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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Collecting as a Competitive Sport

I've been surprised by the response to John Colapinto's March 20 New Yorker profile of Sotheby's Tobias Meyer.

Everyone's favorite critic Jerry Saltz got himself all worked up over the piece in a letter posted on MAN yesterday, and Edward Winkleman used it as an occasion to work through the conflicts he feels about being a market maker.

Saltz's main beef (that the piece neglected to critique the auction scene in its glossy presentation of Meyer's work and lifestyle) misses the point. The critique is there. You just need to read between the lines to find it.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Dollar SignColapinto goes to great length to set Meyer up as the ultimate connoisseur. In addition to contemporary art, Colapinto tells us, Meyer can pontificate on medieval painting, and "he is also an authority on Renaissance and rococo art, gilt bronzes, antique French furniture, German porcelain, French illuminated manuscripts, and countless other man-made objects."

But then we get a chance to enter Meyer's home. What have he and his partner, the well connected art consultant and WPS1 personality Mark Fletcher, installed in their living room on the sixty-sixth floor of the Time Warner Center? Pieces by Tim Noble and Sue Webster (a dollar sign), Andy Warhol, and assume vivid astro focus.

My antennae start to twitch (and not in a good way) whenever I hear of a collector who owns a piece by any one of these artists. To have scored the trifecta makes a strong statement.

To be fair, this bit of information is really too small to use to make a judgment on the collection as a whole, but let me say this anyway. It appears that Meyer and Fletcher aren't collecting quality. They're collecting names--the most recognizable names of the past half century and the hottest names of the moment. This doesn't make them the ultimate connoisseurs of today's art. What it makes them is very successful consumers in today's white hot market.

And that's what Saltz despises about the auction scene. The dropping of names and the showy display. The conspicuous preening and the games related to building prestige. Collecting as competition, not collecting for love of the work.

Tobias Meyer and his finest momentColapinto drives the point home by quoting Meyer extensively in the closing paragraph of the piece. Here's Meyer wrestling with his career demons:
"I was laughing with Mark yesterday, because I was having my anxious moment. I was saying, 'I'm not doing enough of this, I have to do more of that, and what's going on, and blah-blah-blah.' And he said, 'Baby, will you relax? Tobias, you just sold the most expensive work of art ever'--meaning Picasso's Boy with Pipe two years ago. "And I said, 'I know, but that was then!'"
So at the end of the day, what Meyer has is not the love of the object, the satisfaction of scholarship, the intellectual rewards of intelligent connoisseurship, or the delight he could find being in the presence of great art on a daily basis. What he has is the mega-huge sale. It's subtle, but that's a pretty damning critique.

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