Lessons from the world’s best art collectors

Are you thinking of starting an art collection? Here is a brief guide to some of the 20th Century’s best art collectors, and a lesson we can learn from each of their stories.

Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011)

Denis Mahon majored in art history at Oxford in the early 1930s. At the recommendation of Kenneth Clarke, Mahon specialised in Italian art of the 17th Century (Italian Baroque), a period of art which was under-studied and very much out of fashion with tastemakers and collectors in Britain at the time.

He made his first purchase by the artist known as Guercino in 1934, and a second – Elijah fed by Ravens – in 1936. Having failed to convince the National Gallery to acquire Elijah fed by Ravens from him at cost price, Mahon proceeded to form a collection of Italian Baroque Masters, with a view to being able to place his acquisitions in British museums some time in the future, when their intrinsic merits were recognised.

Thanks largely to Mahon’s efforts at scholarship, the artists of the Italian Baroque did receive their due recognition. His collection, acquired at modest prices, found its way via his philanthropy in to major museums exactly as he had envisaged.

Takeaway: Pick a period or an artist to study and collect in depth

Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948- )

A young Lloyd Webber famously spotted Sir Frederick Leighton’s 1895 masterpiece Flaming June in the window of an antique shop in the early 1960s and coveted it. Unable to convince his grandmother to loan him the purchase price, his precocious taste was nevertheless formed.

Lloyd Webber went on to collect artists of the Pre-Raphaelite school and other high Victorian paintings voraciously, against the general tide of art opinion which mostly disdained art of those periods. His collection of Pre-Raphaelite artists is now rated as the best in private hands. Values for the artists continue to rise but Lord Lloyd Webber has announced that his collection will eventually be left in trust to the British nation.

Takeaway: Collect “out-of-fashion” artists, but only if they are genuine talents

Dorothy Vogel (1935- ) and Herbert Vogel (1922-2012)

Serious art collecting is often thought to be the preserve of the rich, however Dorothy and Herbert Vogel put together an impressive collection of modern art on two very small incomes. It helped of course that they lived in New York City with its thriving art market and large population of artists.

Cultivating a taste for avant-garde minimal art and conceptual art, they befriended artists before they were well-known, made repeat purchases and paid things off over time. Sensibly they restricted themselves to works that were portable and could fit in their small apartment. Their collection of approximately 5,000 pieces has been donated to public museums in the United States.

Takeaway: Collecting artists at the start of their career can be rewarding

Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)

Peggy Guggenheim was of course an heiress, but not the wealthiest member of the Guggenheim clan. Born in New York, she opened an art gallery in London in 1938 exhibiting leading modernist artists. Although critically acclaimed it was not financially successful, so after just one year she changed direction and decided to put together a collection for a future museum of modern art. She bought works by Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Dali, Klee, Ernst and others in Paris on the eve of World War II, no doubt the political uncertainty of the time driving the sellers to make quick decisions.

Escaping Nazi-occupied France to return to New York in 1941 she started another commercial gallery / museum venture called Art of this Century. She famously supported Jackson Pollock’s career and held what is thought to be first exhibition dedicated to contemporary women artists, amongst many other notable activities.

Guggenheim’s long planned museum ultimately ended up taking root in her home in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, Italy where her collection is now one of the highlights of a city packed with art treasures.

Takeaway: Have a long-term vision for your collection

Starting an art collection can be a daunting, so I hope this post has given you some inspiration. If you would like more advice, please do get in touch.

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