You might have collected beetles or stamps as a child. Or you might have bought some art from local artists to support them. Or maybe you brought some art or an object home from a holiday. Or maybe you always go to your local auction house or art fair and sometimes buy and then you wonder where all these works come from and why the walls or floor space in your home is getting smaller? Or you are of a more digitally minded generation and buy art of Instagram?
Whatever it is, what is important is that you’re most likely hooked. Town and Country Magazine writer Katya Kazakina referred to it as such: as you get “bit by the art bug, you get bit”. That goes most likely for some of the biggest collectors of our time, such as Linda and Harry Macklowe as much as for someone collecting anything from toys to fans, from wine to cars and any art period in between. Much has been said about what distinguishes art buying from art collecting. Here it is important to assure everybody that there is no right or wrong way to get hooked on art. Whatever sparks your interest is something to treasure and honour, and also to trust.
What we want to look at today however is what to do when this occasional purchase turns more serious, how one can distinguish between buying and collecting and how to get started in the best possible way. This will ensure that one has both pleasure, joy, and comfort from a collection, but is also able to look after it by the best possible means so that it retains its value(s).
What is collecting?
In his 1931 essay, Unpacking My Library, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin describes a book collector. He explains how the specifics of the collector are not an appreciation of the book as a useful object, but as something beyond it, as an object that deserves to be admired and collected, as art. He writes “that for a collector… ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects”. The essence of this sentence lies in the passion that becomes apparent in the relationship between owner and object but also the responsibility that comes with owning and hence caring for objects. It is the acknowledgment, consciously or unconsciously, of this relationship what is one element of the difference between an occasional buyer and a collector. A collector won’t stop collecting only because the walls are full; often he or she aims to follow a certain objective or theme or period or artist as long and as much as possible.
This personal relationship then also determines if and how works are being re-sold – because they are not good enough anymore or if they are just treated like financial assets. It is not by chance that Jean Baudrillard famously states in “The System of Objects” (1968/1996): "For what you really collect is always yourself." Collecting should be personal. Don’t only look at your friends or neighbours or try to emulate a museum. The German collector Christian Boros once stated: “A private collection is not a better model than a museum, but it’s an important add-on. You need a museum for historical purposes—to show the best art of the decade, for example. Then you have private collections, with their mistakes, their subjective tastes.” It is that subjective taste that a collector can showcase and share.
But how do we start?
How to start collecting
1. Speaking about relationships, it is important to trust yourself, your instinct, some say your gut feelings, your likes and dislikes. It is not only important to think about if you could live with a work of art but also if you could live without it. And if you can’t – buy it. Almost all longstanding collectors do bring their advice back to instinct and passion. If you are unsure about what you like, there is only one way to find out: look, look and look more. Ideally at works in person, in museums, galleries, studios or art fairs, but also on Instagram or other social media channels from the pleasures of your own home. While the notion of connoisseurship, and the famous “eye” that auction house specialists have, is slowly falling out of fashion, there is something to be said about knowing what you look at and how to articulate this specialness you hopefully experience. The Italian collector and art consultant Elena Bondesani brings the importance of being curious to the point: “Start collecting after visiting art fairs and events in a gallery: you have to open your mind to the knowledge of the art of all times, which is always connected to political, economic, scientific factors, trends .... art is life.”
2. Be curious, but also be honest with yourself. Some people trust blue-chip art and with a limited purse might want to go for editions or prints, others do want to ensure they support the next generation of artists, go to graduate shows and be happy to be exposed to the risk, the artist might never make work again. Go with the way to purchase that sits comfortably with you. And if you feel the validation of a public auction and a resale market speaks to you, then be it. Especially in collecting areas where supply can be an issue, buying at auction is often the quickest and easiest way to establish a significant collection in a shorter period of time. If you enjoy being around artists and talking to them, learning about their work, you are probably going to enjoy the more intimate way of starting a collecting by buying works from the studio much more than the competitive bidding process in an auction. How you buy and what you buy is determined by your interests – both in relation to art but also its surrounding networks – but also by your limitations. These can be time, money, or of course space.
3. Speaking of money. You can collect on a budget. Or at least start to. While the media and auction records make it out that one needs a lot of money to establish an important collection, this is not necessarily the case. There are overlook collecting areas, where one can become a specialist, there are people with vision who have collected young artists who went a long way, or maybe you play it safe and buy mid-career artists who produce editioned work which often is very reasonably priced. Print editions from museums and galleries are a good way to start out with this. With some levels of the art market shrinking, even established galleries and auction houses as well as art fairs have more works for under 10,000 or even 5,000 Euro than you might expect. The German art consultant Dr. Sonja Lechner emphasises: “Art academies everywhere offer graduate exhibitions, in which young artists present their work. This is an ideal starting point for collectors with smaller budgets. To connect with artists from the very beginning also allows collectors to accompany the artist’s path up until they become better known. Open studios are an additional possibility to follow artistic developments in one’s own town. In my opinion the most essential element however is the contact to galleries which work with yet unknown young artists and popularize their works through exhibitions and art fairs complemented by art historical texts.”
4. Set parameters for yourself: what is your time commitment, your budget, how often do you want to buy etc. Set yourself a way, a route of what you want to achieve and maybe even think about setting yourself goals for your collection. The cultural critic Rusell Lynes once said: “There is a distinction to be drawn between true collectors and accumulators. Collectors are discriminating; accumulators act at random.” Even if the notion of a ‘true’ collector might be somewhat idealistic, having goals or other ways to try and choose what you are looking for will be an advantage as it helps you make reflective choices.
5. Educate yourself. Collecting is a journey that takes time and knowledge - and one that will inevitably include mistakes – these might be works to be disposed of at a later date or to be kept as a reminder. You train your eye and your taste through the increase of knowledge – both with frequent exposure to works of art in studios, galleries, auctions, fairs or museums, but also through reading or even following people in Instagram. As the art world gatekeepers all use Instagram as a platform, it might be a good way to ensure you are keeping up to date. But also studying the art you like, being it about artists or mediums will really help you to develop what collecting is all about.
Most collectors describe their collecting path as a process. The art consultant Gaïa Donzet advises: “Look - and speak to people, discuss things. Doing that consistently and you will shape your own taste and permanently redefine its borders. What you see today and don’t understand might be clear to you in two years or might help you to better understand or appreciate the next show you will see, ultimately you will learn what you like and why.”
As we go through life and our needs and desires changes, the same way an art collection should not be static but reflect changes as well. It takes, patience, openness, risk and will reward the collector hopefully on this path. One anonymous collector stated: “In my view, the word collector is a sacred word, and before you can call yourself that you have to do five things: collect, conserve, research, publish and exhibit… The point is, we do it for the rest of humanity”.
Written by ARTE Generali author Stephanie Dieckvoss
Tiqui Atencio: Could have, would have, should have: Inside the World of the Art Collector. Art Books London 2016.
Venezuelan Collector Atencio uses her own experience as a collector and interviews with many other collectors to write an enjoyable guide through the pains and pleasure of collecting.
Louisa Buck and Judith Greer: Owning Art. The Contemporary Art Collectors Handbook. Cultureshock Media 2008.
Co-written by writer Louisa Buck and collector Judith Greer this is one of the original bibles of collecting. It aims to guide people in the process of purchasing and owning contemporary art and is still worth a read.
Mary Rozell: The Art Collector’s Handbook. The definitive Guid to Acquiring and Owning Art. Lund Humphries London 2020
A recent, very extensive guide with lots of resources for all elements around collecting, including legal and financial elements.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, London: Pimlico, 1999, p. 69.
 Russell Lynes. Life in the slow lane: observations on art, architecture, manners, and other such spectator sports. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p. 7.
 Tiqui Atencio: Could have, would have, should have: Inside the World of the Art Collector. Art Books: London 2016, p. 20.