Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The strange case of the Syracusan dekadrachm ― part nine

Frans Francken III, 1581-1642
A collectors cabinet, oil on panel,
Collectors have been looking for bargains since the first antique shops and auction houses opened their doors. It seems to be only the very wealthiest collectors who are not driven by the idea of finding such bargains. Such people often like to pay record prices for things for reasons of status. The legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen would even refuse to buy a painting if the price was not high enough:
"A titled Englishwoman had a family portrait to sell. Duveen asked her what she wanted for it. Meekly, she mentioned eighteen thousand pounds. Duveen was indignant, 'What?' he cried. "Eighteen thousand pounds for a picture of this quality? Ridiculous, my dear lady! Ridiculous!' He began to extol the virtues of the picture, as if he were selling it ― as, indeed, he already was in his mind ― instead of buying it. A kind of haggle in reverse ensued. Finally, the owner asked him what he thought the picture was worth. Duveen, who had already decided what he would charge some American customer ― a price he could not conscientiously ask for a picture that had cost him a mere eighteen thousand pounds ― shouted reproachfully at her, 'My dear lady, the very least you should let that picture go for is twenty-five thousand pounds!' Swept off her feet by his enthusiasm, the lady capitulated."
          S. N. Behrman, Duveen, London, 1953

When Duveen's customers were getting rather old, he was worried that their heirs might sell off their collections at prices far lower than he had originally charged. He encouraged them to build museums (in their names) and to leave their collections "to the nation". He thus avoided a "bubble-burst". For a long time after his death, important Old Master paintings were one of the best art investments to be had. I remember reading (in the eighties) that this category of art was realizing annual interest rates of 25%!

Most collectors, though, love a bargain. It is not a matter of being cheap or greedy, it is all part of the game. Collectors, who are not billionaires, boast of getting something for a song. The super rich boast about paying more than anyone. If you attend an important opening at a gallery, you will notice that most of the elite in attendance will be huddled together in small groups, sipping their wine and talking of their last world cruise. The paintings are mostly neglected. Important exhibitions are only usually seen where the wealthy congregate. There are even countries who cannot afford to host such exhibitions as they cannot attract enough ticket sales.  These exhibitions are not about education or encouraging the spread of culture ― they are social gatherings. Many museums perpetuate this exclusivity by high prices for tickets and by charging exorbitant rates for reproduction rights.

The private collector, contrary to the image of someone sipping brandy in their vault while gazing at a lost masterpiece, is usually a person of rather limited means and with a far more democratic philosophy about sharing their collection with the world. But it is not just about sharing data, as I and many other collectors do with our websites and blogs. We also like to share the stories as well. Most items in a collection have a story that goes with them and sometimes the story can be more interesting than the object. Collecting, like any culture, develops in its own way. Too bad that many extraverts see only the object. Besides stories, such as this one, about finding something genuine labelled as a fake, the eye of the collector is always reflected in the collection. Museums too often neglect this aspect of their collections ― individual collectors, and their own culture, can get lost when everything is lumped together in museum collections and the stories can be lost for ever.  

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