What makes an artist collectable?

1 01 2010

Here is a fantastic article that has been forwarded to me from a NY-based friend.

What makes an artist collectable? This is a tough question to answer, and something that changes from person to person, culture to culture, and generation to generation. I can only offer my personal understanding of this complicated equation from my experience working with post-war and contemporary art in New York.

What follows is my current understanding of the factors that make an artist collectable in today’s art market. Things could be very different six months or two years from now. However, looking at historic patterns, it is possible to identify some core characteristics of collectable art and the artists who produce it. What emerges is a combination of factors pertaining to both the artist and their dealer, and it is important to consider both together when addressing collectability.

You will have to allow me to establish some parameters to the idea of collectability. Aesthetics are at the heart of this question; however, I have not been asked to address this. Rather, I will discuss the more formal nuts and bolts of the international market for post-war and contemporary art, in order to indicate some of the reasons why certain artists and artworks are more collectable than others.

A useful analogy might be for art collectors to consider analyzing the art market as investors study financial markets. Investors use analytical instruments to assist them in establishing what is and what is not investment-grade material. Similarly, art collectors should apply the equivalent art-market tools in identifying collectable art and artists.

What is a collectable artist or artwork? If you were to survey 500 experienced private art collectors as opposed to museum professionals, I suspect that you would come up with an answer that involves different combinations of the following elements: aesthetic and philosophical satisfaction, financial appreciation, and social kudos. As I mentioned, this is not a discussion of aesthetics.

Here are some pointers that might assist in identifying collectable artists and artworks. They are in no particular order of importance.

With emerging artists, education at an élite art school is an important indicator of potential collectability. More attention is paid to graduates of élite schools like Yale, Columbia, Cal. Arts, Düsseldorf, or Goldsmiths than to those from other schools. Former students have cultivated an influential support group of critics, curators, dealers, and alumni collectors, who can prove to be of lifelong use in promoting their career. Of course there are always exceptions, but when you look at the history of artists coming out of a school like Yale’s Art School, you should pay attention.

Galleries and art dealers are not all alike. Take account of those dealers who have had a great history of international success with their artists. Dealers like the late Leo Castelli, Barbara Gladstone, Irving Blum, Larry Gagosian, Andrea Rosen, or Sadie Coles clearly know more about collectable art and artists than other less successful ones. With younger dealers, pay attention to those who appear to have their finger on the pulse or are exhibiting innovative or challenging artwork. Examples of younger dealers worth watching include Toby Webster of the Modern Institute, Zach Feuer of LFL, and Andrew Kreps.

The mechanisms of marketing and distribution are extremely important too. Specifically I am referring to the presence of the artist and dealer at the right art fairs, the production of high-quality catalogues, the placement of artworks with the right collectors and museum, and the arrangement of museum exhibitions. Also, an artist who is represented by a good dealer network is important. For example, think of Jeff Koons who is represented by Sonnabend, Max Hetzler and Gagosian; or Jim Lambie who works with Sadie Coles, Anton Kern and Toby Webster.

This brings us to market intelligence; insider information is incredibly important. Talk and gossip about who is collecting which artists and why, what’s hot right now, and what’s on its way back, is important to follow so that you are up to speed with the latest trends in collecting. If several influential collectors or dealers are buying the same artist, or feel strongly about the eye of a particular critic or dealer, it is worth paying attention. Those in the know had been buying Richard Prince’s work a year to eighteen months ahead of the recent surge in his auction prices. Dana Schutz is the talk of the New York art world.

The art market is not rational; however, market factors do apply. Scarcity or the relative abundance of work by an artist is extremely important. If a large proportion of an artist’s output is placed with museums and major collectors – neither of whom are likely to sell – those available works are going to be more sought-after and valuable. The higher risk associated with emerging art results in lower prices. Similarly, high prices are set for low-risk blue-chip artists. Generally the more collectable an artist, the more expensive or difficult to acquire the work it is, unless you are ahead of the curve.

Not everything produced by an artist is of equivalent value. Different periods within an artist’s career are more collectable than others. A 1964 Frank Stella is worth twenty times that of an equivalent 1970s painting. Often fine distinctions are necessary; for example a Ferus-gallery Elvis by Andy Warhol is markedly more valuable than a studio Elvis, though both were produced at the same time. Also, the physical condition of the work is extremely important. A great deal of post-war art is made out of non-archival materials – think of the work of Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, or Robert Rauschenberg. Works by these artists in supreme condition are highly collectable, as many others will have been damaged during their years of existence. Equally, a special work with a great provenance, like the recent $104-million rose-period Picasso from the collection of John Hay Whitney, has added value.

Adopt a historical perspective. For example, try to assess the collectability of an artwork seen from two hundred years in the future. What will be the significant art of our time? What is the most challenging, confrontational, and innovative work being made today? Jeff Koons? Matthew Barney? Damien Hirst? Robert Gober? Cindy Sherman? Certain trends such as Pop art seem here to stay – for example, as Pop art’s relationship to the still-life tradition becomes more apparent. Look for historical patterns; for example, think of the relationship between the arts-and-crafts movement and the minimalism of Donald Judd. Jenny Saville continues and innovates within the tradition of figurative painting, building upon the lineage of British figurative painting in Spencer, Bacon, and Freud. There is a line of thought that suggests that Jeff Koons is the new Andy Warhol and that Takashi Murakami is the new Jeff Koons. How valid is this?

Finally, in collecting mistakes are inevitable. This need not put you off; rather you need to learn from them and keep going. For every important artwork in a major private collection, there are many, many more mistakes in storage. No one has a 100% strike record. It is commonly known that you are not really an art collector until you have a list of regrets over missed opportunities as long as your arm.

Fergus McCaffrey works at Gagosian Gallery, New York.

Article reproduced from CIRCA 108, Summer 2004, pp.31-32.

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