The Evolution of Art Collecting: What Has and Hasn’t Changed in the Past 2000 Years

In antiquity, magnificent treasures were collected by Greek and Roman epochs as a symbol of wealth and status. During the renaissance, wealthy noblemen curated and commissioned artworks by the biggest artists of the day. Today, large auction houses consistently break records as rabid collectors scurry to purchase the most high-profile artworks. The collection of art has always been a constant throughout history and even today wealthy collectors dictate the market. What has changed is the large variety of outlets that artists can use to showcase their work and the wide array of entry points into a traditionally rich blooded marketplace.

The kings and monarchs of early civilizations such as Egypt, Babylonia, China, and India collected riches in order to showcase their wealth and power. Precious golden, bronze, and lapis lazuli encrusted treasures decorated everything from palaces, to temples, and tombs. These treasures were often the shiny spoils of conquest rather than collecting for appreciation of the objects themselves. Collecting for the appreciation of art started in Greece and became even more pronounced during the subsequent Roman conquest. The Romans started by taking Greek art as spoils but eventually became so enamored with it that wealthy Romans began actively seeking out certain sculptures and paintings. Emperors such as Caesar and Pompey went so far as to even commission likenesses and derivatives of Greek art if they were unable to procure originals.

Renewed infatuation with Greek and Roman art sustained one of the most important periods of collecting history, the renaissance. In Europe, wealthy collectors not only trafficked in antique Greek and Roman art but collected artworks by modern masters of the day. Soon the most elite members of society curated massive private collections for their own educational enjoyment or more importantly to show off to their other wealthy friends. The Age of Enlightenment saw these aptly named Cabinets of Curiosity (Wunderkammers) amassing artwork from all over the world as their owners embarked on cross continental voyages to plunder and trade. Voyaging, plundering, and buying artwork is naturally an expensive business that forced many collectors into bankruptcy. Some collectors, like Charles Wilson Peale or Eugene du Simitiere, began admitting the general public for a small fee to try and make ends meet, creating what is essentially a precursor to the modern museum.

The industrial revolution fattened the pockets of many middle-class households by providing more profitable and readily available work. Consequently, there were less financial or class barriers to the rich blooded practice of art collecting. In the America’s, the desire to catch up with Europe in both the museum and art collecting sphere was tantamount. Rich American business barons, such as J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Flick, sought to amass collections of old masters as well as the Avant Garde artworks of the day.

The twentieth century was home to one of the darkest stains on collecting history, World War II. In the heat of war both the axis and allied powers looted and destroyed artworks across the globe. Leaders and generals amassed sizable collections which they began hiding in caves, castles, or underground bunkers. The Nazi’s also destroyed artworks deemed “degenerate” in the name of art purification. It is estimated that over hundreds of thousands of works were stolen or destroyed. Later in the twentieth century auction houses and art galleries became popular. With the surge of art galleries in the 1970s, artists now had a way to connect with other like-minded artists and have knowledgeable advocates for their work.

Modern collecting has not really changed all that much from its earliest forms in antiquity and the renaissance. It is still primarily the hobby of the rich and cultural elite who have the funding to fetch artworks going for hundreds of millions of dollars at auction. High profile sales account for nearly 95% of the total art market with only about 2.25% dedicated to emerging contemporary artists. It goes without saying that the modern art market is incredibly unbalanced and top heavy, however, there are still more entry points for emerging artists and collectors than ever. Online marketplaces and social media provide avenues for artists to take their careers into their own hands. They may not fetch as much as the art at auction, but with enough determination and aggressive marketing, an artist might be able to make a following for themselves. The online art market, art fairs and events, and even modern art galleries offer artworks at a variety of price points and formats.

The problem with this modern wild west of art collecting is that it is largely unregulated and there are no standards across the board on how to handle art transactions and authentication. The dark stains of collecting’s past, such as the looting of indigenous art or the hundreds of thousands of stolen Nazi era artworks, create many problems for the present. When stolen works turn up at auctions or in collections, it not only spells embarrassment but also a whole host of legal and ethical problems. The absurd price points of high-profile art inspire many to try to get in on the action, some in more insidious ways than others. It is estimated that over fifty percent of all artwork is forged. Today’s high-profile collectors not only want to impress, they want to make a solid financial investment that might yield high returns in the future. To do so, they need to ensure that the artwork they are getting is both legitimate and legal.

From antiquity all the way to modern times, art collecting has been a hobby of the cultural elite, allowing them to project power, appear educated, or to simply impress. As collecting advanced, there became more access points both for collectors without bottomless pockets and for artists who wanted to advocate for themselves. The modern collector has an assortment of options to purchase works at a variety of different price points. However, poor regulation, ramifications of collecting’s dark past, and greedy counterfeiters create troublesome barriers for the collector to navigate. Collecting will continue to evolve and I have no doubt that collectors will continue to diversify as time goes on. Nonetheless, drastic change is needed to the very fabric of art transactions and documentation in order to ensure that collectors remain safe and satisfied.

— Article by: Christopher Rahmeh