SOFA fair, Chicago. Who are the craft collectors?

Many who buy paintings and sculpture are now starting to invest in contemporary decorative arts



Collecting craft objects is becoming increasingly popular as the latest edition of SOFA (the Sculptural Objects and Functional Art fair) held from 28 to 30 October, proves. The event, welcomed 30,000 visitors, double what it attracted a decade ago.

“In the past, many collectors of contemporary decorative arts restricted their holdings to a single medium such as studio ceramics, and often by artists from a single country,” says Holly Hotchner, director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. “Now more collections are international in scope and range and buy across multiple categories.”

Collectors Charles and Andrea Bronfman are a case in point. He is a Seagram’s heir with a large personal collection of French Impressionist and 18th-century French furniture. “Their corporate collection initially focused on Canadian contemporary decorative arts but it has broadened,” says Franklin Silverstone, their corporate curator. He reports that the Bronfmans’ personal collection contains more than 5,000 objects of which 70% are contemporary decorative arts. At SOFA, they purchased an early Dale Chihuly plate as well as glass objects by the Danish designer Tobias Mohl.

Another example is the Philadelphia- and Manhattan-based collecting couple, Linda Johnson and her husband Harold Pote, who have an extensive collection of Philadelphia paintings, folk art and craft. “We collect decoys, mostly shore-birds, but none of the decorative examples,” says Mr Pote, who is a director at JP Morgan Chase. They also own objects in glass and ceramics such as the painterly plates of the Japanese designer Jun Kaneko. The Johnsons do not only buy at fairs: recently they travelled to The Czech Republic and Slovakia to purchase glass objects.

Another sign of the rising profile of craft collecting is the increase in purchases for prominent museums. At SOFA, a collector snapped up a Michael Lucero ceramic and yarn piece which he then gifted to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. “With email, we sent the image to the museum curator and in minutes, that purchase was completed,” says Ms Schneier, a private dealer based in New York. The price was reportedly over $25,000.

The Washington DC attorney Arthur Mason has donated some of his objects in wood to the Mint Museum and eight other institutions including the Yale University Art Gallery. “Now my purchasing is more analytical and I look only for things of historical and artistic importance that will fit in a museum collection,” says Mr Mason. He has served on several museum boards including the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery. “That kind of service is a way of promoting the field,” says Mr Mason.

Diverse collecting across multiple fields is not limited to the US. The London ceramics dealer Anita Besson reports seeing more collectors who also hold substantial collections of fine art. “I have a collector who owns paintings by Rothko, Picasso and Léger who has also bought several ceramic objects by Lucy Rie and Hans Coper. More collectors are seeing ceramics as art.”

Shortly after SOFA ended, the London Daily Mail Group (dmg) announced that it had bought the two SOFA fairs (the other is held in New York in June) for $4.35 million. Dmg already organises the Palm Beach3 and Palm Beach! fairs in Miami in January and February, and also owns a string of lower-level fairs.