’d get a pointed piece of advice that would stick with me. One of the more memorable pearls was “Buy Fish.” The dealer, whom I unfortunately no longer recall, followed with an explanation that the best way for a budget-conscious collector to get value was to find an artist you like and then try to obtain a very strong example of their work depicting a subject that might not have such broad appeal (in this case, I believe the example was a fish still life by William Merritt Chase). Of course, that presumes that you don’t mind looking at a fish still life! But the idea – even if not universally applicable – holds some water. In that spirit, I have tried to come up with some of my own, rather specific suggestions for those first entering this sometimes opaque world of collecting. The idea of nurturing the enthusiasm of young collectors holds a place of importance to me as I, myself, have been the beneficiary of so many patient mentors. Collecting is a very personal endeavor and one learns, above all, by looking, making the leap and then learning from those experiences. Still, sharing some collected wisdom accrued over the years may render the leaps a little more sure-footed.

Dream of Kunstkammers: The marginalia of my youth was cluttered with sketches of imagined collections that were part flight of flancy, part meditative focus. In the selection of objects was the art, in the arrangement was the science and in both parts was the fun. The collector accrues discipline through arranging and rearranging in the mind. In this light, it is instructive to come up with your ideal theoretical collection every couple years. If nothing else, it’s amusing to look back and see how your taste evolved over time. It’s funny to me that some of the things that I wanted when I was 12 are still on the list while others have absolutely no appeal now. It provides a snapshot that helps focus your energies and also says something about you at a point in time. It also allows you to stand back and assess what it is that holds together the often disparate contents of your real and imagined collections. You’ll identify connections that may lead you to explore or build upon different aspects that you might otherwise not have done.

The Checklist Collector: This second piece of advice may seem, on first blush, to run counter to that first piece of advice: Don’t be a checklist collector. It’s one thing to make a “wish list” but another to then methodically go about getting everything on that list. Going about collecting in such a monomaniacal way tends to lead to a soulless collection when compared with those that grow organically, directed by certain guideposts but ultimately informed as much by the chance encounter and instinct. It’s the difference between, say, Washington DC and Paris. Washington is beautiful with its great monuments but feels overly planned, lacking the nooks and crannies that make Paris so much more inviting. Your collection should have its own master plan with broad avenues connecting its treasures but so too its winding alleys that have spread in a manner that only you can easily follow, tracking as it does the history of your evolving interests. Many of my favorite purchases – the ones that have stood the test of time – were never on my wish list but discovered by happenstance. There may be some very specific things that you really want for very personal reasons. Pursue them you should…but even there, take the long view since rushing to buy an X or Y to “check it off the list” will often lead to your picking a suboptimal example just to have it. Indeed, the urge to hew to very specific parameters often yields to a lower quality collection since one is tempted to buy more for name than for quality. Better to have a first rate example that took you away from your wish list than a third rate example that fits your criteria.

The Quirk Factor: I would submit that most collectors are at least a bit quirky. How else to explain the intense ruminations over things most people are happy to pass by. I think it’s nice to see a little of the individual’s quirkiness shine through in their collection. Like a bold signature, it can make an impression stronger than that made by a more “perfect” collection. Idiosyncrasy inspires contemplation. Some collections are, of course, entirely quirky but most confine themselves to some broadly acceptable category….art, stamps, watches, etc. My suggestion, should you fall into one of the more mainstream realms of collecting, is to develop a quirky niche within it…a sub-collection. Select something generally lower on people’s radar that allows you to develop a rarified expertise. It can serve as a doorway to other areas within your field. It also allows you to “feed” your collecting bug at a more modest price point as you save up for bigger but less frequent purchases within your larger and presumably more expensive area of interest. For example, say you collect the wines of Bordeaux. If that is your “major,” then try to discover your own, less collected “minor” like the wines of Jura or branch out to old restaurant menus that include wine selections. Indeed, sometimes the quirky collection becomes the focus of your energies over time. Even if it doesn’t though, the quirk factor adds to the adventures of collecting. You’ll also be surprised to discover the number of folks that share your enthusiasm for whatever obscure area you thought you might have had to yourself. Like I said, we collectors are a funny bunch.

See the Best: The art of connoisseurship is about identifying and differentiating. When it comes to quality, it implies knowledge of the gradations of quality. The best way to acquaint oneself with quality is seeing the best and working ones way down. Museums are often the repository of some of the best pieces but don’t always give a practical guide to the best items a collector might come upon. A more practical guide is to frequent the great shows like the Winter Armory show in New York, Maastricht Fine Art Fair or the small handful of great shows in whatever the given specialty might be. Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogs are also useful but there is no substitute for seeing the items in the flesh. Don’t feel intimidated to go into the fine art galleries and ask to see their inventory. Just tell them you’re a beginning collector and trying to get some advice and see some examples of what they have. Some will be curt but you’ll make a few connections that may serve you well in the years ahead. You may never be in a position to buy the best but if you know what it looks like, you’ll be much better equipped to identify the pretty-darn-good when it crops up at the local country auction house.

The Confidence Game: Fear of fakes varies according to the field of collecting but should always be weighed in an art or antique purchase of any value. It is simply an occupational hazard. Provenances are faked, genuine elements are “married” to modern ones, etc. One learns to look more astutely after one has been fooled by a fake and I confess I’ve learned more from some fakes than from some genuine pieces! But one doesn’t want to learn too often the hard way. Certainly, if you are contemplating an extremely expensive purchase or a purchase of an item commonly faked, it may be in your best interest to work with a respected advisor or well-known specialist dealer Even there, one is not inured to the possibility of purchasing a fake. Indeed, one has only to think of how many high-profile dealers have recently ended up in jail or publicly disgraced to feel wary of relying too heavily on any one advisor. I have seen the most respected curators fall prey to very fine fakes. For most modest collectors, an advisor is an extravagance and they must rely on their own due diligence along with a little faith. The old “if it seems too good to be true” adage should be heeded. It is not always the doings of unscrupulous dealers; often our own overexcitement leads us to self-deception, wanting to believe an object is a great discovery. Try not to be rushed into a purchase for fear of losing it. There will always be other things to fall in love with if that one gets away. Try if you can to find other examples of whatever it is you’re considering and hold them in your hands, turn them around and see how they’re put together. Second best to holding an example is to find comparables online, be it on 1st Dibs, Ebay, ArtNet or another source. In the end, I often ask myself the question, “If I were to discover this object was a fake or wrongly attributed, how would I feel about it?” If the answer is that I would still find it a beautiful work of art, I might go ahead with it anyway and live with the uncertainty. If, on the other hand, the answer is, I can’t believe I broke the bank on that piece!” then I’ll probably pass.

Balance: Finding balance in a collection can be a challenge. Collections by their very nature have a tendency to lurch forward into the future, leaving past purchases mentally behind once the thrill of the acquisition has cooled. There can be a fine line between hoarding and collecting and it is partly the ability to find meaning and balance within an assemblage of works that differentiates the art of collecting from simply amassing. Defined parameters differentiate collection from clutter. It’s thus worthwhile taking stock now and again, both to appreciate the objects you have collected over time and to put your collection into perspective. Collections and collectors need a sense of balance. Collectors that never look back tend to amass ungainly collections. In reassessing, one finds little gems one hasn’t appreciated for years alongside things that perhaps no longer resonate and should be let go. One must neither dwell on the unobtainable nor overlook the pleasures of what one possesses. And as we add, it is nice to try and work toward some kind of internal balance. This can mean any number of things, from balancing landscapes and portraits, sketches and finished works or modern and ancient pieces. Balance can be achieved by any number of subtle factors that only the collector might perceive. Collectors with this sense of self-reflection tend to put together more thoughtful and personal collections.

Expand your Horizons: In collecting as in life, we tend to fall into a predictable routine. We frequent the same dealers, antique shows or auction houses. It’s the “Cheers” principle. You’re known, you get a little added attention, a sense of camaraderie…all undeniable perks of familiarity. But your experience as a collector is necessarily stunted if you don’t make a point of branching out. Try a new restaurant now and again and you’ll eventually find a new favorite dish. Here the internet makes your task easier. Make a point of signing up for a small auction house outside your area. Try to go to a different antique show outside your immediate area. This will usually yield at least a couple new dealers who have things that appeal to you. Also, most dealers are eager to win over a new collector and will often work hard to make that first sale in hopes of gaining a client, even if it means cutting into their bottom line a little more than they otherwise might. Use that initial leverage to your advantage!

Bargains versus Values: The purchases I have most regretted in the end were the ones that were largely motivated by my perception of getting a bargain. With the occasional notable exception, most “bargains” eventually prove to be bargains for a good reason…and those are usually the hardest items to unload when you tire of them. This is different than seeking value, which implies having a certain knowledge of an items “worth.” Unless price is no object for you (and I believe it was JP Morgan who once quipped to a dealer who assumed price was no object for him that “price is always an object.”), you should certainly seek out good value. Ironically, one often finds better value in more expensive items as they are often more likely to maintain desirability over time. The very best example of any field, however humble it may seem in the big picture, will invariably appeal to future buyers in that field. I probably shouldn’t write this as a dealer, but art and antiques for the most part shouldn’t be considered for their investment potential. Sure, if you’re talking about very rare pieces and long periods of time, they can prove exceptionally profitable. But most things don’t fall into that category and even when they do, they can be notoriously illiquid and subject to commissions. So you should feel comfortable with the prospect that your purchase will bring value chiefly for its pleasure. If you bought it because you thought it was a bargain, the pleasure it provides may well prove transient and illusory.

Posted on 2011 10 04 in Moti Mentali