The Anonymous Collector

Posted on May 9, 2010


Buying Big Art has become an intriguing mystery worthy of a game of Clue. Who Done IT? Was it the Russian tycoon or his Butler? Recently a Picasso, Nude with Green Leaves and Bust…

( reminds of the panda joke, A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter dead. As the panda stands up to go, the bartender shouts, “Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich.” The panda yells back at the bartender, “Hey man, I’m a PANDA. Look it up!” The bartender opens his dictionary to “panda” and reads: “A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.” My Bad)

… Sold at a Christie’s Auction for $106.5 million. The question remains who was that Masked Man or Woman who bought it. The list could be narrowed down to a hand full of power full collectors;  most remain anonymous. Who has that kind of disposable cash? The price paid for the Picasso is a respectable fortune by any standard. The price far exceeds any museum acquisition budget of even the largest institutions.  What that means is most of the available art treasures on the planet that command these prices will remain in the private collections of the super wealthy. Wealth after all does have privileges. Certainly these powerful buyer’s have many very good reasons to remain anonymous. The issue of Security alone is reason enough to keep a low profile.

Still I think something important is lost, to this world of powerful Sellers and Collectors shrouded in mystery. The loss is Art itself. This is where all the fundamental reasons we Create Art and the Art market separate. Art becomes a valuable, precious commodity where the value is measured in dollars, euros and yens. Lost is the aesthetic, the ideas and the purpose of the original work. We measure value in economic terms.

Big Art is simply Big Money. At a time in history when global currencies are volatile a Picasso valued as a commodity is a good place to stash your wealth.

Roberta Smith, in her New York Times article, The Coy Art of the Mystery Bidder. Wouldn’t it be nice if the seller had donated the Picasso to a museum. Or if the anonymous buyer had just donated $100 million to the New York City Library. Of course that would have been nice, but this is where altruistic purpose and reality are divided.

Except for Herbert and Dorothy Vogel who gave their collection of Abstract Expressionism worth a fortune at any auction house to the National Gallery of Art. The collection described as one of the most important collections of modern art in the world was a modestly stated gift to the nation by two life long collectors who collected because they loved and appreciated Art, not money, the couple never sold any of the art they collected. They used the money they earned as a Postal Worker and a Librarian to buy the art, most of the time directly from the artists. Herb and Dorothy also collected many life long friends along the way and they have lived in my opinion a life far richer than any amount of wealth can buy, a life rich with friends, family and art at its center.

Roberta Smith wrote, “I also wished that the Brody family, which put the Picasso on the block, had given it to a museum, settling for 50 years of private pleasure from a painting they loaned to an exhibition only once, plus their name in perpetuity on a modest pasteboard wall label”.

It was that statement, Roberta’s wish that made clear to me the difference between the natural and true power of the arts and the reality of the market. I wish like Roberta the world was different. But the world of our wishes exists somewhere across the rainbow, where the Vogel’s will live in eternity when the day comes.

In our world, a land of stark realities, even if the anonymous and powerful collectors did want to share their good fortune only a handful of major museums in the world could afford to host an exhibition of such valuable artworks. The insurance costs to mount a major exhibition alone would weed out 99% of all museums and galleries. The numbers of museums that could even dream of acquiring through accusation of such works of art is even smaller.

Many museums today that hold these valuable treasures in their collections face another threat created by prices that guarantee a fortune at auction. The threat of select deaccession of collections to generate money. Museum boards across the land are looking to cherry pick their collections to raise cash. Like in the much debated case of the Rose Art Museum.


Brandeis University, anticipating a budget deficit of more than $10 million over five years, has voted to close its art museum and sell a collection that includes pieces by Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning.

I wish I could believe the reality of the Rose was an isolated case. However I know that with the pressure created by the current economic situation worldwide these decisions are being thought about, discussed and acted on by desperate museum boards. The value of Art in the Art Market distorts all of the reasons we make and appreciate art in the first place.

Art sales are important to artists. Artists have a fundamental need to survive and that takes money. Most artists are satisfied with enough money to keep on working, making art and to be able to afford a reasonable living. However once a work of art enters the market it’s very nature changes forever unless it finds a home with a collector that loves it, like the Vogel’s

Certainly Mrs. Brody loved her Picasso, that she lived with for 50 years, but did her heir’s have the love? The reality is my heirs and yours will most likely go for the money. They will cash out the family home and everything in it in most cases. Heir’s often don’t have the personal, emotional invest in our stuff regardless of what that stuff is, especially if it has value. Truth be told if I find a Picasso in my old Moms storage it is going to auction. Oh sure I will have a nice reproduction made of it and hang it on the wall of my studio to remind me of where my good fortune came from.

Why? Because the Art market represents the past and Art requires that we move forward. Yes those ideas were important in their time and still have importance now. But the NOW is far more important to living artists and I would hope to Art patrons. So let the art market have it’s precious commodities and let the rest of us move on and live in the present and look towards a future shaped by Art, life with art at its center and Ideas that are NOW.