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March 1, 2008updated 10 Jan 2016 3:04pm

Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945

By Spear's

Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945
James Stourton
Scala Publishing

James Stourton attempts no single grand over-arching narrative in Great Collectors of Our Time, and this is just as well, collectors being as varied a bunch in the what and why of their obsessions as artists. He proceeds from mini-profile to mini-profile, his prime focus being on collectors of fine art, but he finds space for those who amass books, porcelain and much else. Stourton writes as punctiliously as if he were writing a guide book. And, like the best guide books, his book is filled with shrewd comment and unexpected, revealing nuggets of fact.

The book is subtitled Art Collecting Since 1945 but Stourton has been careful to work in such hinge moments in the history of patronage as the meeting of Lillie Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller by the banks of the Nile, which led to the foundation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He sets things in their time and place, noting that Comte Charles de Noailles’ patronage of Salvador Dali forced his resignation from the Jockey Club and noted how Piet Mondrian, the great Dutch abstractionist, strongly urged Peggy Guggenheim to support Jackson Pollock.

Stourton has given himself a cut-off point. He has chosen not to examine American collecting since the 1980s, so we learn nothing of the modus operandi of Henry Kravis, nor of Ronald Lauder, nor of the posse of hedge-funders active in the art market, beyond a brief mention of Steven Cohen of Greenwich. (One of Stourton’s few slips: Cohen wasn’t sold Damien Hirst’s dead shark piece by Charles Saatchi but by Larry Gagosian.)

He makes the 1958 Goldschmidt sale an important kick-off point. Erwin Goldschmidt only consigned seven of his late father’s paintings to the sale, which was at Sotheby’s, London, but they were important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces, and Stourton says the sale both ‘created the international art market’ and moved it from Paris to London. He adds that ‘the London artworld was created by auction houses and aeroplanes’. Stourton is chairman of Sotheby’s but he has by no means eradicated the arch-enemy from his narrative. Only in his decision not to approach contemporary American collectors does one sense realpolitik.

Some of Stourton’s points may be truisms within the trade, but they will startle most people outside it, even those who imagine they know the artworld pretty well: as when he writes that ‘Erich Marx gave up collecting Jasper Johns because he was too rare’, this being because most serious collectors like to be sure of a supply of quality product, and when it dwindles – as now, for instance, with Old Master drawings – their interest will wane. Thus it was Picasso’s sheer industry that has sustained the Picasso industry.

Stourton has good stuff on the unstoppable avidity of collectors, one of the traits that makes them as driven as artists, if differently so. He quotes Stavros Niarchos at a show at the Fine Art Society saying, ‘I always regard red spots as meaning negotiable’. Nesuhi Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, remarks that he didn’t much like going to museums because there was never anything to buy.

It is, of course, largely a game for the very well-to-do. Stourton notes that in June 1946, when the Galerie Charpentier put on a post-war feelgood show of work by the Ecole de Paris, the rich got in free but the populace were decked five hundred francs a head – ‘which didn’t put anybody off,’ Stourton observes, ‘because a riot squad had to be brought in to handle the crowd’. And Sir Kenneth Clark is quoted on ‘the solemnity of wealth’ with regard to the Rothschilds as collectors. But a few were not rich at all, like the New Yorkers, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, respectively a postal clerk and a librarian, whose prime collection of (then unappreciated) Minimal and Conceptual art is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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Stourton’s collectors have wildly different temperaments and circumstances. Some are beyond perfectionist. Collectors of Japanese porcelain are known as ‘flaw finders’. Heinz Berggruen was so unhappy at the way that New York’s Metropolitan Museum reframed his gift of a huge collection of Paul Klees that he promptly set about building up another. It is now on show in Berlin.

Such obsessives can do singular things. As, for instance, Dr Konrad Preissler, who has reassembled, piece by piece, what remained of the Meissen workshop’s Swan Service, one of the most important services in European porcelain, the bulk of which was destroyed when the Russians blew open the safe during World War II. ‘They used the remainder for target practice or ate off it,’ adds Stourton in his understated way, making the melancholy point that many things of beauty that have survived – and reached the auction room – have done so by dumb luck.

Collectors differ hugely in their self-appointed goals. Some have been trophy hunters, like Walter Annenberg, while Francois Pinault is described as running his collection ‘like a business’. Count Panza was a bulk-buyer, acquiring work so cheaply that his nickname among dealers in the early 1960s was ‘Mr $1,000’. Of course, as the Panza collection, which consists of 2,500 pieces spread around eight locations, demonstrates, you could do OK with $1,000 in the right gallery back then – Castelli usually, in Panza’s case. And some collectors bulk-buy individual artists, such as Dakis Joannou, who has 40 pieces by Jeff Koons.

Most collectors have egos to match those of the artists they collect. Stourton notes that Peter Ludwig, the German chocolate magnate, had his name attached to eleven museums and institutions. But what Stourton also makes plain is that collectors – the good, the bad and the ugly – have been absolutely integral to the functioning, not just of the art economy but of the artworld as a whole. (He doesn’t point this out, but state ‘support’ has been a dead hand on the Dutch artworld, creating a subsidised art mountain). It’s a world of individual appetites. The individual eye rules. In art collecting, as in artmaking, it’s not the motives that count, and certainly not the means. It’s just the ends.

A few collectors – a very, very few – have themselves become a part of art history. Certainly, the occasionally corrupt combo of Bernard Berenson and Lord Duveen. Ambrose Vollard, absolutely. The de Noailles, bien sur. And most definitely Charles Saatchi, without whom the British artworld would be a very different and far smaller place today. And then there is George Costakis, who used his unique situation – he was a Greek citizen, but Moscow-born, and working in the Canadian Embassy there – to build up the collection that saved much of the art of Russia’s post-revolutionary avant-garde. In the case of some of these pictures, it doubtless saved them from the fireplace too.

Costakis has noted that the decades of obscurity and threat into which Stalin plunged them had left many of these artists profoundly depressed. Sometimes they were reluctant to sell. ‘Many of the artists had lost faith in their own work,’ Stourton writes. ‘In the face of a complete lack of a critical framework and the disregard of other Moscow collectors Costakis sometimes felt like the captain of a sinking ship.’ He persevered. At such times as this – and there have been many – the story of collecting and the story of art become one and the same.

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