When businesspeople ask me whether they should invest their money in art, my first response is always: “No. Try real estate. Or, even antique cars… or antique jewelry.”
If they insist – as they often do-, I ask them how many years do they have to allocate to art collecting, and how much money to play with?
Play? What is this a game?
But, of course.
Art collecting is a play. A passion play. And, the collector is the main character in it. S/he is the playwright, the director and the star of their play and their curator or advisor – if they are sensible enough to hire one – is their stage manager.
Remember: “An art collection is the aesthetic manifestation of a collector’s innermost vision of his or her world. A collection is the very physical embodiment of your, the collector’s, aesthetic view on life. Even if you are a pure mathematician – that is a scientist of pure mathematics -, you must trust that your artistic sensibilities are as valid as that of any other art-lover. If you haven’t spent enough time cultivating them, yours may need more fine-tuning than some, but they are equally legitimate. In fact, this is why the need for engaging the expertise of a well-trained and experienced curator-consultant is necessary.”
Collecting is also a game the way pure mathematics is a game.
“Theoretical (or ‘pure’) mathematics is the study of the basic concepts and structure of mathematics. Its goal is to arrive at a deeper understanding and an expanded knowledge of mathematics itself.” (MIT)
Anyone with any interest in the history of mathematics knows that it takes a long (very long) time for mathematical theories to manifest themselves in their applied form.
The same is true of formulating an art collection.
Art collecting is something like: pure mathematics meets aesthetic game theory.
This is a beautiful thing.
So, what’s the problem?
Considering our fabulously utilitarian culture in which anything that does not have applicable and immediate use is considered valueless, it is important to take into consideration the long-term affects of patronizing culture productions. Or, to put it simply, think long and hard about how and what you are going to collect.
In recent years, what has happened is that too many hailing from the financial sector are now engaging in the management of art and cultural markets.
There is nothing new about a society’s financial elite influencing, or manipulating – depending on one’s choice of words – the ebbs and flows in the art market. As I have said before, “No great body of art in any period in the history of humanity has ever been created, preserved and promoted without the patronage of a group of well-informed benefactors.”
However, in no other period in history have so many from the financial sector embarked on managing the art market. Historically speaking, the breadth of their influence has, until recently, been limited to serving on the boards of museums and cultural centers…
In response, that is, in their attempt to connect with the financial elite, the art world is struggling to adapt the language of business as its primary mode of communication. In the case of the art market, the aim of communication is, obviously, to sell cultural goods.
In any case, this is one of the primary reasons that flowcharts and algorithms are taking over the art world – a trend that is particularly relevant to the rapidly growing online art market – the subject of my next post: Advice on Collecting (part v): Art in Cyberspace.
Flowcharts and algorithms are, of course, used to create the illusion – as most things in the art market are about illusions – of clinical objectivity. After all, “Numbers don’t lie” in exactly the same way, “All art appreciates with time.”
Personally, I belong to the school of, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts (Albert Einstein).”
The main problem with these indices that are formulated to appeal to new business-minded art buyers is that they withhold a series of critical points from their configurations. After all, almost always, the only people who produce these charts are those who, in some way or another, benefit from their creation as enticing tools for art buyers – consultants; auction houses; print or online publications whose primary source of funding are online art sales and services, not journalism…
Here are a few very basic criteria that are often systematically eliminated from these captivating charts:
1. The term (& concept of) art does not refer to just any art – certainly not the tens of thousands of objects that exchange hands every year in the contemporary art market, alone. Very specifically, art refers to objects by the top 500 (or, more like 200) performing artists whose work is valued at millions of dollars, and which have a global collector base of several hundred individuals, at most.
2. Art market indices are based on prices of works that are :
a) sold - not the notable percentage that failed to sell
b) at auction, only - not ones that exchange hands via private dealers, art consultants, online, artists, and even private sales through auctions which comprise the biggest percentage of sales in the market;
c) and, not necessarily ones that exchange hands between different collectors - that is, not ones that are bid against by their own owners(!) to increase the value of similar objects in their possession.
3. Art market indices do not take into account perpetual and dramatic market fluctuations for works by even the most prominent artists.
4. Art market indices are diluted by the inclusion of black swan-type auction prices through the sale of, literally, a handful of the top 10 highest grossing sales, e.g. Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud that sold for $142.2 million at Christie’s New York, in November 2013.
* The primary effect of these black swan transactions on the market is the adrenaline (feel-good) rush that they induce in new and established dealers and buyers.
5. Indices exclude forgeries which according to some industry estimates comprise up to 50% of objects in the (pre-contemporary) art market. I personally believe that that figure is far too high and a more acceptable estimate would hover around 25%.
To be clear, I am rather fond of both the aesthetics and the mathematical configurations that make up flowcharts, algorithms & other visual diagrams. In fact, the more fabulously intricate they are the more I get a thrill out of trying – playing or gaming – to decipher them. But that is only if they are authentically complex and present genuine challenges to one’s aesthetic and intellectual senses. The fact of the matter is that big data analytics that are designed to predict the future do NOT apply to the extremely (I am not exaggerating) volatile art market.
So what do you do if you want to embark on the sublime adventure of collecting? Listen to Jeffrey Katzenberg … in my Advice on Collecting (part i).
In the meantime, you can listen to John Hagel and John Seely Brown of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge discuss “why this notion of so much information can actually add to less certainty.“