Rocky Mountain High: The Meaning of "Top Collectors"
Over the weekend, I was asked if I’d ever heard of a billionaire named Les Wexner, on the basis that he is allegedly one of the world’s top art collectors. I admitted that I hadn’t. But I was less curious about Wexner himself than about where this declaration about his exalted standing in the arts came from, because it’s another example in a much larger pattern I’ve been noticing.
These laurel wreaths for “top collectors” seem to be getting handed out more and more often by more and more sources as the art market expands its presence in pop culture. Most recently, ARTnews released the 2014 edition of its annual 200 Top Collectors list. However, you can find about as many other ad hoc hierarchies as you might want if you fire up your favorite search engine. Everyone from the luxury class research firm Wealth-X to Wikipedia to The Hollywood Reporter has put together power rankings of one kind or another, and for surface-level context, phrases like “one of the world’s top art collectors” get passed around in the press like a skunky joint at a college house party.
But what does this magical epithet actually mean? Turns out it depends on who you ask. The ARTnews list measures the “most active” collectors of the year–the people who bought more work than anyone else based on an informal survey of the industry. The Wealth-X rankings reflect total estimated monetary value culled from whatever knowledge their net worth sleuths have managed to uncover about what’s actually inside the collectors’ vaults. The Hollywood Reporter is The Hollywood Reporter, which is to say that reputation reigns supreme over any attempt at hard (or for that matter, soft) data.
I’m equally uncomfortable with every method. Outspending your peers doesn’t mean that you’re collecting intelligently, either in the work you’re choosing or the prices you’re paying for it. If anything, being the “most active” makes you the most vulnerable.
Amassing a collection with the highest aggregate monetary value seems nice. But as I’ve written many times before, fine art values are essentially a campfire story that we in the industry collectively agree to believe, even if we can’t agree on the specifics. Is Leonardo’s recently re-attributed Salvatore Mundi worth $80M or $200M? Is the total value of the Detroit Institute of Art's collection $867M or $8.5B? Was the escaped convict’s hook an actual prosthetic or just a weapon he grabbed from the prison’s kitchen before he tried to ambush those crazy kids necking in the woods? It’s all true. Some of it’s true. None of it’s true.
And as for reputation, projecting an image of greatness is no guarantee of actual greatness in any sphere of existence, especially today’s art market. In reality, all of these different metrics are about reputation: collectors who have bought a lot recently, collectors who have bought a lot historically, collectors who we think are likely to buy a lot soon. Given how much of the art market turns on relationships and back room gossip, there’s an argument that reputation is in fact the best tool for sifting the “top collectors” from the rest.
Except that some very serious, very wealthy, very active art collectors take great pains to function in secrecy. And if gallerists and dealers want to remain as their beneficiaries, they know to keep their mouths shut when publications come knocking for answers about this question.
In that sense, the “top collectors” are really the ones with the loudest and most persistent PR machines–the people who want to be known, whether for ego, social currency, or bigger discounts the next time they sashay onto a sales floor. The billing has little to do with collecting thoughtfully, with building cohesive holdings that reflect personal taste or an actual point of view, with promoting anything more substantive in the arts than the bottom lines of some prominent salesmen.
It might not seem as though there are any tangible stakes attached to the use (or misuse) of this designation. But whether someone is pumped as a “top collector” or not, and by whom, tells a story about where we are right now in the arts. However the lists are determined, they codify the people most emblematic of the current state of the art market–which is increasingly the current state of the arts as a whole. They are the collectors we most deserve. And from that perspective, the term and the lists compiled from it may have more meaning than the rest of us want to believe.