Every man is an artist, said Joseph Beuys. That may be, but not every artist is worth collecting.
An art collector must make the distinction, and his task is more difficult than ever. Competition is stiffer, as new buyers emerge from Asia, Russia and the Middle East. Art is more expensive — Sotheby’s said it sold about $5 billion of fine and decorative art last year, up 39% from 2006, while Christie’s sold about $6 billion, up 30% — and auction records are shattered regularly. And the sources for artworks are mushrooming — from international art fairs and biennials in Athens and Dubai, to galleries showing works from India to Greenland.
Fine art has entered the pop mainstream — Japanese artist Takashi Murakami made the cover for rapper Kanye West’s latest album — and owning art is the latest barometer of trendiness.
But beyond the hip factor, what compels one to buy art at all? Why are some satisfied with just looking, while others feel the need to possess? Beuys himself thought collecting was inhibiting. Just storing his own finished works hampered new ideas, he thought, and he sold his art partly to break with past phases.
But one man’s burden can be another’s pleasure. Francesca von Habsburg, scion of a collecting dynasty, says she collects because of her restless curiosity, as well as her personal crusade to support new commissions. There are patient anthropologist types such as Uli Sigg, the leading collector of contemporary Chinese art, who collect in order to better understand the world around them. Or those like London-based Amir Shariat, who says collecting is a way to better understand oneself.
Julia Stoschek, heiress of a German auto-parts company, collects in order to draw nearer to the artistic process, as did Beuys’s early patrons, the Van der Grinten brothers, who began as artists themselves.
Why he collects: to try to understand China
Contemporary art is a very good way to access a culture, says Uli Sigg, whose unyielding discipline in studying China has resulted in a collection of roughly 1,600 pieces of contemporary Chinese art.
When visiting Beijing for the first time in 1978, then a representative of the Schindler Elevator Co. to establish a business venture, Mr. Sigg, 61, says he had “no idea” about China, nor had he ever been particularly interested. At business meetings, he says, “I had huge deficiencies in understanding the people sitting on the other side of the table, and I knew I had to close this gap somehow.”
Already an art collector in his native Switzerland with works by artists such as Rachel Whiteread and Gerhard Richter, he delved into Beijing’s nascent underground art scene — “discreetly,” he says — which was slowly emerging from the petrification of Socialist Realism, the sole mode of artistic expression permitted by Mao. Now, art has “given me an idea of most people,” he says.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after a decade on the sidelines talking to insiders to get an overview of the scene, that Mr. Sigg actually bought anything — a triptych of tulip blooms recalling Georgia O’Keeffe and painted by a young woman artist whose work he wanted to promote. It took that long for Chinese artists to arrive at their own visual vocabulary based on their history, symbols and language, he says. Until the late ’80s, artists raced through the “-isms” — impressionism, expressionism, abstract painting — compressing almost a century of Western art history into a decade, and with uninteresting results, he says. “It’s this Chinese skill of copying, absorbing, then very quickly making something new of what they have seen of outside cultures” that fascinates him most about China’s artists, he says.
By the mid ’90s, Mr. Sigg had formulated a collecting plan. “I realized that nobody collected Chinese art even remotely systematically, which I thought was very odd for one of the biggest, oldest cultures in the world,” he says. One reason: “Most art couldn’t be publicly exhibited; it was only possible to hold very small studio exhibitions, or in apartments or cellars, and these lasted only 24 hours and were only communicated to a very small circle,” he says.
So Mr. Sigg tracked down key works from past exhibitions to begin collecting examples in all media of what he thought important in Chinese society — the obsessions with consumerism, taboos, the body and of hyperurban growth. He scoured the countryside as well as major cities, visiting more than a thousand studios, he says, in order to chart every emerging artistic movement.
Almost three decades and several factories later, as well as a stint as the Swiss ambassador to China from 1995 to 1998, Mr. Sigg, now vice chairman of the board of directors of Zurich-based Ringier media group, says understanding China, in fact, is a question that goes far beyond contemporary art.
His collection “isn’t only about collecting art objects,” says Guangzhou-based curator Zhang Wei of Vitamin Creative Space, “but [about] the concepts and energy that form Chinese society, and a channel for him to explore other possibilities of existence — what human beings could be.”
Today contemporary Chinese art is regularly found in modern art museums and is hotly pursued by collectors — partially due to Mr. Sigg’s relentless promotion of Chinese artists to skeptical curators in the 1990s. He says he practically had to force the late Swiss curator Harald Szeemann to board a plane to China in 1998 to survey artists’ ateliers. Mr. Szeemann, director of the 1999 Venice Biennale, included 20 Chinese artists in the show, and the event is still referred to as the “Chinese biennial.”
Mr. Sigg also created the biennial Chinese Contemporary Art Award as a way to introduce juries of influential curators, such as Alanna Heiss of New York’s PS1, to the scene. He has also served as a personal guide for other curators, including Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, curators of last year’s Documenta 12 exhibition.
His collection, first shown in 2005 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, where he lives, is touring and will head to Barcelona’s Joan Miró Foundation this spring.
Insider’s tip: Commissioned work can be more affordable
Prices for Chinese art have soared, and Mr. Sigg says “my means are finite,” so he has begun commissioning work. Most recently, this includes an installation with wheelchairs on aging society by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, shown this spring at the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria, and two works from Feng Mengbo based on traditional Chinese shadow puppet plays.
Why she collects: To document her generation
“It was always a dream of mine to become a collector,” says Julia Stoschek, 32, whose grandfather founded Brose Fahrzeugteile, a German auto-parts company.
This past summer Ms. Stoschek opened her five-year-old video and media art collection in a four-story former factory in Düsseldorf, timed to the Documenta 12 exhibition in Kassel, the Münster Sculpture show and the Venice Biennale.
Her first public exhibition, called “Destroy, she said,” which she curated from her collection, was received well by critics, and she calls it a milestone. “The opening was very important for me, because now I can work more independently and less self-consciously,” she says.
After finishing her university studies in economics, she founded a nonprofit to support young artists. “This was a good start for me. I wanted to see and understand art from the artists’ side,” Ms. Stoschek says, adding, “Art is not just monetary; my personal aim is to preserve and save art, to support projects. In 20 years, I want to have an important media-art collection of my generation.”
Though her first purchase ever, in 2002, was a painting by the conceptual Spanish artist Pep Agut, Ms. Stoschek, whose home has “a flat-screen in every room and projections everywhere,” says she now focuses on video because it’s the medium of her generation, and for its “enormous spaces for association.” Another of its most wonderful qualities, she says: “You can switch it on, and you can switch it off.”
Among her favorite pieces is a video installation by Doug Aitken, “Interiors” (2002), which she says gives her goosebumps. The room-size work focuses on individuals whose disparate existences merge in a surprise ending.
Ms. Stoschek dates German photo artist Andreas Gursky, and says she knows almost all the artists whose work she collects. Understanding how they develop ideas and bring them to life is what fascinates her the most, she says. It informs her decisions on what to buy, and also helps her avoid reselling works, she says.
Ms. Stoschek usually looks at a piece several times before deciding if it’s the right piece for her collection. With some artists, she’ll follow them for three to four years in hopes of obtaining a “masterpiece” from their overall body of work. She also usually purchases working groups from artists. “It’s better to have several pieces. Sometimes I collect entire rooms of exhibitions because [the pieces] are related,” she says. For research and support, Ms. Stoschek says she employs a team of three art historians, and to search for new talent, she travels frequently to New York to make studio visits. “The U.S. is the important market for media art,” she says.
Insider’s tip: Get good advice, but not too much
“You have to trust the right people,” she says. When starting out, Ms. Stoschek contacted collectors she admired, including Erika Hoffmann and Ingvild Goetz, who is known for her vast media-art collection and who advised Ms. Stoschek on artist agreements and copyrights.
But Ms. Stoschek avoids too much advice, however, refusing to work with art advisers or to limit herself to only a few galleries, in order to maintain her independence. “It’s very important for me to collect for myself, to have something unique,” she says. It’s also for this reason that she avoids art fairs. She says she’s interested in “art that needs time,” which is less suitable to the frenzy of most fairs.
Why he collects: He’s addicted to the hunt
There’s something odd about Amir Shariat’s wall cabinet. The rest of the London hedge-fund manager’s office is impeccable: the Aztec-style statue by sculptor Nathan Mabry, a drawing by Richard Forster, sleek Danish wood furniture. But the white cabinet is smudged; one door seems to wear an eagle sticker, the other hangs ajar. Don’t try to close it, it’s the work of contemporary trompe l’oeil and still-life artist Kaz Oshiro. “It’s a painting!” says Mr. Shariat, 36, who obviously delights in his guests’ surprise. Details like the striations of the fake wood veneer — actually oil paint on stretched canvas — hold up under close observation.
It’s the thrill of the unexpected that justifies the hours Mr. Shariat puts in. Weeknights, lunch hours and weekends are spent at galleries. “I like to go and find things,” he says. There’s little that he misses in London, and he visits galleries abroad on business trips. Last year he attended eight art fairs.
“Collecting is being there in the trenches every week,” he says. “It’s time-consuming but very gratifying when you go to hundreds of galleries and then finally, something stands out.”
Mostly he searches for little-known artists, instead of Picassos or Warhols “which don’t require skills to collect, only money,” he says. He declines to name the latest artist he’s been eyeing, fearing it might drive prices up.
Prices for works by artists he has collected have risen. The works of Anselm Reyle, which Mr. Shariat bought several years ago for several thousand euros, have lately been selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Another example is Haluk Akakce. “When I bought most of this stuff, people said ‘You’re crazy.’ Years later, they say it’s fantastic,” he says. “Most people can’t relate to much of contemporary art, so that’s why the surprise is even bigger when [the artist] makes it in the end.”
When Mr. Shariat does spot something good, he gets on the phone and reports to his collecting friends. They are a group of five, including Anita Zabludowicz and Fatima and Eskander Maleki, meeting regularly to compare notes and often even buying works together. The circle operates under a gentlemen’s agreement: Whoever finds the artist has first pick. “We exchange ideas and views of artists all the time,” he says. “We give guidance and always [share] very enthusiastically.”
Insider’s tip: Choose works based on both emotion and analysis
Before he buys a work, “the first thing that comes to mind is, is it something that you like? That’s the fundamental question,” he says. If the answer is yes, then a second series of questions must be worked through: How does this work fit into art history? Does it have staying power? Is it long-lasting — will the artist still have value in 100 years’ time? Finally, can the artist continue to develop himself?
Avoid “herd mentality,” he says, and don’t throw money out the window by seeking the latest, trendiest artists. He says he seeks to justify prices by comparing the work in question to something that costs 10 times less, and then asking, is the first piece really 10 times better? Mr. Shariat concedes, however, that even though many contemporary artists are wildly overpriced, art history is also made in part by the monetary value of an art work.
Even if none of the artists in your collection end up with monetary values like Picasso, they should have great personal value. “Don’t forget your taste changes, you change as a human being, and that’s what’s so exciting with art,” he says. “If you go through a lifetime of collecting, and if you can keep the work you’ve bought, it’s very interesting.
Franz Joseph van der Grinten
Why he collects: for his own artistic development, and to build a museum collection
The first works Franz Joseph van der Grinten and his brother Hans bought from Joseph Beuys in 1951 cost what would be equivalent today to €10 each. They were small woodcuts, “Animal Encounter” and “Hind,” geometric and Paleolithic-looking. The young Beuys, then 30, and already radiating charisma, next offered the brothers an entire portfolio of his work.
But the brothers, then 18 and 22, who became acquainted with Beuys through their high school English teacher, didn’t have the money. Aspiring artists themselves, they still lived at home on their family’s small farm in Kranenburg, a village near Düsseldorf.
No matter, Beuys said, pay me whenever you have money to spare, says Franz Joseph van der Grinten, now 75 (Hans van der Grinten died in 2002). So the brothers paid in installments, and when finished, Beuys, who’d recently begun exhibiting at the local Lower Rhine Art Association, presented another portfolio. What the brothers bought from this decade-long arrangement, about 4,000 works, is now the largest Beuys collection in the world.
“We sensed the quality of Beuys’s work very early on, long before we actually understood it,” Mr. van der Grinten says. What struck the brothers most was how Beuys conveyed complex ideas with simple means. As a fighter pilot during World War II, for example, he painted with readily available materials like India ink and toothpaste that often resulted in rough, unpolished-looking works.
The brothers’ collection, which includes other works from the 19th and 20th centuries and is displayed at Moyland Castle in Bedburg-Hau, Germany, documents the brothers’ relationship with the young Beuys as well as with artists at the local Düsseldorf Kunstakademie.
Mr. van der Grinten says he and his brother began drawing and painting lessons as children, and began collecting prints and sketches in order to learn from them. They didn’t have much money, and their finds were often accidental, as they tramped through junk markets and antique shops in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
Hans van der Grinten’s first purchase, at 17, was a Käthe Kollwitz color lithograph he found tucked in a local stationery shop. Another of their most valuable early finds was a painting by Vilmos Huszar, a founder of the de Stijl movement in the Netherlands, spotted hanging for sale on a construction site fence in Nijmegen, across the Dutch border. During this time Beuys was an invaluable art mentor to the brothers, as they talked while doing farm chores or while organizing exhibitions of their works in the van der Grinten family barn.
Later, Franz Joseph became an art teacher and Hans became a curator, and they decided to build a collection for a museum. They befriended artists whose work interested them, including cardboard sculptor Erwin Heerich and the painters Rudolf Schoofs and Hermann Teuber, and others who studied or taught at the nearby Düsseldorf Art Academy, where Beuys also taught. “That friendship is beneficial to the understanding of art is clear,” Mr. van der Grinten says. “One sees things with more patience, with sympathy.”
The brothers also lent support to artists by organizing exhibits and writing critical essays. “We promoted these artists not only to help encourage the value of their work, but also for the effect it can have for an artist to know that someone believes in him,” Mr. van der Grinten says.
Insider’s tip: Follow your instincts to lesser-known artists
Only recently has art begun selling for huge amounts of money, “a new phenomenon that [has become] a constraint for both artists and museums,” says Mr. van der Grinten. Collectors shouldn’t be swayed by the latest run-up in prices, he says. His advice is to instead follow your instincts and curiosity. To increase your understanding, trace the origins of the art movements you’re interested in, he says, and be conscious of lesser-known artists whose work stands outside the mainstream.
Francesca von Habsburg
Why she collects: To experience the creation of art
Francesca von Habsburg, founder of contemporary art foundation T-B A21 in Vienna, has changed her attitude toward collecting. “The materialistic desires of the 20th century are waning,” she breezily declares. “What people are looking for is experience.”
The daughter of fabled collector and steel magnate Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (and wife of Austrian archduke Karl Habsburg), Ms. von Habsburg, 49, now says she is interested in commissioning art. She says the shift is a way of “moving beyond just being happy and satisfied with a feeling of acquisition, to being involved in the creative process.”
Ms. von Habsburg’s five-year-old foundation focuses on ephemeral objects and experience-based works. She commissioned a pavilion for the 2005 Venice Biennale from artist Olafur Eliasson and architect David Adjaye called “Your Black Horizon,” a structure of wooden slats that channeled the changing light of the Venetian sky throughout the day. It was installed on the island of San Lazzaro, reachable from Venice by an hourly boat.
Last fall it moved to St. Lopud, Croatia. Getting there requires a half-hour hike, then a half-hour boat ride. She also commissioned Dan Graham’s puppet play “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” performed at Art Basel Miami in 2004. “Every experience is totally different,” she says, “and the enjoyment of being able to satisfy one’s own curiosity is huge.”
She says she’s become more introverted in the past year, and the family feuds over possession of her father’s collection after he died in 2002 spurred her to a behind-the-scenes role. “I found I lost interest in the obsession with owning,” she says. “I didn’t want to be that sort of a collector — although I started that way.”
As an art patron, she contributes more than just money. She’ll also wield her network, name and know-how to steer works toward the right venues and audiences. “I’m a problem-solver. Before I brush my teeth, I’ll send an SMS to someone to move a project just a bit further,” she says.
In exchange, she gets insight into the artist’s work. “For me, the first thing is that it’s a massive learning curve,” she says.
Social and political issues have taken an increasingly important position in the foundation’s collecting and commissioning activities, she says. She recently learned of six young and completely unknown artists in Myanmar, whose work is based on video images of the military regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters last fall.
She’ll support their work by “financing a platform and audience for stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told.” Details are yet to be finalized, but the work is planned to be exhibited “guerrilla style,” she says, popping up in museums that will let Ms. von Habsburg use openings between their regular exhibits.
Insider’s tip: Commission to educate yourself, as well as help artists
Ms. von Habsburg says the patronage practice will radically transform the art world. “Philanthropy is a crucial counterbalance to what is a very strong market,” she says. With support from patrons, artists can concentrate on developing themselves, instead of making only what sells, “staying with the same formula and dying for that reason,” Ms. von Habsburg says.
Commissioning also serves as a valuable education, she says. “Commissioning helps collectors answer the $10 million question: what to buy? Once you get involved, it prepares you much better for making decisions. Otherwise you will always be influenced by curators, dealers, salespeople,” she says. Meanwhile, she adds, “Doing commissions, I’ve spent infinitely less money than dripping around art fairs.”
Write to Helen Chang at email@example.com