Collectors and Collections: Why Do They Do It?

Collectors and their collections are a special breed.

“For some, it’s a sense of connecting – with other times or other sensibilities – by somehow getting closer, through an object, to the empress, long-dead, who handled it, or the unknown street person who left a cardboard box full of mysterious, hand-made wire objects, in an alleyway in Philadelphia.”

What makes a person a collector?

Why is one person a “collector” and another person is not? It may have to do with the relationship between the person and the assembled objects. There probably comes a moment in the life of every collector, when the realization hits: “I am a Collector” – and after that moment, life looks a little different, and is experienced a little differently.

What makes a person a collector? Why does a collector do it? For one thing, it’s because it’s a self-perpetuating self-image. Once a person becomes a collector, and becomes known to others as a collector, it seems to be a hard habit to break, a hard label to shake. Once a collector, probably always a collector.

There are other motivations, as well. For some, it’s the aesthetic pleasure: waking up in the morning and enjoying, again, the way the sunlight touches on that ancient Chinese vase. For some, it’s the thrill of the hunt: tracking down the last element of that matched set that was broken up centuries ago; discovering a wonderful Robert Ryman painting at a flea market in Chelsea.

For some, it’s a sense of connecting – with other times or other sensibilities – by somehow getting closer, through an object, to the empress, long-dead, who handled it, or the unknown street person who left a cardboard box full of mysterious, hand-made wire objects, in an alleyway in Philadelphia.

For some, it’s the pride of ownership and the sense of success: the pleasure of being able to provide oneself with luxury, with the non-essential items that bring beauty into the day. For some, it’s the love of family: the desire to create or continue a heritage of collecting and appreciating these objects in everyday life. For some, it’s a fascination with the quirky.

What makes a person a collector? Each collector’s story is a little different, and it may consist of some combination of these aspects I just mentioned, plus one or two more, unique to each person.

A well-managed art collection can assure, even inspire, its owner in certain ways:

  • Yes, you are a collector.
  • Yes, the property you have accumulated here is important, as individual objects, and as an entirety.
  • Yes, things can be done to enrich your experience of the collection, and to share its joys with the world, and with your loved ones, as much or as little as you wish.

What constitutes a collection?

Not to sound too circular here, but, a collection is whatever a collector collects. The collection is, of course, made out of the objects – but also is held together by something less tangible, some sort of special “collector’s glue,” made up of the drive, and the aesthetic choices, and the commitment, that brought together this particular group of objects. If it’s got that special collector’s “glue,” then as a practical matter, it’s a collection. (For that matter, I wonder if a collection could consist of one wonderful object, passionately sought out, and cared for, and appreciated and planned for into the future.)

The collector and collection are not interchangeable

The lifetime of the person and the lifetime of the collection don’t have to be the same. For starters, certainly, each object in the collection has its own lifetime, which could be centuries longer than that of the person in temporary possession of that object.

This, by the way, raises some interesting questions regarding whether the collector has a duty to the collection. You’ll hear a lot of different responses to that question. Some would argue that a collector is merely a temporary, fortunate, custodian of the objects with a duty to care for them.

I think most collectors would agree it’s appropriate to show respect for these possessions of theirs which have cultural or historic importance; some would argue there is a duty to share important objects with others (either by lending or making contributions).) Lending works can certainly share the works with the world, (and carries the possible side effect of enhancing the value of the object, as well).

Caring for the collection

Each collector arrives at a comfort level with those questions. At around the same time, typically, the collector examines what ongoing duties or responsibilities are involved in continuing to care for the objects which make up the collection.

Becoming a “collector” can sneak up on a person. Because of this, unless fully conscious of the role, and the demands of that role, collectors can be unaware of some things they can do, to clarify their holdings, to enhance their knowledge, to protect and preserve their collection. For instance, a collector may want to consider the following:

  • Whether information is available for each object (typically, the artist, title, date, medium, dimensions, condition, provenance, exhibition history, bibliographic references) and whether the information is organized in a usable form (typically in computer data tables, or maybe on index cards, or in a binder);
  • Whether each object is physically safe (from theft, from deterioration, from changes in heat or cold, from water damage), is surveyed and treated by a professional conservator, as needed, and is insured for an appropriate value;
  • Whether there are clear, detailed photographs, well-lit, in color, if the object has color, of each object of importance;
  • Whether photos, and the works themselves, are clearly labeled with pertinent information;
  • Who owns the copyrights to the works, and to the photos of the works;
  • Whether there is someone on hand as a “backup” person, if the principal collector should become unavailable (out of country, ill, incapacitated), so that there will always be someone to make decisions about the collection, to track the works that are out on loan, to care for any work that may have been damaged.

It’s also important to realize that many of these considerations are fluid, ongoing. For example, every time there’s another relevant catalogue or book or magazine article, the bibliographic references list for that object gets a little longer. For another example, the value of objects is subject to change: markets are unpredictable.

Research work about provenance, exhibition history, bibliographic references, can sometimes yield added dollar value, but, significantly, the research can also yield an increasing awareness of, enjoyment of, a particular object.

Maybe that object was in an important exhibition many years ago. Maybe it was illustrated in a book, maybe it showed up in a movie, maybe it was described in a famous novel, maybe it was the inspiration for a symphony – you don’t know until you look, what additional subtext may be there, waiting to be discovered.

Where will the collection go?

Once a collector gets used to the joys and responsibilities of managing this collection, more questions arise. Where will the collection go, after this collector is through with it? Will the collection remain as a unit? Should it? Can it?

The collection is both a group of assets, like other assets, and a personal possession, unlike other personal possessions, with lots of emotional content. It is unwise to ignore either aspect, the economic or the emotional, when making plans for the disposition of a collection. And the truth is, every collector will, eventually, leave this life. Therefore, thorough collection management should include some work on the future of the collection, down the road.

Clearly, each object has its own lifetime, typically longer than the lifetime of the collector. And, if the collector wants to do some thinking, the collection, as a whole, can have a long and happy life.

Some important questions to ask will include:

  • If the collector wants the collection to remain together, will the rest of an estate plan suffer if it does? We have all probably heard of the classic problem of a cash-poor estate of a collector, where the executor feels forced to sell some of the best works from the collection, to raise enough cash to pay estate taxes, thereby permanently breaking up the collection. Thoughtful collection management can help prevent such scenarios.
  • Does the next generation care one way or the other? Sometimes, children, or other inheritors, are just not interested in keeping the works from the collection. It’s probably a good idea to find out, ahead of time.

Maybe some “pruning” by the principal collector can help avoid some of these problems. It can be possible, conscientiously and calmly, to edit a collection – to deaccession certain works, or entire sub-collections, and groupings out of the primary collection.

The best way to conduct these inquiries will, of course, involve the collector, and the collection manager, working in concert with the collector’s attorneys and accountants and other advisers.

In conclusion

Once a collector’s consciousness has been raised, so that they say to the world, with confidence, “I am a Collector,” the story has really only begun.

After that moment of self-definition, the collector begins to see the world, and the collection, differently. In addition to aesthetic enjoyment, there is also responsibility. In addition to pride of ownership, there is also concern about risks that might befall prized works. In addition to the pleasure of building a heritage for the next generations, there is also concern that not all the children or grandchildren or close associates may want to be involved in this odd world of collectors and collections.

The bad news is, this enhanced way of seeing can, on a bad day, just look like a lot more headaches.

The good news is, that, once the collection is being properly run, by the collector alone, or with outside assistance, the collector’s experience of the collection is greatly enhanced.

The collector knows that any responsibility to the collection is being met; that the children and other loved ones have been invited to consider their interest in participating in the care of the collection into the future; that works out on loan are being monitored, and will be properly packed and shipped, to reduce the likelihood of damage; that the collector has, by assembling and caring for this group of objects, each with its own past, present and future, somehow forged a link with other places, other times, other visions; in short, that the story of the collector and the collection will continue to write itself, and the collector will continue to rise to the occasion.

I delivered a version of these remarks at a seminar, “Your Collection: Preserving, Protecting, Planning” held on 7 April 1995 at the headquarters of U.S. Trust Corporation, New York City.

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