“And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you...”
The other day I came across a story by Tristan Bernard (20th century French playwright and novelist) about a man who possessed one of the world’s rarest and perhaps oddest collections. He passionately collected children. His entire collection consisted of children from different marriages, legitimate or not, whom he presented, if not proudly displayed, in his house. A friend of his once sarcastically remarked that the collection lacked a rare specimen — a posthumous child. So, after getting his wife pregnant, the enthusiastic collector committed suicide.
The point of the story is not in the tragic death of the protagonist but in the ardent and often fanatical nature of collectors.
Well, who are collectors? Are they truly these rare in the modern times idealist creatures prone to the romantic notion that objects choose their owners at least as often as the other way around? Tracing back the origins of collecting behaviour we are confronted with Noah— the world’s first known collector. The Biblical figure painstakingly collected each piece in his vast collection creating his own personal utopia. Is not that what every collector really longs for?
Collectors create personal universes, systematic environments consisting of objects that reveal who they truly are. As Ernest Dichter, an American psychologist and marketing expert, said: “In a sense, therefore, the knowledge of the soul of things is possibly a very direct and new and revolutionary way of discovering the soul of a man.”
When asked why people collect, British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark responded: “It is like asking why people fall in love, the reasons are as various.” Meanwhile, American playwright Samuel Nathaniel Behrman suggested that one of the reasons people collect things is the desire for immortality, the subliminal supremacy over death. Collections as heirs, if you will.
Some people collect for prestige and status, with the Medici family being a prime example. In the Far East, an interest in art has been traditionally considered one of the hallmarks of education. Others, seek to invest in art and turn into ‘super collectors’ like Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, Dominique and John de Menil, or Charles Saatchi, all of whom make “…big profits, manipulating the art market to such an extent that they can raise prices just by looking at the artwork,” as Jane Addams Allen, the Washington Times art critic, once pointedly noted.
Motivation, however, is not always monetary, and not all collectors are driven by self-interest. Some collectors are guided by the desire for knowledge, or by the need to discover and preserve the history and culture of far-off lands. Others collect contemporary art to feed their need for hands-on creativity which site-commissioning often amply allows for. Yet others make collecting a family affair using it as a source of unity.
Patriotism has also been known to play a significant role in collecting, particularly in developing nations like the CIS. There is a massive affection for local artists here, often due to heightened national consciousness, as each young country currently stands on the brink of independence and sovereign statehood.
How many ‘children’ does one need to form the perfect collection? Was Noah the only one who managed to achieve a ‘complete set’? Perhaps, it is not about quantity, but about homogeneity as everything that makes up a collection must be interrelated making it both about quality and integrity.
Yet one cannot help but wonder whether it is the incompleteness of collection that pushes collector to keep accumulating. Art world impresario Simon de Pury claimed that collecting is “…an obsession because you are always obsessed by the works that you do not own yet, that haunt you for years.”
Collecting and ardor behind it is an urge beyond rational explanation. In this collectors can be likened to artists with their meticulously compiled collections often becoming works of art themselves. Pierre Rosenberg, a former director of Louvre and passionate collector, considers collecting an ‘unpunished vice’ and jokes that collectors have a spot reserved for them in heaven.
Well, I do not know about the afterlife but one thing remains certain, we cannot live in absolute singularity. One of the foremost intellectual figures of our age, Jean Baudrillard suggested that objects allow us to cope with “…irreversible movement from birth to death.”
The universe of possessions is firmly rooted in psychology, philosophy, desire, beauty, memory, absurdity, immortality, metaphysics. In this way, it reminds plenty of dreams. As Baudrillard mused: “It has been said that if dreams could be experimentally suppressed, serious mental disturbances would quickly ensue… And if the function of dreams is to ensure the continuity of sleep, that of objects thanks to very much the same sort of compromise, is to ensure the continuity of life.” After all, “…what you really collect is always yourself.”
Anyone can speculate on the reasons why someone is doing something. What do the collectors think about it? To avoid going further down a speculative rabbit hole, I spoke to David Leppan, a London based entrepreneur and philanthropist, who collects everything from old masters to contemporary art; Maria Sukkar, one of the most important patrons and collectors in the contemporary art world, who passionately supports young talents and women artists; Alexandra Kremer-Khomassouridze, an eccentric Paris-based photographer with Georgian, Azerbaijani, Russian roots and unusual taste for historic oil refinery shares; young and passionate contemporary art collector Olga Donskova and her fiancé Eugenio Re Rebaudengo, a curator and founder of innovate art platform ARTUNER.
When did you start collecting and why?
Maria: I started collecting fifteen years ago. It all started when I went around art galleries in London and started discovering little gems here and there.
David: I was born in Africa and lived there until 18 years old. When I came to Europe, I was mesmerized by antiques and other art that could be acquired. As a student at the University of Salzburg, I began to buy and sell, mainly silverware, to antique dealers. I guess that is when it all began. It was not until I moved to London many years later, that I could afford more important artwork, and began collecting the old masters.
Alexandra: I collect historic oil refinery shares, which is pretty unusual for a woman. I am originally from Baku, so oil is in my blood [laughs]. I adore the smell and even the very spelling of the word. I find oil thrilling. In the very distant past, I used to restore paintings and porcelain and regularly visited the Hotel Drouot auction house in Paris. During another trip, I have noticed the share dated 1910 from Baku. That is how I began collecting old documents, which has subsequently narrowed to shares of oil refineries from the former Soviet Union.
Olga: I had a lot of friends working in galleries and auction houses in London which made me curious about the world of contemporary art. I first educated myself and then began acquiring pieces.
Eugenio: I grew up surrounded by artists and curators, as my mother has been collecting contemporary art for the last 25 years. I started collecting young artists of my generation a few years ago when I founded ARTUNER. Now, we discover new artists together with Olga, and many of them are now our friends.
What do you think drives collectors to acquire art, to invest time, money and energy?
Maria: I think, a collector is usually attracted to pieces that speak to him or trigger a certain reaction in him. It is a snowball effect.
David: Collecting is really an addiction. I do think that as one gets older, one becomes more focused and more demanding. I am fully aware that the art I bought when I was younger is not as good as what I would consider acquiring today. The eye becomes more trained.
Alexandra: A genuine collector is someone who is interested in the world. Collectors are inquisitive and tireless hunters. They create a goal for themselves and set out to achieve it. It is not only about the acquisition, but also about the hunt itself.
Olga and Eugenio: Collectors are driven by passion and curiosity. Acquiring works of art help feed those qualities.
What are the core principles you use to guide your personal selection? In other words, how do you choose the artist?
Maria: I am attracted to works that look at identity, the human condition, and existentialism. My collection has many women artists at its core.
David: I must love what I buy and I must want to live with it. Old masters are considered out of fashion and yet they are truly so rare. None of them are alive and as such, they cannot create any more canvases. Contemporary and modern art is still often ‘a work in progress’, and yet, global demand for that, which is recognisable,is enormous.
Olga and Eugenio: It is a combination of research and instinct. It is easier for us as that is what we do on a daily basis at ARTUNER.
What determines the value of art? Is artwork an investment?
David: The joy one derives from living with art is incredibly valuable. It has an impact on us every day. Of course, we all hope that it will be a sound investment when giving a large amount of money for a work.
Alexandra: Collection is about unity. It is when individually things are less valuable than when they are combined. The volume and wholeness determine both the price and the artistic/historic value.
Olga and Eugenio: The value lies in the artist’s ability to convey a message relevant to the current times in a fresh and unique manner.
Do you have a particular strategy to form the perfect collection? What do you think makes for an accomplished collection?
Maria: My motto is ‘Buy with your heart and not your ears’. In my opinion, a collection is never finished.
David: There is no such thing as the perfect collection. I think it would be a sad day for all serious collectors if they realised that they have managed to acquire everything they have ever desired.
Alexandra: I do not think collections really reach a state of completion. There will always be something you want to add. In my case, I also own the shares of the Odessa tram, Compagnie Occidentale de Madagascar, Banco di Roma, and Russian-French factories; a photograph taken by a cinematographic society that dealt in colour film, a ticket to the1889 Paris Expo, where the Eiffel Tower debuted, and even shares belonging to the Queen of England. They were all so beautiful, I couldnot resist!
Can you sum up collecting in two words?
David: The hunt.
Olga and Eugenio: A worthy addiction.
Self Portrait as the Billy Goat by Pawel Althamer, 2011. Photograph courtesy of Maria Sukkar
He, She, It by David Czupryn, 2017. Photograph courtesy of Olga Donskova and Eugenio Re Rebaudengo
Historic oil refinery shares. Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Kremer-Khomassouridze
Historic oil refinery shares. Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Kremer-Khomassouridze