Describe the role of collectors in the XXI century, in terms of effects on the art market, influence on artistic creation, diffusion and knowledge of artists and artworks


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What are collectors?

Collectors are different than donors who support the cultural production by giving money. Collectors are totally involved in the art market and have generally important artistic knowledge; they often are specialized in a specific sector. The collection is very personal, it reflects what you like, and it reflects who you are.


Buying art provides a rush, an adventure, a feeling of being alive and a chance to express individuality. The different things which drive a collector are the knowledge, the art interest, the financial aspect, the collecting strategies and some others personal motives. But the collectors are not simply a buyer, they are more implicated, they create a universe around their acquisitions. They support the artistic creation, develop the art market.


Prominent collectors can set value in the field of contemporary art; they are very influent on the art market and can have the same role than critics. The most important thrill of collecting arts is that the collecting is a highest competitive activity. Indeed, the collectors are on a market and they are very powerful on it.


Where are collectors?

The art market is composed of some sectors which represent all the different forms of art. It is divided in three different parts. There is the primary market, the secondary and the tertiary. Some authors explain that there is an other art market, the fourth, which are the illicit one.

To resume the difference between those markets: the primary market deals with the artworks which arrive for the first time in the market and are bought by some dealers. Then, the secondary market is composed of dealers who buy and sell the artworks, mainly with the galleries. The tertiary market deals with the auction works.


The effects of the collectors on the art market

The collectors can interfere in each market. Indeed, a collector is able to discover an artist by itself but also to buy an artwork found in a gallery or spotted in an auction catalogue. Whereas some cultural actors are only on one market (like the dealer with its gallery, the artist who is at the origin of the market…), the collectors can “play” in every market.


Then, the collectors play an important role on the market, especially because they have the capacity to influence it in function of their artistic choices.


In the first market : the collectors can discover an unknown artist who will be able to sell artworks on the other market thanks to the support of the collector. In this case, the collectors have a role of the future artists.


Indeed, they use their artistic knowledge to determine if an artwork; an artist will have a place in the market. They have role in the value of a piece of art and are like critics who determine the interest of a work and can participate to the recognition of an artist.


In the secondly market: the collectors work closely with the dealer, because the dealers can be in charge to find and to buy some artworks for the collectors. The dealers have a role of intermediate between the artists and the collectors. That is also a way for some collectors to sell their artworks.


In the tertiary market: the collectors are very influent in the auctions and maintain strong relations with this market. Indeed, the collectors are able to sell their collection, or a part of it, during an auction. But, there is above all a way to buy some new artworks. The auctions, especially the important artistic auctions are reserved to the artistic elite. The powerful collectors use this way to legitimate their status. Moreover, the specificity of the auction, with all its traditions, its public, is a really challenge for the  collectors and also an opportunity to be viewed.


Indeed, like we said in the presentation, the art market is the very competitive market and the collectors are very attentive to every change, every novelty to do not be overtaken by a competitor and to stay a leader. In order to maintain their status, the collectors have generally hired a large staff to deal with their artistic interests.


For example, F. Pinault has bought Christies in 1998 to become one of the most important leaders on the art market in the world. This acquisition is a good illustration of the competition in the art market. Indeed, F. Pinault is a direct competitor of B. Arnault, because they are both French and in the head of the most important French companies.


But this competition, in a field like the art (which is not a “life or death” field) can also represent emulation and an opportunity for the market.


What are the different kinds of collectors?

Every collector is different, they do not are animated by the same desires, each of them has its favorite field. The only think which are common to all of them, is the importance of their private funds. Then, they do not buy artworks “to make a good deal”. Indeed, “the act of buying and the thrill of the purchase at the right price lies at bottom behind many a collecting habit” (1).


In this part, we will not discuss about the interest of collecting to maximize the profit or to avoid paying some tax. We will focus on the “real” collectors, the passionate. Then, we can say that the status of collector is not only guided by the money and the acquisitions, but also by the level of artistic knowledge and interest.


For example we can take again the example of F. Pinault and B. Arnault. Both are in the world’s top twenty active collectors of contemporary art. Nevertheless, there is a difference between their statuses;  B. Arnault is more a patron than a collector. This distinction is due to the difference of practices on the market art (patronage, investment, collection) and the highest level of F. Pinault’s art knowledge. Furthermore, F. Pinault is more known in the art market because of his will to share all his collection. Indeed, he has bought some place to exhibit his collection of contemporary art, the most known is the “Punta delle dogana” in Venice.


In addition to have a notable artistic knowledge, to be a great collector, F. Pinault is always in the sharing, like this quotation is showing “the desire to possess – born at the moment I first came in contact with art – has been transformed into a profound need to share”. He doesn’t buy art only for him, or for financial reasons. He buys artworks to permit to everyone to have access to art.


We can discuss about an other famous collector, which is C. Saatchi (2). He is an important figure of the contemporary art. He plays in the secondary market and has developed his own agency. In the same way of F. Pinault, Saatchi has always lent some pieces of his collection to museums. But, his specificity is that these exchanges had as counterparts the obligation to the museum to show other pieces chosen by him. So, we can consider Saatchi, besides to be a collectionor, like an opportunity to develop talents and to share some unknown artists with a large museum audience.  Indeed, “when a branded collector like Saatchi purchases an artist’s work, displays the work in his gallery, loans the work for display in other museum or exhibits, the cumulative effect is to validate both the work and the artist”.


The collector can be a “brand”, a reference which attest the interest artistic of an artwork in this way, they are more than collectors, more than critics, they are value creators.


To conclude, we can say that collectors are a principal piece of the art market. They interfere in every market, at every time. They grant for many people the interest artistic of an artwork, an artist. Collectors are in the head of the art market, what is a little special because strictly speaking, they don’t create art but create value.


One of the specificity of the art market is: it is not in the hands of the people who create art, who are at the origin of the system. Some artists are fighting against this paradox, like Banksy who wants art to belong to artists and spectators.


(1) Understanding international art markets and management, I. Robertson, 2005;
(2) Charles Saatchi : branded collector, D. Thompson

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