Can collectors predict which works of art will stand the test of time? At a panel at the Frick Collection on 17 November dedicated to contemporary art collecting over the past 200 years, the consensus was clear: probably not.
Mere days after more than $1bn in contemporary art was sold during New York’s autumn auctions, the discussion offered a healthy dose of perspective. The moderator Inge Reist, the director of the Frick’s Center for the History of Collecting, rattled off a list of artists—including Rosa Bonheur, Ludwig Knaus and Jules Breton—who were popular during the art market boom of the 1870s. Although they were favoured by the likes of Henry Clay Frick and Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, few are household names today.
“Anybody seeing the thing in their own time can’t see it with perspective,” said Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), who sat on the panel with the dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes and the collector Mickey Cartin. Influence is determined by an artist’s impact on future generations. “The importance of what we see now depends on the work of artists who haven’t even been born yet,” Govan said.
Nevertheless, the Lacma director offered a tip for enterprising collectors who aspire to assemble important holdings. Hiring an art adviser, he said, is not the only way. “I’m surprised by how many collectors have private consultants when there are so many curators in this city with PhDs,” he said. “If you buy them lunch and occasionally buy a work of art for the museum, they’ll tell you their life story—they’ll tell you everything.”