Times have changed since ARTnews started the Top 200 Collectors list 30 years ago. Back then, the artworks breaking records at auction tended to be Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which sold for $82.5 million in 1990, held the record for the highest-priced painting at auction for 14 years, and the people who bought art at such scale tended to come from small and rarefied circles.
As the recession of the mid-1990s wore off, the market was dynamized with record pricing, an accelerated pace between the primary market (when works sell for the first time) and the secondary market (when works change hands through private sales or at auction), globalization, and, more recently, a rising interest in the output of an increasingly diverse array of artists. Tastes have shifted toward elevating the historically overlooked and excluded, including women and artists of color.
The prices may be not be as high, but the significance of this latter development is huge. In October 2018 at Sotheby’s London, Jenny Saville’s 1992 painting Propped set the auction record for a work by a living female artist when it sold for $12.4 million. (Compare that with the record for work by a living male artist, set twice in the past 12 months when David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist [Pool with Two Figures] sold for $90.2 million in November 2018 and Jeff Koons’s Rabbit went for $91.1 million this past May.)
In the past, if works by African-American artists appeared at auction, they tended to be by young artists and on offer in lower-value day sales. But in the November 2018 sales, Sotheby’s gave pride of place in its New York evening sale of contemporary art to The Businessmen, a 1947 painting by Jacob Lawrence that sold for a record $6.2 million. That same week, Christie’s offered Sam Gilliam’s Lady Day II (1971) in its evening sale, where it sold for a record $2.2 million, nearly doubling a previous record for the artist set only months before at Sotheby’s London. At Sotheby’s New York this past May, 10 of the 63 lots in the house’s contemporary art evening sale were by black artists.
Last month, Sotheby’s offered the vaunted contemporary evening sale platform to paintings by two other African-American artists, both of whom died 40 years ago: Charles White and Norman Lewis. (Those works sold for $1.7 million and $2.78 million, respectively.) And Christie’s, too, offered a painting by White, which sold for $1.22 million.
“There is this great shift in what’s going on in collecting,” said Sara Friedlander, Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art. “Collectors across the board are looking for something new that is also of great quality—in concert with what’s happening curatorially in museums and in scholarly gallery shows.” The result, she said, is “shifting the conversation away from simply dead white men to artists of color and women.”
These recent developments are tied to another one: the opening up of the art world in general. “There was a level of inaccessibility that was daunting 30 years ago,” David Galperin, the head of contemporary evening sales at Sotheby’s, told ARTnews. “As information becomes more quickly transmitted and easily accessible—and works are sold in a radically different way—you’re a seeing a different kind of collector emerge at all levels. You don’t necessarily need to be an ‘insider’ anymore to get access to the best material.”
The rise of social media has also helped art find fashionable status among cross-cultural crowds and collectors of sneakers, skateboard decks, and more. “The art world at this point is hard to miss, whether online, on Instagram, or at an art fair that’s coming to a city near you,” said Jackie Wachter, a contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s.
In Hong Kong, a significant percentage of active buyers are millennials. According to the latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, 39 percent of collectors in Hong Kong fell into this demographic, while Sotheby’s said 50 percent of their buyers in Hong Kong this spring were millennials.
In addition to a more global reach, the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list increasingly includes more diverse collectors—among them Pamela J. Joyner & Alfred J. Giuffrida, Raymond J. McGuire & Crystal McCrary, and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean & Alicia Keys. All have built serious collections focusing on artists of color who are being newly acknowledged as momentous in cultural as well as financial terms.
“This is a defining time, with the long-overdue recognition of these critically important artists to the world as we know it—and as we will know it,” said McGuire, who first ranked as a Top 200 collector in 2014, of the African-American artists he favors. Along with his fellow music star wife, Dean, a new addition to our list this year, actively advocates for artists of color. As he put it, “What we like to do is collect living artists, give them life, and show the world their mission.”
What’s also changed is the sheer volume of information and analysis available to collectors. And that has translated into collectors looking for new opportunities. “As collectors armed with more information look for the best quality, where they’re looking now is in markets where prices are less developed than for what we would traditionally define as blue-chip, like Abstract Expressionism or Pop,” said Galperin, of Sotheby’s.
Joyner, whose collection of African-American abstract art and contemporary art of the African diaspora has been the subject of a recent traveling exhibition, believes the definition is expanding for the better. “Blue-chip is blue-chip,” she said. “What we are experiencing is simply the removal of this artificial barrier that defined blue-chip as Western-white-male-oriented.”
“We at the auction houses are guilty of setting up a system where the highest bidder is rewarded,” Friedlander said. “I don’t know if that’s what makes a top collector. The market is always looking for excellence, and that is not always tied to the highest prices. We’ve often equated the greatest with the highest prices. That’s changing.”
McGuire concurred. “The shift is in the recognition of very important artists who have not been included in the conversation—the result of which is a heightened interest now in making certain that collections represent all important artists, not just a select few.”
Such a commitment can be beneficial to all, Joyner said: “The inclusion of more narratives raises the bar.”