“Collectors are suffering from cognitive dissonance,” said Stephen A. Wynn, the Las Vegas casino mogul and one of the world’s top art collectors. “They’re struggling intellectually. They know that their paintings are worth more than they paid for them and they know that if they sell they can’t replace them.”
On the other hand, Daniella Luxembourg, a private dealer and director of the Geneva-based investment company ArtVest S.A., pointed out that “when the market is high, more people are willing to sell. When the market is low, they’re not.”
What’s causing the cognitive dissonance? “The art market,” said Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries in New York, “is defying the laws of gravity. What went up isn’t coming down.”
He added: “A few of us have been predicting that the art market is going to trip. I’m happy that we were wrong.”
To put it all in perspective, said Findlay, “keep in mind that 1989 was considered the top of a bubble market. Then 1991 was the bottom. While the market is quite strong today, in general it has taken 17 years to return to the highest levels of the past, dollar for dollar, in Impressionist and modern art. Certain artists, like Picasso, are an exception.”
What about the explosion in contemporary art? “You see the most inflation with artists who you never saw at auction ten years ago,” said one observer of art auctions. “Only time will tell whether it becomes a hard part of the market or an aberration.”
Wynn, Luxembourg, and Findlay were among the collectors, dealers, auctioneers, museum directors, curators, and consultants interviewed by ARTnews correspondents in 22 countries for the 16th annual ARTnews 200 (and its Top Ten), our list of the world’s most active collectors.
This year’s list contains 20 collectors who did not make it last year. “There are new faces today in the art market, a gradual movement into and out of a core group of major collectors,” said Findlay. “It doesn’t change dramatically from year to year. It changes dramatically over a decade.”
This was made even clearer when we studied the ARTnews 200 of 1996. The study showed that 61 percent, or 122 collectors, who made the list in 1996 were not on the 2006 list.
During our survey, the experts were also asked: In the era of the “I-don’t-care bidder,” how high will the market go? When will the boom bust?
“No one sees an end in sight,’ said Neal Meltzer, a private dealer and former head of contemporary art at Christie’s. “The market will change but no one knows when,” said Luxembourg.
Are there any dark clouds? Or any clouds? “The willingness to buy mediocre paintings is quite pervasive, like in the ’80s,” said one veteran of the ’80s. “Keep in mind that zeros get added and taken away quite easily in our world,” said another.
How big is the universe of collectors ready, willing, and able to spend millions of dollars for a work of art? I asked four knowledgeable observers to give estimates. Because they prefer to remain anonymous, we’ll call them A, B, C, and D. Their answers are on the table above.
Do these collectors have anything in common besides a lot of money? A, B, C, and D were unanimous: To some, it’s a commodity. To some, it’s passion. To some, it’s both.
What’s the difference between a collector and an investor? “The collector wants the work of art more than he wants the money,” said Wynn.
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.