The art collecting instinct


Dear Artist,

Gail Thompson of Markham, Ontario, Canada, writes, “I would like to see a letter on why collectors will continue to collect original art. Being in sales, I always look for customer benefits first so I am sure I can meet my objectives.”

Thanks for that, Gail. Hunting, gathering and acquisitiveness have been part of human nature since the beginning of time. As primitive societies began to find a bit of leisure — the collecting of unnecessary items began. I’ll bet that pretty stones and colored leaves were the first unnecessary collected items. Then, the decorating and embellishment of practical items began to take place. Archaeologists have found, and continue to find, art objects from the earliest times. As societies grew more complex, humans started to collect more sophisticated items — stamps, pottery, classic cars, antiques, hockey cards, art. Art has a unique place among collectibles. It represents an individual connection between the producer and the collector. In original art, each collectible is a unique piece. While it may be part of a set, the collector gets the joy of breaking that set and holding for himself a part of the whole. The collector also has the joy of collecting a part of the artist, his life, his struggle, even his mood. This is of course less true in the collecting of reproduction art where other hands have taken part in the process.

The brilliance of art as a collectible is that it has a way of reaching out on an emotional level. It touches on mystery, even spirituality. Furthermore, there are connectors involved. Some of these connectors are sentiment, souvenir, decoration, memorial, worship, intellectual challenge, obligation, gift, vanity, snobbery, wealth display, escape, extravagance, scandal, tax-flip, shock value, life-enhancement, investment. Negative and positive, these connectors will continue to be part of human nature, and because of them, so will art.

As in a lot of buying and selling — the reasons people give for doing what they do — are often not the real reasons. Over the years I’ve watched the excitement shown by art collectors when caught in the act. I’ve often wondered about their motivation. They’re not always straight-forward and up front. Sometimes I think that, on a conscious level, they really don’t know the benefits. They just want the stuff. It’s in their blood. Thank goodness.

Best regards,


PS: “Collecting brings out that primitive instinct for the hunt in some of its devotees, who stalk their prey with skill.” (Alicia Craig Faxon)

Esoterica: I heard about a couple living in a small town who had a lot of my paintings — bought over a period of time — so much a month. When I was in the area I dropped by to introduce myself. Modest home, threadbare chesterfield, mismatched chairs, no TV, no kids. My paintings were hung high, all around. “We would have more of yours,” the man said, “but we ran out of hooks.”

The following are selected correspondence related to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Love those appreciators
by Kitty Wallis

Some collectors of art seem to have one of our most popular forms of craziness: greed. However, I have met some who are appreciators. They appreciate the skill of the artist, our artistic successes and most especially the contribution art makes to the owner’s life. One described it like this: “I wonder why many people don’t realize what fine art does for a home. It pours energy into my life, unending energy, every day.”


Collecting art and “necessity”
by Catherine Jo Morgan, Georgia, USA

I was amazed that you connected the origins of art with “the collecting of unnecessary items.” Do you really believe that art is unnecessary? Just a nice addition to practical life? Everything I’ve read about early human beings indicates that art was inextricably entwined with religion. To me, art is “food for the soul” — enlivening and whole making –- sometimes bland, sometimes very spicy and stimulating — maybe sometimes even “junk food,” but a basic human necessity. Why certain people collect art in a certain culture at a certain time may be a different question. I’m just addressing your comments on the origins of art. I’m curious to know if other artists believe that their work is unnecessary, just a decoration.

(RG note) There’s a possibility that you may be mixing up the beginning of art making with the beginning of collecting stuff. The latter started when some cave-kid put three pebbles in a row. There was no practical necessity to this act, other than the satisfaction of an inner need. This may be the beginning of the “food for the soul,” that you are talking about. It has something to do with the eternal quest for order and meaning in the universe, and therefore a spiritual necessity. I’ve never been against spiritual necessities.


Our rules for collecting art:
by Paul Bates, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

(1) We have to enjoy the piece. The plan is to have it for a long time, and we have to look at it most. (2) The artist has to be an ARTIST (always was and always will be). (3) The possibility of appreciation in value has to exist. This leads to very selective buying. (4) Decisions are made by the whole family.


Supply vs. demand in art
by Keena Friedrichsmeier Payne, Bella Coola Valley, B.C., Canada


painting by
Keena Friedrichsmeier Payne

I have a question regarding quantity vs. scarcity. I had been reading recently that the value of your paintings will go up when there is not enough to meet demand (scarcity) — and this is a good thing. But, I had also read that when you produce a lot of art, the market becomes saturated with your works and then there is less demand for it. Simple economics. It seems to point to the direction of producing fewer works, having fewer works available to the buying public. You seem to produce a great deal, and obviously you are well paid — so there is more demand for your work than you produce, and your market is not saturated. Could you please comment?

(RG note) Good question Keena, and worthy of debate. To me the important thing is the perception of rarity. This is done by controlling how many works go out into the system, how many are seen to be available at any one time. I believe that the galleries supplied by average producing young artists should have 10 to 20 works at any one time. Galleries and artists alike might choose to keep some in the back room. The number of galleries supplied by an artist ought to be determined by an artist’s output. If an artist is only able to produce a dozen paintings a year then there is often not enough to create a market. Ironically, many slow-producing artists have gone into serial reproduction, and this, if done carefully, tends to validate and make even rarer the precious few originals.

With regard to supply and demand — an artist has to take into account a production level that is high enough to continue the creative stimulation. This is very important. Suitable work-flow and balanced productivity equals happiness. It’s a very individual matter. The market is something else. In my experience every artist has to put on his or her own thinking cap and make a few commercial decisions in order to enter and stay in a thriving zone.


Voice of an evolved art collector
by Karl Dempwolf, California, USA


painting by Karl Dempwolf

Speaking of collectors and collecting — only one person who collects my paintings comes to mind, a school teacher who does not have money to waste, but who saves and scrimps to buy my work. She has expressed in words what she feels when viewing my paintings, words and feelings that I wish all of my collectors would share. “I feel a weight,” she says, “that is not a representation of weight, but of core reality — the heart of the matter, the pulse of process and creation. There is, for me, the aesthetic rapture that mystics pursue, that theologians and philosophers anatomize and speculate upon and translate for human kind so that it can make sense of much that is inexplicable or unbearable — the finiteness of life, the inexorable passage of time, endings.”

PS: I feel it too, but can only express it in paint.


Art success on eBay
by Suzette Fram, Maple Ridge, B.C., Canada


painting by Suzette Fram

I have had a website for 2 years. In that time, I’ve had approximately 2500 hits. I’ve made four sales from the website. I also sell on eBay. I’ve sold about 30 paintings on eBay. A couple of my buyers from eBay went to my website and bought a painting from the website at full price. Selling on eBay has been good exposure for me. I have paintings all across Canada and the United States, Alaska, the Yukon and Mexico. However, sales don’t happen by themselves, it takes work and promotion. My sales on eBay have not brought me a lot of money. But they have been good for my ‘soul.’ I don’t seem to sell a lot locally and it’s sometimes discouraging. Selling on eBay has done wonderful things for my self-confidence and has kept me thinking positively. I’ve received wonderful comments from my buyers. I’ve never had a client who didn’t say the painting “looked even better in person.” What I’ve learned is that there is a buyer out there somewhere for almost any kind of art. Also, even though I paint because I love it, selling is the ultimate validation that my work has value, because someone is willing to pay money to get it. I need that validation and I get it from selling on the Internet. I agree that the Internet is the way of the future. I’m glad I’m part of it.


The artist’s eye in Bhutan
by Jan Boydol


Tulku in his room
by Joe Englander

In Bhutan, we were guided by a master, a wondrous photography magician and teacher, Joe Englander. Joe continually pulled magic moments from his Bhutanese hat, that was filled with his vast experience of the inner and outer landscape of this place, its people, and his deep love and respect for the spiritual culture. We were gently guided and escorted to places and moments we would never have been able to see or experience otherwise. Our formal trip itinerary quickly gave way to his vision, keen sense of the moment and spirit moving through each of us, through the landscape, through the smiles that greeted us in every village, at every turn in the road.


Women artists on video
by Nancy Lennie, San Patricio, Jalisco, Mexico


painting by Nancy Lennie

I teach here in Mexico and want to do a series on women painters by way of video. While the fellows are busy watching the football games on Monday night I want to give many of my talented but shy women art students a history of the women in painting. I absolutely can’t find what I want. I guess I am not looking in the right places. I really can’t believe that there are no videos on the lives and paintings of Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Frieda Kahlo, Amanda de Kooning, Henrietta Johnston, Grandma Moses, Andrea Kottleman, Doris Shadbolt, Beyte Saar.


Fine art vs. craft
by George Alles

At the last art show sponsored by our art association, Association of Representational Artists (ARA), a dispute arose as to what constitutes ‘fine art’ and how is it distinguished from ‘fine crafts.’ Do you have a definition or any views on this subject? I suspect there are some in our organization who feel that ‘fine art’ is superior to mere crafts and would like to keep the ‘crafters’ out.

(RG note) The borderline between fine art and craft has been softening. With the expansion of techniques and what is permissible in fine art the demarcation is now more blurred. Rigid purists will always want to keep the crafters out. Painting and sculpture, which I consider the purest form of fine art (with the possible exception of classic automobiles) do however deserve pride of place. As a frequent juror, the mixture of art and craft often results in painful and unpopular choices. Some crafts are truly loaded with “fine art.” Could you chuck out Tiffany or Lalique? Parameters for entries into shows ought to be clearly stated. If there’s interest, separate sections ought to be established. It’s really quite impossible to compare bananas and kumquats.


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Jane Champagne, who wrote, “You mention that collecting involves ‘even spirituality.’ I’d say it can particularly involve spirituality. Last weekend, a painter friend was shown an aquatint by an Iroquois artist; she wept. Explanation? The work of art touched her soul — the profound spiritual call seemed to be all that mattered.”

And Barbara Mason, who writes, “An artist’s greatest fear is not being able to work.”

And Moncy Barbour who writes, “Rich artists will starve to paint what they are driven to. These artists are risk takers. Sometimes they are also the great ones.”

And Annie of Prescott, Arizona, USA who says, “I collect originals purely for of the prestige. Plus, I’m a Cowboy nut. I like anything Cowboy!”


“Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it, and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost.”
(Sara Teasdale)


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