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A collector is a person who collects items of a specific type, such as stamps, vintage furniture or collectable sneakers. If a person either professionally or as a hobby accumulates a particular subject of item, they are generally called a collector. Art collectors existed since ancient Egypt and Greece where individuals were interested in acquiring objects to demonstrate their taste and reflect their wealth and status. Since then, the nature of collecting has not changed much, in that collectors often choose items they are passionate about, but what has shifted is that collectors have other motivations than simply showing off their lifetime possessions.

Throughout art history, each generation witnessed art collectors who are responsible for the rise of certain artists through supporting them in one way or another. In contemporary art, collectors buy art for many different reasons and they broadly fall into three types, the lovers, the hunters, and the patrons. These are divided by their core motivations but they are not always clean cut, and more often than not, some aspects of each reason for collecting merge into each other.

Pablo Picasso
Gertrude Stein, 1905-6
Oil on canvas
100 x 81.3 cm (39.4 x 32 in.)
Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946
© 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl
284.5 x 284.5 cm (112 x 112 in.)
© Barbara Kruger
Collection of The Broad, Los Angeles

The Lovers

An art lover when they collect, often “fall in love” with an artwork before they buy. They have a basis that they generally enjoy seeing artworks in exhibitions and gallery showrooms and appreciate art even if a particular piece is not exactly to their taste. Some collectors do more than expand their own collection and donate to museums to share their love for art with the public. The late American art collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947-2018) was a major advocate for Black artists and upon her death in 2018, more than 650 artworks were donated between the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Duke Ellington School of Art, marking the largest gift ever made of contemporary art by people of African descent. Art collectors and philanthropists Eli (1933-2021) and Edythe Broad founded The Broad in LA, in 2015, which consists of their collection of art from the 1950s to the present. The museum made possible the accessibility of their private collection to the wider audience through exhibitions and education, bridging the gap between the private collection and the public.

The Hunters

Some collectors’ main motivation in collecting art might lean towards seeking profit by selling on artworks, like two brothers, Ezra and David Nahmad who are estimated to have thousands of artworks in their collection. The Nahmad brothers’ strategy is quite simple; they buy a lot of artworks, then hold them in a warehouse in Geneva until they sell them on to make a profit. Artworks in this type of collecting environment may seem like they are treated as stock, as their prices are set through a systematic method, indicating the best time to buy and sell for the maximum capital gain. Artworks traded in this way are less likely to be seen in public, as chances are that they will end up in another private collector’s storage. Although artworks collected in this way may be used to make money, it is noteworthy that the reason is perhaps in the value each artwork holds that is bigger than the financial significance.

Henri Matisse
Young Woman on a Divan. Black Ribbon, 1922
Oil on canvas
47 x 56.1 cm (18.5 x 22.1 in.)
Collection of the Nahmad, Switzerland

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe
David Theodore, 2021
Oil on canvas
365.8 x 274.3 cm (144 x 108 in.)
© Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe
Collection of the Rubell Museum, Miami

The Patrons

A patron may not necessarily collect artworks, but some collectors are important patrons of the arts who sponsor artists. Patronage and collecting are sometimes linked especially when the collector’s vision extends to the wider ecology of art, caring beyond their collection. Like the etymology of the word patron that comes from Latin for father and protector, patrons of the arts foster and support artists through financial means. Gertrude and Leo Stein are well-known for their early purchase of Pablo Picasso’s painting in 1905 and holding a weekly salon from their home where talented artists and writers can gather, including Henri Matisse and Ernest Hemingway. Donald and Meral Rubell started their collection by focusing on emerging artists, leading them to open a foundation in 1993. One of the largest and most significant private collectors of contemporary art with over 7,000 artworks by more than 1,000 artists, the Rubell Family then expanded their family collection into the Rubell Museum in 2019 in Miami. The museum also has been operating yearly ‘artist in residence’ since 2011 to support artists at a critical stage in their career.

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