I often encounter a perception among my peers that building an art collection is a pursuit limited either to those who are elderly and of inherited wealth, or new-money types who need to spend as much as they can on whatever they can. However, an interesting bit of news about a new art foundation may provide us with an excuse to think about what an art collection is really about, and why you should consider forming one. It is not so difficult, or expensive, as you may think, and can prove extremely rewarding in many respects.
This morning the art world is a-flutter over the news that the late, reclusive mining heiress Huguette Clark, who died in May at the age of 104, has left a substantial fortune approaching $400 million to create a foundation “for the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the arts.” Mrs. Clark also made a bequest of an important example of Claude Monet’s “Waterlily” series to the Corcoran here in Washington. She specified that her beautiful estate in Santa Barbara, California (where she had not set foot in nearly 50 years), be turned into a museum to display her art collection.
Because Mrs. Clark was so secretive and private a person, we are only sketchily aware of the art she owned at the time of her death. In addition to the Monet that she donated to the Corcoran, we know that she owned paintings by such important artists as John Singer Sargent, Auguste Renoir, William Merritt Chase, Edgar Degas, and Vincent Van Gogh. The bulk of the Clark collection had been formed by her father, Senator William Clark, and donated to the Corcoran upon his death, where there is an entire wing dedicated to it. His daughter seems to have preferred establishing her own museum rather than sending the last bits of the collection to DC, apart from the solitary Monet.
There are aspects to the Clark case that read like a cross between the classic documentary “Grey Gardens” and the Bette Davis potboiler “The Old Maid”. However I would like the reader to think a bit more about the Clark art collection, or what remains of it. Note that the aforenamed artists were not Old Masters living several centuries before Mrs. Clark, but rather painters whose working periods covered the later 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, Mrs. Clark’s collection featured the work of artists who became active at most a couple of decades before her birth in 1906, and some of whom were still alive and painting when she was a young woman. It was a world that was more familiar to her than one which existed during the Renaissance or Baroque eras, and it was one that she must have personally liked, given that she had the wherewithal to collect anything she wanted.
Now it is true, of course, that most of us in our 20’s and 30’s are not in a position where we can go to an art gallery or auction house and bid on a painting by the great American artist James McNeil Whistler, much as we may like his work. However, what about acquiring an etching by him for $425? Similarly, even if you never own a sculpture by the most prominent of all British modern sculptors, Henry Moore, and wish that you could, perhaps $700 is not too much to pay for a study by him.
Even this may even seem a bit too intimidating of a price point for someone starting out, with a limited disposable income, to begin an art collection – particularly if you are not familiar with art history and the work of two such very different artists. And that is perfectly fine, dear reader. The pleasure of collecting art, as all connoisseurs come to discover, is both the hunt and what you learn along the way. We all have to start somewhere, and the best advice, as I see it, is to take a two-pronged approach toward art collecting.
First and most importantly, buy what you like. The reason the contemporary art market is so flooded with appallingly bad art – apart from the decline of Western civilization into a moral relativist barbarism – is because too many people with more money than sense are being told by the black turtleneck brigade that they *must* like something, in order to be considered cultured, educated, hip, or what have you. Suffice to say, experts know many things, but they can often be wrong.
There is certainly a place in the world for experts whom private collectors and public institutions consult regarding the purchase of works of art. Yet even if you get to the point where you are so well-to-do that you can afford to collect very expensive art, you are going to be like Elmer Fudd in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon with the word “Sucker” printed across your forehead if you fail to develop your own taste and appreciation before you get to said point. The more you learn, the better and more informed the choices you will make.
Second, buy the best art that you can afford. If you can only afford to spend $25 on a print that you like at a local flea market or regional art fair, then make sure that you are getting the best $25 print that you can for your limited funds. Once you come to appreciate a particular type of work, you will gravitate toward work by that artist, those like him, technique, era, or subject matter. Indeed, subject matter alone is an infinitely vast area for the new collector to consider: New England seascapes, fashion illustrations, abstract compositions, portraits of military officers, etc. As you find works that you like, you will become more familiar with what these types of works are supposed to cost, and whether you are considering for purchase a work that is well-priced, whether it is a bargain, or whether it is overpriced.
This combination of self-education and buying the best that was available enabled Mrs. Clark (and her father before her) to accumulate a remarkable group of paintings. And yes, gentle reader, you and I can do the same, even if not to the same scale. Certainly I for one would love to have a Degas hanging in the stairwell at the manse, but as that remains an unlikely proposition, I will stick for now to what I do collect. I do so out of love for both the pleasure of the hunt, and the educational experience it provides. Why not challenge yourself to do likewise?