Art is for Art Lovers: On Collecting Art for Love, Money and More

By James DelbourgoJuly 7, 2013

Art is for Art Lovers: On Collecting Art for Love, Money and More

Collecting Art for Love, Money and More by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner

Triptych image: Nan Goldin, "Shroud"

ART COLLECTING, IT TURNS OUT, is for lovers. It’s not just that the authors of Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, Ethan and Thea Westreich Wagner, are a couple, or that they joke about their acquisitions while sharing bottles of wine over dinner. Many of the noted collectors they discuss are also couples, presumably married ones, though in some cases disagreements over taste lead to divorce. There are the Nashers, Raymond and Patsy of Dallas; the Kramlichs, Pamela and Richard of San Francisco; and then there’s hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen and his wife, Alexandra, who in 2006 disbursed a cool $137 million for Willem de Kooning’s Woman III, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. They must have enjoyed their wine — or champagne — that night. But did they make love?

The question is only partly facetious. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously suggested that collecting is an erotic act driven by a regressive desire for possession. “Invariably it runs counter to active genital sexuality” and suggests “a failure to establish normal human relationships.” Collectors are people who direct their passions not toward other people but, with fanatical intensity, toward inanimate objects. Perhaps like the 17th-century Italian collector Hippolito Vitellesco, who, according to travelers’ accounts, was given to embracing and kissing his own statues, the collector caresses non-human objects that return affection in their own particular way. Or rather, Baudrillard concludes, objects reflect the love they receive “like a mirror constructed in such a way as to throw back images not of the real but of the desirable.”

What is it about art that art lovers love? This eternal mystery lies at the heart of the Wagners’ how-to guide to collecting in the world of 2013.

These New York–based art advisers offer strategies for becoming a collector of contemporary art: how to navigate what they call “the talkative art world” and develop one’s own collection. (Their credentials are totemically signaled in the book’s first of many exuberant photos: a Warhol hanging in their Soho apartment.) Collecting is an individual “adventure” that nevertheless requires mastering the art of social encounter. Interpersonal acumen and a love of society are definite pluses: the ability to mingle with what The New York Times sometimes calls “the boldface crowd.” No one the Wagners know has been able to resist Jeff Koons’s “unique and compelling personality,” for example. Learning such skills from a book seems a touch improbable, however, so one might wonder why this book in fact exists.

Anyway, here’s how you become a collector. First, you’ll need a few tens of thousands of dollars per annum, minimum, in surplus income. (If you don’t have it, stop reading now.) Always make sure you see the art in question before buying it; don’t just scan the internet. A work of art must have “wall power” (an updating, it seems, of what Walter Benjamin used to call “aura”), something that can only be felt in its presence. If possible, meet and get to know the artists to understand their work better. It may be helpful to frequent major exhibitions and fairs such as Documenta in Kassel, Germany, or even the somewhat outrageous Art Basel in Miami (don’t mind old Tom Wolfe). See as much art as possible to gain knowledge and train your eye. That way, there is a greater chance of recognizing original work when it comes along: it should just look different.

Of course, there’s so much art around in our global age that, the internet notwithstanding, no one can see it all. This is where art advisers come in: their aim is to “see through their clients’ eyes.” Perhaps most importantly — and never mind the whiff of paradox here — advisers can help you discover your own personal taste and express your individuality. Think of art collecting as finding yourself in company: “collecting with your ears,” they call it in one of many unwittingly marvelous phrases. Those lacking Steven Cohen’s budget will want to spot cheap young talent and, possibly, a cunning niche. Echoing the Borgesian encyclopedia that moved Michel Foucault to laughter (and to write The Order of Things), the authors cite collectors who specialize in contemporary China; art inspired by Marcel Duchamp; art depicting the human hand; “nude women”; square art; and blue art — yes, art relating to the color blue.


The Wagners’ tale of art collecting as a form of obsessive modern love is not exactly a story of love on the dole. You may not appreciate modern art, but modern art appreciates just the same. One evident purpose of the book, then, is to guide readers through today’s art market. In a section entitled “Art Market Trends,” the authors describe a signature auction scene, to give the reader the flavor of being there. They describe the dramatic rise in prices for 1980s photography and how this played out at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York one day in 2004. Three hundred works came under a gilt-edged hammer, selling for $9.2 million, about a third above their estimated pre-auction value. Record prices were achieved for several artists, including Cindy Sherman. The climax of the sale is the significant part. Barbara Kruger’s I shop therefore I am (a neat play on Descartes) is dispatched for $601,600, at which point the “crowded auction room burst into applause in appreciation of the record prices that evening.”

But perhaps those present were really just applauding themselves. Who was it, after all, who had just increased the value of the works in question by buying them at record prices? This is the shady magic that charges up the art world the authors inhabit, one in which “the market” is invoked with ever more Ozymandian intent as the ultimate measure of value. The buyers’ applause is a rite at once cleansing and mystifying, in which the efforts of interested investors to increase value is made to disappear — as though value were an external force that simply rises.

This is where a singular tension marks this otherwise breezy how-to book. Even as it embraces the art market, it offers a muted, even somewhat tortured lament protesting the radical monetization of art. The authors are participants in a world of extreme wealth, but they are in fact profoundly ambivalent about the coronation of the dollar as the arbiter of worth. And why shouldn’t they be? This radical monetization threatens the kind of expertise they themselves propose: expertise by way of knowledge and critical judgment of art’s historical significance.

But, for art collectors today, as the Wagners tell it, seeing is wanting and wanting means buying because buying is “a declaration of belief.” Buying is the kind of belief that counts because it can be counted: aesthetic appreciation that financially appreciates. Not the “museum as a way of seeing,” as the art historian Svetlana Alpers put it, but as a way of shopping. Shopping is how you show love, the kind that others can see. The authors quote Sotheby’s resident prophet Tobias Meyer, who stated in 2006 that “the best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.” Coming just two years before Lehman Brothers et al brought about the near total collapse of the financial system, Meyer’s statement no longer looks “so smart.” Nor do the words of another disinterested observer, Damian Hirst, who remarked of his Thatcherite patron Charles Saatchi in 2004: “[H]e believes he can affect art values with buying power.”

To assign value by price, as an objective measure beyond argument, is far from new. In the late 17th century, the physician William Petty aimed to manage the English occupation of Ireland by establishing precise values for conquered land so it could be distributed without controversy, a method he called “political arithmetic.” The last two decades merely bear witness to the adaptation of this ethos into aesthetic arithmetic. Art stores and increases value — with some help from those willing to declare belief, i.e., buy at higher prices. If this distorts the value of art, it sometimes produces beneficial effects as well. Who knew that pre-privatization British Rail invested $70 million in Old Masters and Impressionists in 1974, bagging an 11-percent return for their pension fund? Declaring financial belief in young artists is also vital for encouraging new talent and the progress of art itself. This is the work not of calculating investors but zealous “art supporters.” From top to bottom, growth isn’t just a strategy, it’s a necessity.

Investing in art, the authors suggest, has a long history: it can be traced from the emergence of auctions in the 17th-century Netherlands to the collection of modernist masterpieces assembled by Gertrude and Leo Stein in the early 20th. The authors implicitly situate the Saatchis and Cohens within this tradition. Hmmm. Was Walter Benjamin’s book collecting really spurred by the same “passion” as today’s billionaire businessmen? Maybe. Is BP, sponsor of Tate Britain, a patron just like the Medici? There must have been some terrible Renaissance oil spills.

The Wagners describe a sequence of giant leaps forward. One was at Sotheby’s in 1973, when a Twombly bought at $750 went for $40,000 and a Rauschenberg jumped from $900 to $85,000; another at Christie’s in 1997, when a Picasso-fueled orgy transformed one collection’s value from $2 million to $206.5 million. “Awe and shock” is how one dealer described the sublime effect of the 1973 sell-off. As with so many other arrangements of our times, the past ended and “the present” began around the 1990s in the aftermath of Reagan and Thatcher. The era of banking deregulation and burgeoning real estate speculation was also the moment when art became an instrument for deliberately increasing wealth, fueled by contrivances like the Mei Moses Annual All Art Index (devised in 2002 by two NYU economists) for charting price trends.

What has emerged since then is a striking inversion of John Cotton Dana’s vision for the Newark Museum, which he founded in 1909 in reaction to the collections of super rich elites. Dana instead stocked the museum with inexpensive objects that possessed a “direct bearing on the daily life of those who support it,” objects ordinary people might admire, buy and even use. The cultural system we have now threatens to turn all who look at art into consumers of luxury goods and, increasingly, voyeurs seeking peep shows of private property in a “quasi public” sphere, as collectors like billionaire hedge funder and MoCA trustee Eli Broad resist bequeathing to public institutions. A pre-Enlightenment world beckons: one of exhibitions as noblesse oblige, one before the British Museum and the Louvre established free public museums as a right of cultural citizenship.


What judgment do our authors pass on all this? They denounce “flippers”: those who buy art to sell for a quick profit. Above all, they warn against mechanical profiteering: value isn’t nearly so predictable. (Art prices in fact began declining in 2012.) Caveat you know who. They acknowledge that reducing art to investment is problematic and give voice to Duchamp’s scornful criticism: “The feeling of the market here is so disgusting. Paintings and painters go up and down like Wall Street stock” (from his 1928 letter to Alfred Stieglitz from New York). Strong stuff. Art should be about love, not money; passion, not calculation.

Or should it? They defend knowledge and criticism as a basis for judging the significance of art. They elevate the authority of critics and gallerists who pass artistic judgment as opposed to art economists who simply measure “beautiful assets.” (The name of the company founded by the inventors of the Mei Moses Index is Beautiful Asset Advisors.) And the fact that they have published a book in the age of electronic monetization seems a nostalgic throwback to the prestige of old-time learning and the conversational pleasures of one’s art library. There are no graphs in the book.

Nevertheless, auctions, they report, embody “the democracy of the dollar.” Nor can they resist vindicating their expertise in financial terms, citing one work acquired for clients at $93,000 that later resells for $2 million. Their company website more frankly talks assets. Its statements about “assessing and increasing value” speak of their “unmatched archive” of price data for “minimizing the potential for risk and increasing the potential for gain.” This is strangely not included in the book — perhaps the second edition? “No single approach or mindset or reason for collecting,” they conclude, “is less legitimate than any other,” even though passion and knowledge may be preferable to profit and distinction as motivations (they even quote Bourdieu). No value judgment about value here. Yet a recent New York Times article quoted Thea Westreich Wagner speaking out sharply against trading art like stocks.

Confused? Our authors are evidently of two minds. They commenced their career as brokers in the 1980s before the recent boom and just donated hundreds of works to the Whitney and the Pompidou Center in Paris. But they’re caught in the current Anglo-American trap: how to pursue non-financial forms of value without subordinating them to the logic of the market. Radical monetization may look inexorable but was really only set in train about two decades ago. What we call “value” is increasingly an agonistic zero-sum game, in which those who invoke the market encourage the elimination of all other values (in domains from health care to higher education) as impediments to profit. Wages stagnate, corporate profits vacation on offshore islands, bankers’ bonuses rebound, private debt soars, and public services get gutted. Asset-chasers, meanwhile, fall in love over and over at the auction house, cashing in their paper winnings from capital gains before the next crash.

The art world is not a passive beneficiary of this monetization but, in prominent instances, actively encourages it. Using art as a financial instrument to increase the wealth of a select few allows for its recycling into other forms of power and prestige, political and otherwise, producing greater income disparity between rich and poor, and, so far, higher art prices. Who are today’s Citizen Kanes? Steven Cohen and his colleagues at hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors have been subpoenaed to testify by the federal government over insider trading and are currently pleading the Fifth. MoMA president and Hudson Institute free-market economist Marie-Josée Kravis has defended “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” against “Europe’s social capitalist politics.” And in 2010, billionaire Frick/Asia Society/New York Public Library trustee Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone Group financial advisory, likened Obama’s tax proposals to Hitler invading Poland. Such goings-on are well summarized in “Le 1%, C’est Moi,” an article by artist Andrea Fraser written for last year’s Whitney Biennial, reviving the spirit of shows like 1977’s “Anti-Catalog,” which exposed the glorification of wealthy patrons at the Whitney itself. Open-Rolodex art world portraits like the Wagners’ at least allow readers to ask where the money’s coming from, rather than just gaze at where it’s going, and to question the legitimacy of “collecting” as part of today’s socioeconomic order.

And love?

In May 2013 the emergency manager of the city of Detroit called for 60,000 works of art in the Detroit Institute of Art (founded 1885) to be appraised for possible sale either to help pay the city’s debt or in the event of the city declaring bankruptcy. Their estimated value is $2 billion — the city’s debt, $15 billion. The manager in question is Kevyn Orr, a former bankruptcy and restructuring adviser appointed by Michigan’s Republican governor and venture capitalist Rick Snyder. (Critics question Orr’s legitimacy, citing a popular vote in 2012 repealing Michigan’s emergency manager law.) “I’m a great lover of art and so is Kevyn,” commented Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling, but went on to insist, “We’ve got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city.” DIA director Graham Beal responded, pointing out that “objects held in the public trust […] don’t have a value.” Museum officials around the country condemned the move to appraise the DIA collections. “This direction should be quickly and firmly rejected,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Art for the public is not interim, fungible or liquid.”

“All that is solid melts into air,” Karl Marx wrote. Whatever else happens, it’s nice to hear an institution like the Met opposing the logic of capital in the name of art and society, if not love.


James Delbourgo is a historian of early modern science and the Atlantic world.

LARB Contributor

James Delbourgo is professor of history at Rutgers University, where he teaches the history of science, collecting and museums, and the history of the Atlantic World. His most recent book is Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017; published by Penguin Books in the United Kingdom as Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane), which won the American Historical Association’s Leo Gershoy Award and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Louis Gottschalk and Annibel Jenkins prizes. His current research projects include a history of science in global perspective, entitled “The Knowing World,” and a history of the figure of the collector, entitled “Who is the Collector?”


LARB Staff Recommendations

  • Poking Serious Fun by Making Frivolous Art

    A NEW TESTAMENT from Victor Navasky is a notable event. Former editor and publisher of The Nation, he is the Delacorte professor of journalism at Columbia University, chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, and director of the George Delacorte Center for ...

    • At War with the Obvious, Obviously

      Image: William Eggleston, "Untitled," 1974 I WAS LATE FOR the start of William Eggleston’s signing session at Paris Photo Los Angeles, held at Paramount Studios earlier this year — though I wasn’t as late as William Eggleston. ...

      Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

      LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.