The following article is part of ARTnews’ annual coverage of collecting practices in the art market, anchored by the 200 Top Collectors list.
We go to press on the 25th anniversary edition of our “200 Top Collectors” feature at a historic moment in the art market, marked by the unprecedented sale of Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alger for $179 million in Christie’s May auction “Looking Forward to the Past.” It is the single most expensive artwork ever to sell at auction. Notably, over the course of just two weeks of sales in New York in May, Christie’s and Sotheby’s brought in a staggering $2.5 billion.
A surge in demand has pushed the art market into uncharted territory. Chinese collectors are increasingly formidable, with Wang Zhongjun (a new addition to the Top 200) picking up a Picasso for $30 million and Wang Jianlin (also on the list) buying a Monet for $20.4 million. But there are also plenty of new players coming in from all over the world, many of whom prefer to remain anonymous. The New York Post quoted unnamed sources saying that the buyer of Les Femmes d’Alger was former Qatari prime minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, also new to the list this year. Christie’s, discreet as ever, declined to confirm.
At one sale this May there were bidders from more than 40 countries. According to Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, the bidders on each and every one of the top ten lots in the “Looking Forward” sale included individuals who had only begun collecting in the past five or six years.
“Five years used to be the time a collector would take to go from day to evening sales,” Thomas Seydoux, a private dealer and former Christie’s specialist, told ARTnews. “Now they go straight to the top.”
Today’s market is driven by the auctions, where, according to Seydoux, there now is a comfort zone at the new price levels, with a boost from third-party guarantees; starting bidding at $100 million is no longer a hurdle. “People think it’s all speculation and investment,” Seydoux added. “It isn’t.”
Meanwhile, at the contemporary end, the market is much more fluid than in the past; there the word “speculator” (or, as dealer/writer Kenny Schachter likes to put it, “speculector”) is often bandied about.
“We are definitely in a bubble,” said seasoned art adviser Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group. Nevertheless, he was quick to qualify that assessment: “When people hear the word ‘bubble,’ they immediately think about an impending burst. The truth is that bubbles inflate and deflate in many different ways. No one knows how long this will go, or how or when it will end.”
True collectors stay in the game through the peaks and the troughs, as 25 years of the Top 200 list attest. And there are collectors on our list who have told us that they have never parted with a piece. “It’s important to recognize there are as many different collecting objectives as there are collectors,” said another veteran art adviser, Thea Westreich.
As in years past, the list is based on confidential interviews with art professionals from around the world and on research by experienced ARTnews correspondents. We reveal collectors who have been buying in a wide range of periods, styles, and areas. What unites them is a high level of commitment and activity. Also in keeping with past years, there are collectors who are so intensely private that you won’t see their names here; probably only a handful of people in the trade even know who they are.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Top 200, we’ve interviewed one of our all-stars, Eli Broad, who has been on the list since the very beginning, in 1990, and who is soon to open the Broad, his foundation’s museum in Los Angeles. We also include a profile on Tony Salamé, new to the list, who will soon open his own foundation’s exhibition space in Beirut.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 41 under the title “The ARTnews 200 Top Collectors.”