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Collecting in Challenging Times: An Introduction to the Top 200

There’s an old saying about looking for a discount on an artwork for sale during a period of crisis: the discount is that you get to buy it. In June, three months into the pandemic lockdown, news broke that Kenneth C. Griffin had paid more than $100 million for Peter M. Brant’s 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump. The contagion and its economic impact didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the price—but it might have contributed to dislodging the work and putting it on the market.

[See the list.]

It’s a phenomenon familiar to veteran collectors from the financial crisis of 2008. Dallas-based collectors Cindy and Howard Rachofsky told ARTnews, “In 2009, we were offered some extraordinary works that would not otherwise have come to market.” A major change since then, however, is the growth of the art-lending industry. Collectors looking for liquidity in a shaky economy now have many more options when it comes to tapping their holdings for value by using them as collateral, and thus don’t feel as much pressure to sell. That has complicated the already tricky business of shoring up supply, particularly for the auction houses.

Since the pandemic began, many of the world’s top collectors continued to purchase artworks—adapting quickly to online initiatives from auction houses and galleries alike—often in an effort to help artists in need of attention as well as the struggling ecosystem around them. As Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen, newcomers to this year’s ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list, said, “There has always been a focus on emerging and underrepresented artists in our collection. It simply became more urgent to support artists and smaller galleries more directly.”

Some collectors even found value in being stuck at home. Travel restrictions allowed Berlin-based Karen and Christian Boros to focus attention on their local art scene. “It became clear that there is so much to see and discover that often we don’t take the time to engage,” they said. “Art is communication, exchange. Art is lively and social.”

The art world has also been affected by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, and the swell of protests that followed. Artists and collectors responded, sometimes in ways that tapped legacies of activism predating present circumstances. Last winter, Lauren Halsey stipulated that certain sculptures in her exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles be made available only to people of color and public collections. And Genevieve Gaignard spent a day with her artworks in a booth at the Frieze Los Angeles fair in February wearing a shirt that bore a message: sell to black collectors. “There have been years of people of color going to museums and not seeing ourselves represented,” Gaignard told ARTnews over the summer, after the world had changed but also—in too many ways—stayed the same. “I want the folks who have lived the stories these works are about to also have the opportunity to buy them.”

Some of those folks are profiled in a feature story on activist collectors (also published today). And others among the current crop of collectors called out for special attention have their own stories to tell. We hope you’ll enjoy reading about them.

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Collecting in Challenging Times.”