The Art of Collecting

Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

Since ancient times, art has been part of human existence, playing varying roles in different eras, and taking shape in new forms. Over time, individuals have derived pleasure from beautiful things and striven to acquire lavish personal collections. Art museums in the modern sense have only existed since the eighteenth century.

Long before art collecting had started in Europe, the Chinese aristocracy collected works of art, as witnessed by the rich imperial treasures of China. In Europe, the first known cases of individuals setting out to accumulate art collections were in Hellenistic Greece around 2,000 years ago. King Attalus II of Pergamon, who died in 138 BC, is well known for his collection of paintings. In due course, collecting reached Rome, becoming widespread among high-ranking Romans after the conquest of the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily in 212 BC. The wealthy and high-born of Rome were especially keen to acquire works of Greek art, by whatever means, not caring whether the object was an original or a copy. Roman military leaders were often rewarded for their victories with works of art. Such renowned Romans as the emperors Claudius I, Julius Caesar, Nero and Hadrian, and the military leader Pompey the Great, had magnificent art collections. These were regarded as excessive by many of their contemporaries, who lamented that all these beautiful works of art were hidden away from the public eye in private collections, and proposed that they should be displayed in public squares.

In the middle ages, the Church was the leading collector of works of art, which generally related in one way or another to Christianity. Churchmen did not content themselves simply with paintings and sculptures: they also collected manuscripts, precious and semi-precious stones, holy relics and a range of objects from nature. Monasteries and convents served as treasure-houses for collections of unimaginable value, ‘to the glory of God’, in the words of  the twelfth-century Abbot Suger of St Denis in France, who sought to justify himself and the Church at a time when its worldly magnificence was under attack.

As the Renaissance approached, collectors’ attitudes to art changed: they focused on acquiring works of classical Greek and Roman art, which were coming to be seen as the model for perfection in art. At the same time, the makers of the art were emerging from anonymity and beginning to sign their works. Royalty and other wealthy patrons commissioned works on a grand scale from certain artists, who thus gained international fame and fortune. The collectors and patrons of that time are often seen as the forerunners of today’s art collectors.

The seventeenth century saw the emergence of a thriving art market. European kings and princes sought to acquire the most grandiose works of art, and their collections often became tangible signifiers of their power and wealth.

By the eighteenth century the rising bourgeoisie were also collecting: prosperous financiers and industrialists, who introduced new principles to collecting. They started to collect some specific type of art, such as drawings or prints – at that time less prestigious than paintings and sculptures. Collectors also became more selective, perhaps electing to focus on a certain genre, such as still life or portraits. Art dealing flourished during that period, especially in London, where both Christie’s and Sotheby’s opened their first galleries in the late eighteenth century. As art collecting grew, and spread to a wider social spectrum, information about art was shared by collectors: catalogues of private collections were published, and reproductions of renowned works of art became available all over Europe. Collections were categorised and catalogued to professional standards, even at that time. Early in the eighteenth century German art dealer C.F. Neickel published his Museographia, the first volume of its kind about methods of classification and conservation of works of art. Later in the century, specialist art-conservation ateliers were opened in Naples, Venice, Bologna, Paris and Dresden.

During the eighteenth century increasingly vocal demands for freedom and democracy were heard, and at that time the old debate was reawakened about lack of public access to art that was hidden away in private collections. One consequence of this development was the presentation of the Medici art collection to the people of Tuscany in 1743 by Anna Maria Luisa, the last of the Medicis. At about the same time the Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna opened her collection to the public, and around 1750 King Louis XV of France felt compelled to open his art collection to the public two days a week at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris. Following the French Revolution of 1789, the royal collections were expropriated by the revolutionary government, and in 1793 the former royal palace of the Louvre in Paris was thrown open to the people as the first public art museum in Europe, heralding a new age of state art museums.

As large and impressive public museums were established all over Europe during the nineteenth century, many foresaw that the age of the private collector would come to an end; but history proved them wrong. Private collections would continue to play an important role in art history, challenging the ‘standardised taste’ of conservative public art museums and academies. The avant-garde art of the period – Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and so on – was excluded from such public art institutions. But the originality and freshness of such art was seized upon by individuals – the collectors. Hence it was often not until an artist had gained widespread acceptance that the public art galleries changed their minds about him. A striking example of this attitude to art in the nineteenth century is the story of French artist Gustave Caillebot, who decided in 1876 to bequeath to the French state the bulk of his personal collection – sixty-seven paintings, among them masterpieces by leading Impressionists. A condition of the bequest was that the works should not ‘go to an attic or a provincial museum but rather to the Luxembourg and later the Louvre’. When the bequest came into effect in 1895, the French government strenuously attempted to evade the terms of the will, and ultimately agreed to take into its keeping just thirty-eight of the sixty-seven works. Directors of French art museums clutch their heads in mortification even today when this sensitive subject comes up.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries private collectors were the clear leaders in the backing of avant-garde art. Such collectors were the first to support and defend the artists who were keenest to change the concept of art and create a new and innovative perspective on reality. Thus they played a part in the rethinking of received ideas of what constitutes art.

In the twentieth century there have been many important private collections. Most of the time, private collectors of modern and contemporary art held their art inside their own walls, but often they had a generous relationship with different public museums, to whom they would donate or lend their works. This is still the case, but in recent years there has been an increasing desire among private collectors to build and establish their own museums that can rival not only other private collections but also public museums in terms of acquisitions, exhibition making and the knowledge production around contemporary art in general. In fact, private collectors are now more than ever preoccupied with telling their own story of contemporary art. Today, we have an interesting polyphony of voices that are creating diverse micro-narratives about international contemporary art in a variety of formats, scales and structures, and eventually offering a variety of meanings for contemporary art. Some of the best known private collections of contemporary art that have been turned into a museum in recent times are the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo with the collection of Hans Rasmus Astrup, La Fondation Cartier in Paris, the Goetz collection in Munich, Joannes Dakis Foundation in Athens, The Brant Foundation of Peter Brand outside New York and The Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at Michigan State University (Eli Broad is now building a new museum in Los Angeles, which will open to the public this autumn). The French collector Francois Pinault has placed his collection in Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana in Venice and the most recent initiative is by Bernard Arnault with the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

In recent years, the western notion and language of art has become universal. This means that more and more people from all over the world are collecting contemporary art. However, despite the fact that we have seen an increasing number of art fairs and ‘visible collectors’ it has been difficult to get a full picture of the international art collecting scene. Since 2012 we have been able to consult an internet site called Larry’s List, which is based in Hong Kong and initiated by two young Germans Magnus Resch and Christoph Noe. The latest report from Larry’s List is based on twenty-five specialists in twenty different countries who have access to 27,000 sources concerning the art market and the private collector. Articles in the New York Times and Le Monde reveal some interesting figures: there are around 10,000 collectors with more than a million dollars in their bank accounts in the world, but only about 3,000 are ‘visible’. The average private collector is fifty-nine years old and 71% are men. Most private collectors are in the USA (25%) followed by Germany (8%), Britain (7%) and China (7%). The ‘emerging powers’ of China, India and Brazil are home to 15% of contemporary art collectors. The cities with the most important number of private collectors are New York (9%), London (6%) and São Paulo (3%). According to the report, the number of private art museums has hugely increased in recent years, with 350 private museums in forty-six countries. Again the USA is the leader, with forty-eight institutions. Germany has forty-five and China has seventeen, with six of them in Beijing. All the analysts agree that the Chinese will come to dominate the international art market with their collectors and probably also with their artists in the years to come.

What is a collector? And in particular, what is a collector of contemporary art? Many qualities seem common to collectors, whether the collection is of shells, stamps, butterflies or artworks. Some approaches emphasise the subjective value attached to the object, while others emphasise the importance of the accumulation and selection process. However, collectors who support art ‘in the making’ stand out as those who are participating with artists and the art scene and who are capable of ‘acting’ on the arts and contributing to the vitality of the art scene, particularly through material support, as well as contributing to the construction of artistic value.

Norway has had many outstanding art collectors. Historically speaking, the best known are undoubtedly Christian Langaard, Jørgen Breder Stang, Rasmus Meyer, Rolf Stenersen and Sonja Henie/Niels Onstad, who established the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter. All of them enjoyed the friendship and respect of artists, and they were generous patrons. In recent years the number of private collectors and corporate collections in Norway has considerably increased, most of them with a clear interest in international contemporary art. The best known of these are: Hans Rasmus Astrup, whose collection is housed at the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Christian Bjelland, Stein Erik Hagen, Rolf Arebø Hoff, Erling Kagge, Petter Olsen, Christian Ringnes, Petter Stordalen, Christen Sveaas and Morten Viskum. An increasing number of corporations have developed their own collections of contemporary art, such as DnB NOR, Sparebankstiftelsen, Hydro, Statoil, Telenor and Nordea to name just a few. However, there has been little research and discussion in Norway about the private art collectors and their relationship with the art world. People are familiar with the public art museums, the commercial galleries, the art schools and the critics, but they have had difficulty in placing the art collectors into that equation. Their role and responsibility in art history has not been widely understood or recognised. 


For this reason, the Astrup Fearnley Museet, which houses one of the most important private collections of contemporary art in Europe, has chosen to organise an exhibition of works from the private collection of Erling Kagge. It was in the early 1980s that Kagge acquired his first artwork, marking the beginning of what later grew into a spectacular collection. The Kagge collection is remarkably well-composed, each work having been chosen with unusual insight and personal judgement.  The post-conceptual works have attracted particular attention in recent years from both experts and art lovers. Most of these are of the highest quality, bearing witness to Kagge’s original perspective on international contemporary art, which has formed a subjective one-man collection. But if one tries to define or characterise the Kagge’s collection one can find certain constants. He has a tendency to collect works by individual artists in depth, mostly international post-conceptual artists who have emerged in the last ten to twenty years.

Art collecting is a passion. The collector finds a work of art, falls in love with it, and cannot let go of it. And that process repeats itself again and again. The role of the collector in western culture is complex. He explores art history in his own way, picking and choosing, taking a stance. Like the artist, the collector is his own person. It is his personal taste that determines the selection. For this reason, private collections are often far more consistent than public collections tend to be – since their decisions on acquisitions are made by committees, whose disparate views have to be reconciled. It has also been demonstrated that collectors can allow themselves to be bolder with respect to avant-garde art. Thus they tend to be closer to progressive artists and take part in the discovery of new artists. A deep understanding and a rare confidential relationship may develop between artist and collector. The strength of the collector – financial and moral – can therefore be crucial.

At all periods, private collections have been opened to the public, and hence they have had a considerable influence on the perceived cultural, artistic and financial value of the art. In addition, such private collections are the source of many of the works of art now in public collections – where they are perceived as a more-or-less inseparable part of the culture of the nation in question, almost like a law of nature. (In Norway, for instance, we have such examples as the art works offered by Rasmus Meyer to the City of Bergen, Amaldus Nielsen’s collection and Ludvig O. Ravensberg’s collection to the City of Oslo, Rolf Stenersen’s collection to the City of Oslo and to the City Art Museum of Bergen, and the Christian Langaard collection to the National Museum). So it is no exaggeration to maintain that over the centuries the judgement of a handful of people has had a formative influence on public opinion about objects of art and heritage, offering a yardstick of good taste. Hence we can say that the collector is a creator, whose discovery, selection and arrangements of works is itself a work of art.

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