To preserve or to enjoy: that’s the question

My art world career started with cataloguing collections of paintings, sculpture and decorative art. I much enjoyed the process because I got to know the objects whilst researching them. I tried to guess to whom they would have belonged over the years, decades and centuries. I still love handling art: seeing a monumental painting being carefully taken out of the crate and unwrapped feels like getting a birthday present – even though the work is not mine. Having advised private collectors for almost twelve years now I am still surprised by the strong views that exist on art, its purpose and how it should be used.

There is a dichotomy between the function of an artwork and its meaning which is often attributed many years after the work was produced. In the art market, artworks are commodities, investments even, although marketing efforts suggest otherwise. Conversely, the museum world exists around the notion that art, whether fine or decorative, should be used for display and research in public institutions and that it should be preserved for future generations. Naturally there is logic in both viewpoints. In relation to the latter: many important works have disappeared in private collections and they will not be accessible to the public for generations.

As art prices have shot through the roof it has become very costly to buy back such works: the National Gallery in London and the Scottish National Gallery have recently raised GBP 45 million in order to be able to reunite Titian’s Diana and Callisto with Diana and Atteone which they purchased in 2009. It is ironic that whilst museums are raising big bucks to buy works of this calibre many of their holdings are languishing in the basements of their institutions. Public museums have little funds or space to adequately care for, let alone display these works. The rules for deaccession are still draconian in most countries and as a result museums are prohibited from selling unwanted works, regardless of their historical relevance, research potential or visitor appeal. Yet museums are forced to replenish their collections at market prices.

I met with a conservator once who was rather upset at the thought of antique silver cutlery or 18th Century Meissen porcelain being used to serve a collector’s dinner. Another conservator I spoke to opined that paintings should never be hung in the kitchen of a collector’s home because the work could be damaged by cooking fumes (which, as it goes, is a fair assessment). Public institutions are devoted to protecting and researching our heritage for future generations: the museum paradigm exists for good reasons. However, I don’t think the approach is appropriate for each and every piece of art. Granted, a pair of Titians would be a fantastic addition to many museum collections but not all art is of equal quality or historical importance. Many works of fine and decorative art were made to be used in every day life: to serve soup, decorate the living room or document one’s ancestors. The objects would be more or less ornate depending on the buyer’s budget.

Therefore, the commercial art market serves a purpose. It allows people to do exactly what was done by their predecessors centuries ago which is to use and live with beautiful or meaningful objects. It is well-known that once an artwork enters a public collection, it will never enter the market again. If museums were allowed to deaccession works that do not fit their collections many more people would be able to buy and enjoy these objects. Art prices would not get sky-high because the rarity factor would (to some extent) be taken out of the equation and museums would be able to buy suitable works at more reasonable prices.

We have the responsibility to protect our heritage but I don’t think that we should be overly religious about it: artworks unfortunately do get damaged, destroyed or simply disintegrate. Luckily, there is no shortage of art: every generation of artists and designers produces many objects of which some are good enough to stand the test of time. But we will only acknowledge this in hindsight: 50 years from now, when we start devoting funds to their preservation.


© Bruins Private Collections Consultancy 2012. All rights reserved.

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