What makes a “successful” collector?

Our pal NorCal had a great question recently, one that got me thinking (and back in the mood for prose after goodness knows how many tangential months of poetry):

What do you think makes a successful collectors item or collection of items? I understand historical, scarcity, value/perceived value. But you have much more experience in collecting outside of the digital and wondering your thought on the difference or crossover?

We’ve already defined a “collector” previously on these pages, and in a manner that’s aged rather well given that the article was written in 2018 – a healthy number of years before my own crypto-art-collecting began – but at that time at least, we didn’t touch on what “success” looked like. And success is important! Air quotes or not. So what does “success” look like in the space of material accumulation, whether they be digital or physical?

Let’s look at the six (6) relevant angles by which a “successful” collector gains advantage, either in whole or in part:

1. Curiousity: Especially for the geekier among us, the world of collectibles and its rich history – one of power, prestige, and nerdy obsession with seemingly “unnecessary” detail – can be only too engrossing. We’ll get lost in not only vintage works but even vintage catalogues of said works, immersing ourselves in the “smallness as protection” against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune whizzing only too close overhead. Sterling examples of this in the Crypto Art space look like Artnome and TokenAngels, to name just a few of the earliest “good collectors.i For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the nerdiest wins!ii

2. Financial Gain: Everyone’s favourite angle in the Late Capitalist era, this one is arguably the trickiest, principally because the financial angle is often a deceptively poor risk-reward proposition given the illiquid nature of collectibles as an asset class and the stiff spreads that result during their sale and purchase.iii Extreme success in this domain often looks like market-making, as exemplified by the Mugrabis and their Warhol collection, but in the case of Crypto Art it really just looks like being 3-6 months early to the party and then – counterintuitively to most early crypto adopters, myself included – not HODLING and y’know just dumping into the hype. For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the wealthiest wins.

3. Social Status: This angle – arguably the most important for Zôion politikòn such as ourselves – has a few sub-angles contained therein: i) within the collector community; ii) within the broader social context; iii) within the artistic community. Though of course these sub-angles can all be blended together as in the case of the Arensbergs, who melded Duchamp and Brancusi with New York high society while also working closely with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the early-to-mid-20th century, this is somewhat exceptional. For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the most popular wins. So let’s breakdown these sub-angles and look at each of them in more detail:

  • i) Within the collector community: this is what’s typically (and implicitly) understood by “ROI” for “successful” collectors and goes a very long ways to explaining the herd-like and largely unoriginal mentality of so many soi-dissant “patrons of the arts.” It’s basically buying entrée into an elite social network with implicit member dues and annual fees. While many “true” collectors will shit on those who just go through the motions for the sake of status, the status game isn’t a bad trade by most accounts, and certainly no worse than pretending to care about albino rhinos or starving africans.
  • ii) Within the broader social context: this can be thought of as “social domination” on the actual hierarchy of needs, which is to say “kiss the ring” and/or “put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain, so you can let all the boys know I died standing pat” but with slightly more subtlety and finesse.
  • iii) Within the artistic community: this is “success” that comes from opening up the wormhole that is the artist’s mind and finding existential solace in this novelty of new perspectives, puddle jumping from one far-out viewpoint to the next and whole-heartedly entering into dialogue with the sharpest fringes of society. This sub-angle can also include nurturing new artists, mentoring them, and generally taking them under your wing.

For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the most popular, respected, and possibly even feared wins.

4. Tastemaking: Related but distinct from #3, there’s a manner in which tastemaking gallerists dealers such as Larry Gagosianiv or Eric Ku could be considered “collectors,” and massively successful ones at that. These tastemaking dealers are market-makers and ultimately empire builders with huge amounts of social capital parlayed through networks of the most influential (and insecure) individuals on the planet. Along the way, their specific aesthetic sensibilities are established as superior and arguably even definitive. Of course it’s not only dealers that have this ability, but the very top-tier of collectors as well, including the likes of Joe Hagev and Auro Montonari (aka John Goldberger). But the tastemaker class is often the most extractive class of all in the collecting community, not content with merely accumulating prized objects but also with expanding their power and prestige by any and all means necessary. For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the wealthiest and most powerful win.

5. Legacy: Good ol’ Johnny Pierpont was a hell of a collector, but because he didn’t have the foresight of mining magnate Solomon R. Guggenheim in “doing a Bilbaoavant la lettre, we mostly remember the late great Mr. Morgan as a “robber baron.” Contrariwise, Messrs. Getty, Broad, Rubell, Glenstone,vi have clearly absorbed Mr. G’s finer points of legacy and self-determined writing of history books, and are likewise fashioning cultural institutions of import in their own images. There’s really no better way! For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the ones remembered for the most centuries wins.vii

6. Spirituality: To the extent that Tyler Cowen is correct in stating that collecting art is “one of the most important things a human being can do“,viii to the extent that “mystical domination” sits atop the actual hierarchy of needs, and to the extent that art is power, there’s a higher calling that drives at least some of us to craft our own meaning and value in this all-too-perplexing world, and to call upon the visionaries and mystics named “artists” to assist us on our journey. For those collectors focusing primarily on this angle, the closest to Hashem wins.ix

And that’s it! These six angles of “successful” collecting now so presented, what does Ol’ Pete think is the difference or crossover between collecting digital and physical objects? Well, not terribly much! Collecting is collecting is collecting, just as people are people are people. It was only ever thus. Maybe the spreads are a little tighter and the speed is a little faster for digital objects, but the fundamentals remain the same. How could they not? Blockchain is just a database, not Super-Soldier Serum.

‘Til next time, remember: being “successful” is like the male penis, it comes in many shapes and sizes, and they’re all good just the way they are.

  1. Archived.
  2. Bonus points for writing books or otherwise publishing academic-grade material.
  3. The spreads really are nuts! And I don’t just mean KnownOrigin’s 12.5%… Work with an auction house to sell your watch, car, or painting and they’re taking 25 points from the buyer and 10 points from the seller (35 points overall), or feel free to work with a dealer who takes 5-10 points per side (10-20 points overall), but either way you’re looking at a seriously steep house advantage. So unless you happen to be dealing with extremely non-linear corners of the collectibles world, as in the case of JPEGs, the deck is wildly stacked against you when it comes to “investing” in collectibles.
  4. New Yorker profile archived.
  5. Joe has some great perspectives on art!

    FWIW this is really Jordan B. Peterson at his best (don’t waste your money seeing JBP live – ask me how I know)
  6. The Glenstone (WaPo profile archived) looks to me a must-see for anyone in the Washington DC area. I’ll be heading there in October!
  7. Like the Medicis, which is why Coz’s branding is so savvy.
  8. Archived.
  9. There’s of course a manner in which Spirituality is also linked to Curiousity! As Zohar Atkins explains:

    The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, adds another layer to Moses’s advice. Not only should the Israelites pursue observance of mitzvot in such a way that it leads to wisdom, but they should pursue wisdom wherever it can be found. That means that the pursuit of study even outside the explicit purview of Torah becomes a kind of divine commandment—so long as it leads to wisdom. The Torah itself does not teach astronomy, but if astronomy is needed to be wise, then the Torah requires us to learn it. We see a parallel here to Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and Solomon’s ability to speak to animals. Communication with the natural world and communication with non-Israelites require perspective taking, empathy, active listening, and general sensitivity. They also require one to assume a kind of unity of knowledge or “consilience.” If God is one, then the world is one, and its wisdom is one.

2 thoughts on “What makes a “successful” collector?

  1. […] in pretending that it is: that buying a cool things makes us cool by extension. No matter how nerdy, dad-bodied, and patently foolish we happen to be. Especially, it seems, when it comes to […]

  2. […] how inconvenient (or convenient) these truths might be, they all incite a very finely-tuned form of material consumption as a means of shielding our psyches from the oncoming DOOM TRAIN.x And […]

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