The Art of Collecting

By Thaw, E. V. | New Criterion, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Art of Collecting


Thaw, E. V., New Criterion


When asked to say something about "collecting," the first thought that enters my mind is a negative one: it is not "accumulating" And a second negative: it is not "investing" What then, stated positively, is collecting? It is acquiring objects that have some relation to each other and putting those objects into the kind of order that reflects the collector's response to them. Each true collection achieves a personality beyond and apart from the sum of the objects. This personality is definable and has a value in itself. It is lost if the collection is dispersed or mutilated. (1)

All the above is true, I believe, of collections of baseball cards, beetles and butterflies, stamps and coins, and many other categories of collecting and ordering, but true only peripherally. It is the category of art collecting that concerns me here, and this is the category in which what I call "personality" is most apparent and, some how, central. I include decorative arts. The fine and the decorative arts are also most vulnerable to the accusation of appearing to be mere accumulations where the ordering function is absent or minimal. This can be noted in private collections as well as museums. True collections are never only an assembly of accidents or lucky finds, although individual pieces or sections may be so characterized.

The true art collector must have some initial instinct and preference for the field chosen. But, while instinct and taste are crucial, so is scholarship. Studying books, visiting other collections, consulting experts, learning about condition and conservation, and, generally, developing experience and expertise are also crucial aspects of the intelligent collecting of art.

All of this sounds so virtuous, so boring. What about the late John Gere, a curator at the British Museum, who collected plein air oil sketches? He is reported to have rushed away to a dealer's office in London to buy a rare sketch that his fiancee Charlotte had spotted for herself. (2)

What about that late genius of collecting, Norton Simon, who seemed to get as much pleasure from outwitting the dealers and auctioneers as from the art itself?. He would often not buy until he showed the painting to his butler, his cook, his chauffeur, or other laymen to test its "popularity quotient."

When Plato insists that the search for Beauty is allied to the pursuit of the Good, he clearly had no premonition of the art market of the last hundred years or so. The phrase "he would sell his mother to obtain that picture" has been heard in all its variations so often that the thought of collecting as a compulsion rather than as a purely rational activity certainly occurs to one. Where collecting becomes contaminated by "investing" the objects purchased for the primary purpose of sooner or later being resold at a profit, then the "personality" of the assemblage is non-existent and the sense of order among the objects is similar to the exhibitions mounted before an auction sale. Of course, good collections, with plenty of order and personality, are sometimes dispersed at auction, their catalogues, often well produced by the auction houses, serving as a similar kind of memorial to the collector's taste and skill as a museum catalogue. More often, however, an auction bearing a great collector's name is only a fragment of the whole, what remained at death or after a change of interests, or after numerous masterworks had been donated, sold, given to children, or otherwise removed from the core.

I have observed, over the years, that collectors form a kind of loose confraternity. We all tend to know one another within our geographical limits and, although we compete sometimes, we tend to support and encourage each other emotionally. We are happy when a fellow collector makes a great discovery or a great buy and have very little "schadenfreude" when he or she buys a mistake. …

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