Rise of the Art Insta-Collectors: Buying Big Names They Don’t Even Love

A number of years back, I attended a dinner in one of New York City’s legendary apartment buildings, hosted by a now-divorced art-collecting couple. I was seated between a mogul’s wife and an actress known for her lewd mouth, wearing couture but desperately in need of a bath. The conversation turned to art collecting, one of the Upper East Side’s most popular topics after real estate and renovations.

Art Basel Miami Beach 2012 - Day 3
Perusing the offerings at Art Basel Miami. (Photo: Getty Images.)

A number of years back, I attended a dinner in one of New York City’s legendary apartment buildings, hosted by a now-divorced art-collecting couple. I was seated between a mogul’s wife and an actress known for her lewd mouth, wearing couture but desperately in need of a bath. The conversation turned to art collecting, one of the Upper East Side’s most popular topics after real estate and renovations. 

“So are you a collect-uh?” Madame Mogul turned to me, looking over my shoulder as we chatted.

As the cater waiter served grilled salmon, she listed her current acquisitions and art fair events she and her husband had attended in recent months. Clearly, the couple had a voracious appetite, but not for salmon.

“And what do you collect?” she asked in the dutiful fashion of someone primarily interested in herself.

I politely revealed a few mid-century Modern names.

She looked at me wide-eyed, aghast that I hadn’t listed the trendy, contemporary superstars her peers collect. “Oh, so you collect dead people?” she asked.

“I hadn’t looked at it that way,” I said.

“Does anyone here collect syringes?” The actress laughed sardonically.

I was brought up to view art as inspiration, not a commodity to be traded like natural gas. When I was in my early thirties and able to afford my first real piece, I consulted a close friend’s father, a legendary collector whose name graces a wing at the Metropolitan. I asked for his opinion on an impressionist drawing at one of the auction houses. Later that week, I received his verdict.

“It’s not so much a fully realized drawing as it is a glorified signature. Better to wait for a good picture that you love,” he said in his lilting European accent. “A painting or drawing is like a woman. You must love her in the evening and also must love her when you wake up in the morning.”

Things have drastically changed since that conversation, owing to the rise of insta-collectors: art consumers motivated less by passion and more by ego, money and social access.

“A dealer I know quite well who caters to this crowd used to call it big swinging dick art,” a reed-thin consultant told me over a salmon roll at Morimoto. She lamented that an art collection is viewed much the same as a stock portfolio.

“I’ve had clients who have no idea who the artist is they’re actually bidding on,” she said. “One couple who spent millions on a piece—I actually had to correct their pronunciation of the artist’s name. It’s like they bought a Givenchy and pronounced it Give-IN-chy and not Gee-von-ché,” the consultant shrugged. “But I made a good commission on that one, and the piece has already tripled in value.”

At a top auction house like Christie’s or Sotheby’s, evening sales have the frisson of a courtside Knicks game, along with the seating hierarchy.

When I started to collect and immerse myself in the art world, a friend of mine, a well-known real estate magnate, kindly offered me his tickets for an evening sale he couldn’t attend.

I remember the sensation of arriving a bit late and being directed to my friend’s floor seats. “I know he collects, but I didn’t realize he’s at this level,” I heard a woman in Chanel exclaim as I navigated my way to the assigned seat. I was wedged between a poster child for plastic surgery and what appeared to be a South American bon vivant, given the French cuffs and frothy pouchette.

It was both exciting and unnerving as the major lots were revealed. After a frenzied bidding war, the hushed crowds burst into applause. That people actually clap for the person willing to spend the most money was just one sign that art collecting has turned into a blood sport.

That’s partly because of the herd mentality surrounding it. Like fashion or décor, choosing art should be a matter of taste. But collections are so often dictated by one of an army of architects, art consultants and decorators who have stepped up to help undereducated overspenders buy the same art everyone else has.

“People choose decorators the way the wife chooses a handbag. You have so-and-so; I need to use them too,” a seasoned collector said shrugging over an espresso and a smoked salmon tartine at Via Quadronno. “Now all these people hire art consultants who procure the art. By the time the project is finished, there is very little individual taste. It’s like the way you see all these girls with flat-ironed hair, a hobo bag, jeans and high heels.”

Dana and I were having Sunday brunch at the Park Avenue apartment of an art advisor who has hosted and advised some of Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest names over the years. She pointed to the artfully set buffet. “Tuna? Salmon salad?”

As we ate, she recalled growing up on Fifth Avenue, when collecting art was less of a game. “They were a staid, older, intellectual group,” she said. “There were also few young collectors.”

She sipped her Earl Grey as she turned toward the seven-figure portrait presiding over her dining room mantle. “I’ve seen it go from couture to department store.”

A friend’s regal mother concurred. “Of course, the old-school collectors find the whole thing absurd,” she confided over high tea at one of Manhattan’s most discreet private clubs, housed in a belle époque mansion. Her blonde lacquered hair, set in a genteel coif, recalled when women went to beauty parlors and not salons.

“I remember going to school in Paris as a young girl and spending weeks at the Louvre. It was divine. When my husband and I were first married, we went to an old-line gallery and purchased our first nature morte. While it was less expensive then compared to today, we still put it on a lay-away plan. It took us a year to pay off, and we thought we were so daring. Anyway …” she took a spoonful of salmon mousse. “It was a different time. Today, it’s ‘I want it, and I want it now.’

Would it look good over the couch? The Sean Kelly Gallery shows at Art Basel.  (Photo: Getty)
Would it look good over the couch? The Sean Kelly Gallery shows at Art Basel. (Photo: Getty)

“Are you going to Art Basel?” That’s the question one hears up and down Madison Avenue in October and November.

Recently, I was having lunch with a public relations professional who puts together events for the annual Miami art confab. She explained how her clients go to parties while their consultants roam the fair, snapping iPhone photos.

“Sometimes they buy, but for the most part, they wait,” she said, nibbling on her Nova and bagel.

“For what?” I asked.

“To see if someone else is interested,” she said. “If this one or that one wants it or gives it the nod, then they’ll pony up the money.”

“And if not?”

“The key is everybody wants what everyone else wants.”

“Which is?”

“That’s part of the game, figuring out what everyone else wants.”

“How do you do that?”

“To tell you the truth, there are like three guys deciding what everybody should buy,” she whispered. “Three guys.”

“Perhaps they all convene and decide at the diner,” I offered.

A few days later, I was having breakfast with a good friend in his Madison Avenue aerie, where the morning sun illuminated the Greco Roman sculptures, Renaissance paintings, Georgian silver and mid-century Modern furniture.

“When I go to Art Basel, I don’t see art collecting as much as I see competitive spending,” he said. “I see the same people who 30 years ago were at Studio 54 who are still behind the velvet rope. Only now it’s Art Basel and the entrance fee to an A-list party is $100,000 for a starter piece,” he said, offering me a serving dish of gravlax on toast points.

“Does that get them the piece and the invite?”

“Generally both. I’m not sure they know what they’re buying, but they want to be a player, and they take a dealer or consultant’s advice. It’s like the Cliff’s Notes of the art world, and then they take the plunge.”

“Do they do any research?”

“That’s the thing about the art fairs. It’s the big box retailer of the art world. You go up and down, aisle after aisle. Of course, there are reputable dealers, but, if you asked the collectors whether they got a condition report on the piece or asked about provenance, they’d probably say ,“What’s that?”

Gold goes with everything, especially at Art Basel. (Photo: Getty)
Gold goes with everything, especially at Art Basel. (Photo: Getty)

I was in the sleek, spartan gallery of one of the most respected blue-chip dealers, who sat with beautiful posture in a Mies black leather chair.

“Thirty, forty years ago, people bought and built collections slowly. Many of the great collectors even paid over time,” he told me. “They savored each piece, got to know and support the artists.”

Now, he said, “they’re having dinner at their new 10,000-square-foot loft and realized they need a collection. They’re often very nice people in a hurry. And of course, they get the collector’s bug and become insta-experts.”

“As in?”

“My consultant is better than your consultant. This gallery is better than that one. And it’s all backed with the insta-library. X linear feet of books on every artist. One cannot have the insta-collection without the insta-library,” he observed.

“What’s your take on the collections?” I asked directly.

“There is a greater possibility of seeing the piece back on the market.”

“When?” I asked

“After the insta-divorce.” He offered the salmon roe sushi on a silver platter.

“Do you truly love that?” I asked a high-profile collector who was giving me the tour of his impressive renovations, as we came upon a controversial work that could certainly be deemed pornographic.

“It shocks. It unsettles,” he said.

“Is it hard to live with?” I asked.

“I would find it harder to live with what some dealers call an ‘over-the sofa’ piece,” he said, mentioning an artist you see up and down the avenue in “starter” collections. “That would be more shocking to my sensibilities.”

“But do you love it?” I pressed him.

“‘Love’ is a big word. All I can say is it’s for sale. If someone offered me my number, I would take it,” he said, shrugging. “Everything is for sale in my home,” he said, “including my fiancée,” he said, giving a lascivious look to the semi-clothed nymphette who floated by.

“What do you say to the naysayers who don’t approve of your artwork?” I ask.

“I have three things to say: They’re just jealous. They can kiss my ass. Let them laugh—I’m laughing all the way to the bank.”

My friend, one of New York’s most influential, heralded architects laughed ruefully at the state of the art scene as we ate al fresco on Houston Street. “I have never met more show-off wannabes,” she said. “They’re all full of shit. I have seen the entire arc from 1980s to 2013. I don’t know if you know in the ’80s I was an assistant to a great pop artist. I was in a micro-mini from Trash and Vaudeville.”

“Really? What did you do?”

“I gessoed his canvases. I answered the phone. I was 17 and hot,” she paused. “I have always been connected to the artists. That’s the big difference. My clients care about art first, beauty first, soul first.”

“And the rest?”

“It’s become only about money. And of course they get to slum it. You know it’s about Bohemian Thursdays where they get to go the studio. It’s a conceit; it’s become about vanity.”

“More vino?” I offered.

“Of course. Your poached salmon looks divine.”

I glanced across the restaurant and saw a young international art dealer caress his model girlfriend’s leg under the table.

“I just bought [one of the great artists] for [a high-flying real estate person],” he said virtually shouting, impressing the young girl.

“Do you want to go to Monaco for the weekend?” he added, stroking her leg carnally.

“I would love to,” she replied.

“Come back with me. I have a great painting to show you,” he said with a wolfish grin.

Richard Kirshenbaum is CEO of his new venture, NSG/SWAT, and author of the memoir Madboy. You can follow him on “Ad of the Day” on Twitter.

Rise of the Art Insta-Collectors: Buying Big Names They Don’t Even Love