Buy one, gift one free: why collectors acquire two works and give one away

Buying a work and donating another to a museum sounds like a win-win—but who really benefits?

Take two: collectors may feel good about donating a work to a museum when they buy one for themselves, but, depending on the artist, the donation may not be welcomed David Owens

Take two: collectors may feel good about donating a work to a museum when they buy one for themselves, but, depending on the artist, the donation may not be welcomed David Owens

Want to buy a work by a hot young painter? Well, you may have to buy two—and give one away.

The “buy one, gift one” trend is growing apace. Here is how it works: you are a collector who wishes to buy a piece by an in-demand artist, most likely a painter, quite probably a young one. But competition is stiff and the gallery, sniffing out the most committed collectors, insists you buy two—and donate one to a museum. You may not even get to choose the work you buy, nor the museum it is donated to.

It is a trend that has grown over the pandemic, says the London-based art adviser Emily Tsingou, who sees it as a predominantly US phenomenon because “in America it’s much easier to donate a piece to a museum and you get huge tax breaks as a collector, which obviously don’t exist in Europe”.

The New York-based adviser Lisa Schiff has been aware of this trend since 2015: “Almost everybody does it [for artists with a waiting list]. But it has accelerated now, and particularly for artists who are so young, it doesn’t make sense.” Will it be happening at Frieze? Yes, she says. “It happens all the time: at the Venice Biennale, at the fairs, at the galleries.”

But Schiff stresses that it is not necessarily a bad practice and can be used as a way of dissuading flippers (those who buy an artist’s work to make a quick buck on the secondary auction market). “Artists and galleries have to, in a way, manipulate the system back, to keep the artist happy and build their careers. But there is something funny about the amount of people doing this now, and the question of, do museums even want this work?”. However, sometimes the practice is initiated by the collector, Schiff says: “I look at them and say, what about if we buy two? And then the door opens.”

Schiff recalls a situation with the American artist Mark Bradford, represented by Hauser & Wirth. Collectors were asked to buy a work for themselves, and then a yet-to-be-made work of the gallery and artist’s choosing at an equal price to go to a museum of the gallery’s choice. She says: “This is no criticism of the gallery or the artist. It was around 2017-18 when Mark’s work was starting to break a million, and then some. So to buy two, you had to put down around $3m.” But collectors queued up, even though they “did not have any choice in which works they got”.

In response, Iwan Wirth, the co-founder and president of Hauser & Wirth, says: “We do not comment on details of individual sales. Collectors do donate works to museums, which is an essential part of the art eco-system, and it is vital to museums that they do so.”

The London-based dealer Thomas Dane, exhibiting at Frieze London, says the trend has increased over the past five years. “There is this craziness for certain artists at the moment, and galleries do have to decide [whom to sell works to]. But it should be a more complex discussion.” He thinks the process “should be led by the institutions, as a way of finding a solution to buying an artist whose work they want to acquire. If it’s led too much by the commercial gallery, then it’s a problem.” Buy one, gift one has become too common, “and I think it can be misused,” Dane says.

New York-based Marianne Boesky, another Frieze London exhibitor says it is not something her gallery has ever suggested: “I feel strongly that museums should want the work before it is foisted upon them. Curators should choose the works that enter the collection and not have it chosen for them.” But do collectors suggest buying two and giving one when trying to acquire work? “All day long! What I say is: ‘wonderful, but have the curator contact us first and chose the work’.” Other galleries, Boesky says, “will initiate it—say you can only have a work if you gift one—but sometimes, museums aren’t even aware of an artist’s existence, even though there’s a waiting list for their work.”

Tsingou says “it’s not a good way of filtering down to who is a good collector or not—it’s just going to bring you the collectors who can afford to buy two pieces.” She adds: “If a work is $100,000, and the secondary market value is $800,000, even if you buy two works, you’re still getting a bargain.” And, funnily enough, “you don’t get it with video art—with video art you can buy what you like!”.

Embellishing careers

One London-based gallerist, who asked to remain anonymous, sees this practice as undermining the role of the curator. “Some museums are offered works that they don’t have on their wish list; it is an additional erosion of the agency of the curator. Museums have few internal funds to purchase, and are accepting works that they may have no interest in.” They add: “My friends in museums say they’re getting calls every day about donations they haven’t requested. It just embellishes the career of an artist—these are transactions that are about building false careers. This whole thing about success is often fabricated, it’s a house of cards.”

However, Alex Gartenfeld, the artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, disagrees: “We work closely with some brilliant, field-leading collectors. If they have a great idea, we take it seriously. But it’s the curators and myself who maintain a database of the artists and works that are a priority for our collection. When a great work becomes available, we activate our established donor base.” Does the museum turn down works? “Of course,” he says, “we have difficult choices to make.” By collaborating with collectors on “targeted acquisitions”, the museum is able to buy work it would not otherwise be able to afford. “Our discretionary acquisitions budget is in the low six-figures; this month, just a single painting by an emerging artist, which we acquired with a collector, cost $1m.”

“Museums have few internal funds to purchase, and are accepting works they have no interest in”

Are buy one, gift one acquisitions increasing? Gartenfeld says he has “noted an increase over the past two years”, adding that it “reflects the conditions of the market” and the ever-increasing competition. From an institutional perspective, it means being “extremely rigorous about the work that we accession”.

Although Lisa Austin, a Miami-based adviser, does not like the practice, on a more positive note, at least “the in-demand artists are calling the shots”. Austin also sees this as a development spawned from the top end of the art market becoming “a trading market, not a collecting market”. She says: “From the late 1980s, art became a tradeable commodity in ways that Wall Street could understand. It upset the normal, linear trajectory of artists’ careers. Now, it’s completely upended, and you get a 25-year-old artist’s work suddenly go from $20,000 to $300,000 at auction.”

To the average person, willingly buying two works only to give one away may seem like lunacy. But, in the words of the anonymous gallerist: “I think a lot of people with money enjoy being kicked about—it’s like, ‘if you want in to this club, we’re telling you what to do’.”