When we think of great collectors who have left their marks on the canon of art history, we think (or ought to think) of (in no particular order): Charles I, Rudolf II, Isabella d’Este, Cosimo de Medici, Baron Eli de Rothschild, Catherine the Great, Baron H.H. Thyssen-Bornemisza, J.P. Morgan, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and, Henry Flagler… among others.
Their access to staggering wealth aside, one of the defining characteristics of these men & women was their uncompromising devotion to acquire only the best objects for their collections. That is objects that were not solely identified by either their media or periods of production but by their aesthetic and historic values.
Hence, contrary to what wealth managers would like us to believe, diversifying one’s artistic investment is not a new idea! Paintings, sculptures, architectural plans and models, historic & contemporary cartography, decorative objects from Ancient Greece to China, numismatics, furniture, buildings, naturalia, arms and armor, wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosity), and, of course, schatzkammer (cabinet of jewels)… – to count just a few groupings of artistic productions from throughout the ages – were the ‘stuff’ that informed their practice of collecting and patronage.
One of the biggest challenges of majority of American art patrons’ (or buyers’, if you will) appreciation for very idea of ‘collecting’ (if not patronage – another unnecessarily confused term) is that it is formed by a deeply flawed understanding of the ‘art market.’ It is mind boggling how so few media reporters (I mean ‘critics’) and trade publications acknowledge the fact that a great part of their experts’ expertise is based on little more than their ability to paraphrase press releases that are distributed by the top 3 or 5 auction houses about the most recent sales of the top 30 or so modern and contemporary artists. This claustrophobic definition is further narrowed by artists that are primarily painters.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore painting – its very form, its creative processes, its non-reproductive nature, and all the palpable qualities that make viewing a painting an irreplaceably sensual experience. And, have I mentioned how much I love the stench of turpentine – though, sadly, these days they are made odor-free? In any case, the point is that I do love painting. However, as the daughter of an artist – let alone an academically trained art historian -, I also know enough as not to artificially squeeze the idea of art inside an antechambers of the hugely problematic art market.
Given the depressing narrow-mindedness of certain dominant elements in the art world, it is not surprising for us to read reviews of an art and antique fair in which exhibitions of mid 20th century silverware, for example, are referred to as knick-knacks – or was it bric-à-bracs? This is a cringeworthy reflection of (high? really?) art media’s appreciation for an art form that is not made up of paint on canvas – or of multiplied copies of a work – by a brand name artist whose exuberant prices are based on no other criteria than its creator’s ephemeral celebrity status.
I have no intention of introducing the rich and fascinating historiography of the artificial division between ‘fine arts’ and ‘crafts’ in this little blog post. However, I highly encourage you to pursue this engrossing social art historical research if only for the pleasure of reading tales about often engaging and, at times, amusingly off-putting, characters.
By the way, I am certain that most of you have noticed my elimination of contemporary names of exceptional collectors of our age from the above list.
There are a number of basic reasons for this exclusion:
Firstly, and the most obvious one, really, is that there are so very few of them! During a conversation with the legendary New York dealer, Louis Meisel, late last year, he told me what I had always believed to be true but lacked his years of experience in the market to utter. “When I started in this business, in the late 1960’s,” Meisel told me, “there were… oh, say, 350 collectors. Today, there are… about… 350 collectors.”
Secondly, my elimination of contemporary names is to leave the discussion of national-cultural snobbery, to another time. I have always been of the mindset that our (America’s) cultural elites suffer from a depressing sense of inferiority complex in relation to their European counterparts. We view European elites – most especially the aristocracy, at all levels – with a great sense of awe. I must admit that some of this admiration is, in parts, justifiable – it’s a long, long story…so, before taking offense, trust that I will return to this subject, sooner than later.
Take, for example the case of Mrs. Gilbert Miller – Kathryn ‘Kitty’ Bache (1896–1979) who was the daughter of the Wall Street financier Jules Bache, one of the best customers of the early 20th century mega-dealer, Joseph Duveen. Mrs. Miller is said to have claimed, “My diamond Necklace is only appropriate to London and would be quite out of place in the informal atmosphere of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.”
Thirdly, and, a rather dis-missable factor (for us mortals, that is) is the sheer cost of insurance for such handsome collections – with emphasis on the multiplicity of collections. We don’t wish to rattle any living collectors by drawing undue attention to their private possessions – without their expressed consent, of course – which, in turn, may increase the cost of their insurance, not to mention security, by multi-folds.
These insurance alerts (for the lack of a better word) remind me of stories such as when Philadelphian hostess, Mrs. Cortright Wetherill, planned “to wear her matching set of diamond and emerald ring, bracelet, and necklace, the smallest square-cut emerald of which weighed twenty karats,” she was obliged to give twenty-four hour notice by cable to Lloyd’s of London and would only take them “from her safe deposit box at the Girard Bank when a confirmatory wire had been received giving her permission to wear her own property for a period of no longer than another twenty-four hours.” Ella A. Widener-Wetherill (1928-1986) was the daughter of another great 20th century American arts & cultural patron, Joseph E. Widener (1871-1943).
As a collectors collector – a scholar of history of collecting and patronage – I am half way through wrapping up an intensive season of museum, gallery and art & antiques fair-hopping throughout Southern Florida, this weekend in Palm Beach. I am told that attending Palm Beach Jewelry, Art and Antique Show is like entering Ali Baba’s cave. It’s where good collectors – including collectors collectors, like myself – who have roughed it from one fair to another perusing through piles of sometimes rare, and often not so, historic and contemporary objects can rejoice in the exhibitors’ offerings.
Personally, I cannot wait to meet some of Duveen’s and Meisel’s 350 or so collectors as they rub shoulders with Mrs. Millers and Mrs. Wetherills… starting later today.
Palm Beach Jewelry, Art and Antique Show is on view from February 15th through the 19th at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
*All photos were taken by Homa Nasab at the Naples Jewelry, Art and Antique Show (Feb 6-10) of exhibitors who will be participating in this weekend’s fair in Palm Beach! If you recall, I have also noted that a number of dealers, mainly from Great Britain, who were showcasing their collections at AIFAF, will be exhibiting this weekend, in Palm Beach.