The art of collecting
Part 1 - The History of Collecting
Have you ever wondered how art collecting came to be a cultural treasure? Collecting as an act, can be traced back to the earliest civilizations of ancient Egypt, Babylon, China, and India. At that time, objects were racked up and were oftentimes displayed in temples, tombs, and sanctuaries as a way to glorify their rulers and/or religion.
In the West, the earliest intentions of collecting art can be dated back to the Hellenist period (4th-1st century BC). Avid art collectors would commission works of art and copies of Greek works. People at the time also decorated their homes and gardens with luxury items such as bronze statues, stone sculptures, and pottery works. The rise of the Roman empire gave birth to a thriving art collecting market.
Whilst the exact period in history when collecting became a thing in Africa is mostly unknown, the earliest recording of art collecting began with African sculptures from the Nok culture of Nigeria, dating back to 500 BC to 200 AD. Nok terracottas currently occupy an important but isolated space in African art history, and colonization certainly placed a global mark on it’s value.
That is quite the history of collecting as an act. Now, let us delve into modern-day art collecting.
It is the stories of art sold for sky-high prices that make the news round. Consider the case of Tutu (popularly known as Africa’s Mona Lisa) from 1973 by Ben Enwonwu being sold for over £1 million at the Bonhams auction or Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche (Reclining Nude) painting from 1917 being sold to the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for over £130 million. Undeniably, art has the potential to be an investment as well as an asset. It is however important to note that it is indeed a rarity for all art to fare well at auction houses, as did Tutu and Nu Couche.
Most people know how to buy art. Art is just about everywhere you look, and you can buy it on a piece-by-piece basis. However, there is a slight difference between buying art and collecting art. In both cases, you would typically buy what you like.
Buying art is an act based on what one finds attractive, or prefers at that given moment. Arguably, we all buy art. If you have ever purchased a piece of art or you occasionally buy from a street vendor or a gallery, you have bought art.
A lot of people see art collecting as an elitist hobby, a discipline reserved for a unique breed of people with a unique eye for the abstract. In all honesty, we all have in some way, created a collection or group of items that enhances and complements each item in the collection. Consider Apple products. You would typically find that a consumer of Apple products would use an iPhone, an iPad, a Macbook, and airpods, because they complement each other, thus creating a collection of Apple products. Each Apple item enhances the other, in the group, or collection, not just in aesthetics, but also in value.
Collecting art is an intentional long-term commitment. Collecting art demands that the collector is able to choose individual works in such a way that they create an admirable group, or collection. It is through collecting that works of art end up at museums, mansions, and warehouses. The goal here is to get you to collect art, not just buy art.
This is not a skill you would have from the very beginning. Interestingly, most people engage art advisors and dealers to help them build great collections, long after they become savvy enough.
“To collect is to create a class or genre whose meaning resides in the way the pieces in the collection call attention to one another.”
I once saw the above quote and thought; No truer words were ever spoken.
If you think deeply about it, every piece in a collection in one way or the other draws attention to the others. Each work of art in a collection commands premium attention, premium respect, and premium price, not entirely because they are great works of art, but especially because they’re in good company. Great collectors are widely known and respected as much as the art they collect. Great collectors can cause quite a stir in influencing standards, trends, and tastes within the industry.
When a renowned collector starts collecting a particular artist, style, or medium, it influences demand in the market as other collectors would quickly jump on that trend. Whilst to some degree, it is important for rising and seasoned collectors to follow trends for collection diversification, it is also very important for you to quickly realize and acknowledge your preferred medium and style of art, and stay true to that. The reason for this is that admirable collection are unique and non-repetitive. You do not want your collection to look like everybody else’s. Where is the fun and value in that?