Arts & Culture

Bidding For Glory: When Collecting Art Becomes More About Exhibiting Wealth

Is it gauche-or just an honest reflection of what we've become?
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The art world as we know it today began, in some ways, with a canceled auction. In February 1957 the sale of movie star Edward G. Robinson’s collection of Post-Impressionist paintings was preempted at the last moment by Stavros Niarchos, who bought the whole kit privately. Did Niarchos love every piece? Who knows, but he nevertheless scooped them all up for the now quaint sum of $3.5 million and installed them in his Hotel de Chanaleilles in Paris, where they remained for decades as part of the greatest museum you’ve never heard of.

The sale revealed that Little Caesar had been as accomplished and passionate a collector as he was an actor. But it also marked, in hindsight, a turning point in the history of collecting. From then on, when it came to van Gogh and Gauguin, passion wasn’t enough—art had turned into an asset class for the stratospherically rich. No longer would non-tycoons own such paintings.


Stavros Niarchos bought the entire collection of Edward G. Robinson (right) with a Rouault, a Bonnard, and a Vuillard for $3.5 million in 1957.

That event set in motion a process that has paused occasionally but never stopped, leading to record after record, right up to the most recent (and very curious) case of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s. (Who really bought it? Who would want to pay the most he or she could?)

Learning the minutiae of price and provenance is one of the fascinating sidebars to an art history education, because who owns a painting and how it is valued is a barometer of who we are as a culture at any given moment. A painting that a hundred years ago might have quietly ended up in an American robber baron’s collection by way of legendary British art dealer Lord Duveen (who excelled in prising art away from fading European aristocrats and reselling it at great profit to American industrialists) is now owned by well, somebody quite different.

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Perhaps he wears sneakers.

Art as asset class has inevitably led to art as status symbol. Have you ever live-streamed an auction? As I waited the other day to bid on something in Christie’s London evening sale, a funny thing happened. While wondering who had bought lot 14, an enormous mystical sculpture by Antony Gormley titled A Case for an Angel I, I absentmindedly looked at Instagram. And there, moments after the sale, was the sculpture—and the answer. Yusaku Maezawa had revealed himself as the buyer and posted that the work was “coming to our museum,” meaning the contemporary art museum he is building in Chiba Prefecture, Japan. It will join the $110.5 million Basquiat he bought last year.


Yusaku Maezawa poses with a Basquiat he purchased for $110.5 million.

It struck me how different Maezawa’s style is from that of great collectors of the past. Sensational auction purchases used to be shrouded in mystery, pretty much as a rule. Bids by Norton Simon in the 1960s were conducted in an elaborate physical code outlined before the sale. (“When Mr. Simon stands up, he has stopped bidding. If he then sits down again, he is not bidding until he raises his finger.”)

Thirty years before that, Andrew Mellon—whose vast collection, including van Eycks and Goyas, became the foundation for the National Gallery of Art—was so reticent he wouldn’t even talk to his dealer. (Duveen used to rehearse for these unnerving encounters by telling his valet, “You are Mellon,” and instructing him to sit on the end of his bed so the greatest salesman of the age could practice maintaining his composure as his pitches were met with stony silence.)

Sally Ganz, with her husband Victor, was one of the most fascinating American collectors there has ever been. Savvy, sincere, and completely unmotivated by financial gain, the couple amassed seminal works by Picasso, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella, all before their peaks of fame. (In 1941, Victor paid $7,000 for Picasso’s Le Re?ve, the same painting that Steven Cohen agreed to pay $140 million for in 2007—before Steve Wynn maimed it in an infamous deal-scuttling Las Vegas elbow incident.)

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The family of Sally and Victor Ganz at the Christie’s auction of their collection.

Sally told me in 1995 that the obsession with resale values in the art market had become so dominant she was “almost embarrassed to be called a collector.”

It’s true that money has a pernicious way of clouding perception and obscuring the spiritual and aesthetic value of art. But let’s not be so negative: Auctions have always been a form of theater, and the Maezawa style is playful and generous, encapsulated in his disarming statement at the time of the Basquiat purchase: “I decided to go for it.”

While Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Frick may have had the same thought while building their collections, a sense of inclusive fun was not in evidence. Maezawa is taking us all along for the ride.

Records are made to be broken, and the threshold on which we now stand is the upcoming sale of David and Peggy Rockefeller’s collection at Christie’s in May. Auctions like these have always had the power to reshape the entire market, but now they can do it in real time, right before our very eyes. Because, while it lasts, the party is on Instagram, and we’re all invited.

This story appears in the March 2018 issue of Town & Country.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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