Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Searching for the money tree — part one

The Chinese myth of the money tree
public domain (source)
Art collecting, whether by public institutions or private collectors is thoroughly intertwined with economic realities. Investors, during difficult times, are often advised to diversify and sometimes this diversification takes the form of buying very expensive works of art. Worries about repatriation, legal ownership and export bans can further increase the market value of objects considered safe from such problems. It does, however provide opportunities for the purchase of very minor works by collectors who have little money to spare and either cannot afford to buy such "safe" objects, or are trying to put together a proper collection for study or scientific purposes. What such collectors lack in their bank accounts is often made up for by the knowledge that they possess. I remember one young man in London who started to collect old master drawings at the time when you could find minor examples of such for a few pounds in shops such as Folio Fine Art. I used to subscribe to their catalogues. They are no longer in existence and I know of no equivalent today. This should not come as a surprise to anyone in the know: at that time, a Basan edition of a Rembrandt print was not considered important enough to mat, let alone frame. When they started to sell for about a thousand dollars, people jaws dropped — take a look at the current prices. The collection of drawings started by that young man eventually fetched a huge sum at auction. The market had dramatically changed.

At fifteen years old, even minor old master drawings were beyond my means and like many young collectors, I had started collecting "multiples", which are objects like coins, stamps and prints (save for monotypes). With me it was Greek coins (including Celtic), and minor artifacts that were originally produced in large numbers that most interested me. It never upset me that I could not afford the Athenian black-figure amphora displayed in a window at Spinks, but it did bother me when I saw something just slightly out of my reach, like a first century marble head of the emperor Galba which was about five inches high and was priced at fifty pounds in Portobello Road.

I bought, for ten shillings at Seaby's, a lump of corrosion surrounding a Celtic billon stater of the Coriosolites from the Le Catillon hoard and twenty years later I started to reclassified the series and this culminated in my book being published by Archaeopress at Oxford as part of their British Archaeological Reports (International Series 1092, 2002). the time from the purchase of the stater to the publication of the book about them was thirty seven years (Well, I was doing many other things as well, and I have never even applied for any grant for a study). The  fact remains, however, that without the purchase of that ten shilling coin the series would not have been reclassified. I had to create my own working method to reclassify these coins, as they had mostly been stolen from the Jersey Museum without the usual die-linking studies being published in full. I developed an art-historical method based on evolutionary cladistics that had very little chance of being subjective. It was the first study of its type applied to an archaeological subject, and (forever reinventing the wheel), I had never even heard of evolutionary cladistics at the time. Of course, when you reinvent the wheel, you might do it differently. The same was true about my expert system (or quick identification chart, as I originally called it, having never heard of expert systems before Bob Van Arsdell identified it as such).

Some of the best collectors, and that includes some who really advance the subject of their interest are not wealthy at all. Often, their passion for what they collect takes first place above financial goals, and this makes sense if you really think about it. Those making a lot of money are often far too busy doing that to spend too much time on their hobbies. When we had our business, there was virtually no time for my other interests at all. The private collector also has to sometimes adjust the amount of their purchases to fit with the more pressing demands of work and family. This all goes unnoticed in the press and there is still a vision of the collector being the sort of person the press does notice after spending millions at an art auction.

In deference to this lack of perception about collectors, I will continue this series tomorrow with some thoughts about the most recent high profile auction sale: the sale of the statue of Sekhemka by the Northampton Museum which has received a temporary export ban.

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