The Art Of Collecting Well: Two Americans Make A Major Gift To France

​The Art Press has been aflutter the last few days following the announcement that Americans Spencer and Marlene Hays have donated their entire collection of French art to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. At present, 187 works have been sent to the museum, and the remaining works will be sent after they couple have passed on. Currently, the Hays own over 600 works, which decorate their homes in New York and Nashville, but as they are apparently still collecting, I suppose the final total could well be even more. It is the largest single gift by any foreign donor to a French museum since World War II.

The Hays, I was touched to read, have been married for 60 years, and came from humble beginnings in Gainesville, Texas. Mr. Hays began building his business empire as a student in the 1950’s, by selling educational books such as college preparatory exam guides, door to door. He gradually rose to own the company, along with developing business interests in sports, communications, and clothing retail.

The couple made their first trip to Paris in 1971, and immediately fell in love with French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They began collecting French art, and have slowly and carefully built an impressive collection. The cache includes a dozen works by Bonnard and nearly two dozen by Vuillard, as well as pieces by Caillebotte, Degas, Derain, Fantin-Latour, Maillol, Matisse, Modigliani, Redon, Rodin, and many others. One of the most evocative works in their collection is the lovely “Girl In White (La Princesse de Ligne)” by Paul César Helleu, pictured below.

Interesting as this collection is, there is a bigger takeaway from this story than simply a news item about these works of art going into a public collection.

Regular readers know, since I tell you often enough, that the best way to get to know about art is to plunge, in feet-first, and learn all you can about the art that you feel drawn to. As the Hays themselves have pointed out, they were amateurs when they started out. They were not people who studied art history at university, or grew up in luxurious homes filled with art. In fact, they did not grow up with any money at all, let alone near any great art museums.

Rather, they both became interested in art, and began teaching themselves all they could about it. Once their circumstances had improved to the point that they were able to purchase the kind of works that they liked, they did so carefully and quietly, rather than making splashy purchases for show. They liked what they liked because THEY liked it, whether or not anyone else did. Theirs is a collection built out of love, not out of a desire to impress the Joneses.

As a final note, what a great example the Hays have given to others, particularly in our extremely greedy and selfish age, that since you can’t take it with you, the best way to share your love for beautiful art with others is to give it away.

Art Falling Apart: Hidden Costs for the Contemporary Art Collector

As anyone with common sense is aware, much of today’s contemporary art market is populated with works that are eye-poppingly overpriced, let alone horribly clichéd. Collectors are paying astronomical sums of money to dealers and auction houses for works which were only created within the last few years, by artists whose long-term prospects remain, at best, uncertain. Such purchasers are largely engaged in a money game, hedging their bets that a piece which they purchase for $10 million today, will be worth $50 million five years from now when they re-sell it, or donate it to an art institution for a tax write-off. Yet now comes a new entity known as the Art Preservation Index, which is creating quite a buzz about a budding problem for these collectors, apart from the obvious one of their terrible taste: one which has largely been ignored or swept under the rug by the art market until recently.

Unlike more “traditional” materials – canvas, wood, stone, etc. – many contemporary works of art are created using non-traditional materials and methods. This experimentation is part of the art, as it were, but to the uninformed collector, it is also a potential minefield. Whereas an oil painting can last for centuries when properly cared for, many modern materials begin to disintegrate relatively soon after they have been employed in the creation of a work of art. The person or entity that commissioned a portrait painting or sculpture in 1700 reasonably expected that the object would last forever, or at the very least for many, many years. What is the reasonable expectation now, for a portrait or sculpture created in 2015 using non-traditional, untested materials and methods, whose long-term viability remains to be seen?  

The argument can be made that the more ephemeral nature of many pieces of contemporary art is part of the story being told by the artist. However, one wonders whether most art collectors, paying millions of dollars for objects which may well cease to exist within their own lifetimes, are being properly informed about the situation that they are getting themselves into by collecting such works. Perhaps as collectors, they are drawn to the idea of art as investment, i.e. anticipated resale profits, or as a form of liquidity. Perhaps they are drawn to the feeling of excitement and enhanced social standing which a savvy art dealer or auction house can evoke through the sale of a major work of art, and they are unconcerned with the long-term preservation of the art which they are purchasing. The rule of caveat emptor – buyer beware – applies to art sales just as it does to the sale of other goods, but of course the price tag in question is considerably more than that for a used car or a second-hand washing machine.

People have always traded in art as a commodity, just as people have always collected art because it makes them feel like they have one-upped their neighbors. Yet what has changed, in addition to the decline of standards in content and execution, is a corresponding decline in many instances of the understanding and use of materials to create works of permanence. In the past and still today, when a collector purchases a painting by Rembrandt, or a sculpture from Ancient Egypt, they anticipate that such works will endure well into the future, given that such pieces have already survived for centuries. Today, in many instances, the works accumulated by a contemporary art collector face a very uncertain future, to say nothing about the publicly-funded institutions which subsequently add these works to their permanent collections.

In art history, one of the complaints leveled against Leonardo da Vinci even during his own lifetime was his deviation from tried-and-true methods in the creation of his art, often with disastrous results. For all of his unquestioned genius, a review of Leonardo’s existing artistic output reads like a catalogue of failures: paintings that failed to stick to walls, bronzes that could not possibly be cast, projects taken up and never completed, etc. Today, we excuse the limited quantity of his artistic output, by focusing on the quality of those works which he did complete.

One wonders whether, centuries from now, the same excuses will be made for many of today’s contemporary artists, whose materials are often even more unstable than those employed by Leonardo, and whose work rarely if ever even begins to approach his in terms of technical study, masterful composition, and sensitivity of content.

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"The Last Supper" (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci

They Blew It: The Met Loses A Rubens

Those of us who follow the art world, even if only to a limited extent, are often dismayed to find ourselves confronted by glowing evaluations of poorly executed work. Part of the problem in this regard is the disastrously bad level of art education which most American children have been receiving in school over the past 40 years, thanks to an art establishment which seems incapable of agreeing on teaching anything of value. The problem is, the same slipshod attitude toward art history and appreciation may be having a negative influence on our artistic institutions as well.

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece discussing the fact that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to have no end of rich suitors plying her with gifts. Of course, The Met seeks to prove herself to be just as attractive to tech and media barons today, as she was to industrial titans a century ago. Yet in seeking to stay current, one wonders if she may be falling into the trap described above, spending too much time on keeping up with the youngsters, and too little on actually caring for her treasures.

For many years, The Met owned a painting supposedly by the great Peter Paul Rubens, the Dutch master of Baroque painting. The portrait of a young girl, believed to be one of Rubens’ daughters, was not hugely appreciated in its time at the museum; when an art expert decided it was not by Rubens, the Met decided to sell it, so as to gain more money and space for other objects. This is a practice known as deaccessioning, and it happens in museums more often than you might think.

When the painting went up for sale, the initial sales estimate proved to be a bit too low, because others were convinced the portrait WAS a genuine Rubens. Since being sold the piece has been restored to the listing of works by the great Old Master painter; indeed, it is now on display in the artist’s former home in Antwerp. The painting provides a fascinating, informal insight into the family life of a man who was himself larger than life, one of the most professionally successful artists who has ever lived.

This has been called “the biggest deaccessioning blunder of recent times,” and it’s not hard to see why. The fact that the museum relied on a single expert is weird enough. Also it’s not only ironic that, as the expert in the piece linked to above points out, with so much more and better technology available that a slip-up like this could occur, the fact that it did so at this level of artistic institution may also a factor indicative of decline.

The ability to tell what is good and what is bad has not only faded away from the moral lexicon used by society, it has increasingly faded away from the world of high art, as well. That is an unpopular view, of course. Nevertheless the point does need to be made, that if the powers that be at The Met were more concerned with studying and appreciating the works they already own, rather than pining for things which they do not, this likely would not have happened. Perhaps some remedial art appreciation is what’s needed up on Fifth Avenue to stop this sort of disaster from happening again.

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Portrait of A Young Girl (poss. Clara Serena Rubens)