It’s the “wow” factor. That’s what determines whether Crosby Kemper, a Kansas City banker, buys a work of art. Kemper, who collects Old Masters as well as modern and contemporary art, had this revelation in a talk with art historian Irving Sandler for the catalogue of “The Collector as Patron in the Twentieth Century,” on view at New York’s Knoedler & Company through July 31.
Kemper and many other collectors are being wowed quite a bit these days. “It’s the most active and serious market we’ve ever seen,” says one dealer, who is usually allergic to overstatement. He was one of the experts—collectors, auctioneers, museum directors, curators, and historians, as well as dealers—interviewed by ARTnews correspondents around the world for the tenth annual ARTnews 200 (and its Top Ten), the list of the world’s most active collectors. It should be pointed out that not everyone agrees completely with the it’s-got-to-knock-your-socks-off philosophy of Kemper, one of the 200.
“Sure,” says one veteran student of collectors, “there’s the initial impact when you look at a work for the first time. But then you have to consider, Does it endure? In a lot of cases, it doesn’t. After awhile, you might say, ‘Nah, it wasn’t that great.'”
Nah, but greatness is what’s selling particularly well these days. “Great works of art are going for great prices, and mediocre works are going for mediocre prices” is the way one observer of great and mediocre works puts it. “That was not the case during the boom of the 1980s, which proves that people know what they’re buying. It’s a high-quality market, with lots of new collectors who have a lot of money.
“The market is very much dominated by Americans. What’s especially healthy is that the whole speculative element of the ’80s is gone. Now the buyers want to keep the works. They’re not going into bank vaults.”
A trend watcher has this to add: “The big highlights of the recent auctions were the contemporary sales, when records were set for 26 contemporary artists. The contemporary market is very volatile, of course. It can change quickly. But it’s really in, which it hasn’t been for quite awhile. Some folks are saying that they’re seeing an upsurge of realistic and representational art. It’s a new kind of representation—it has twists and there is confusion in the imagery, as opposed to the old-fashioned representation. And, keep in mind, not all the action is at the auctions. An increasing number of important sales are being made privately, at the galleries.” Full disclosure: The trend watcher is not a dealer.
So, how much longer will it last? “We’ve seen many cycles,” says another trend watcher, who is a dealer and has spent millions of dollars on art for clients in the last year. “There will be a down cycle. I don’t see the end, but I hope it slows down a little.”
—Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.