Are you with the hedge-fund herd or have you got a mind of your own? The art on your walls speaks volumes about the kind of person you are, says Oscar Humphries.
All of our antiques are made for us in California,’ said a woman I met at an art fair in Palm Beach. Antiques – even new ones – long demonstrated a person’s wealth. Antiques were, and in many places still are, status symbols. Tastes and appetites change, especially those of the rich. The Rolex Daytona that we once coveted is, like arugula or Von Dutch caps (what were we thinking?), passé.
The Georgian dining tables and good silver that once separated the successful banker from his insurance-broking cousin have been replaced with a console by Jean Prouvé or a Gilbert and George triptych. Cars remain status symbols but, with polar bears stranded on melting ice caps, a Prius or Lexus-hybrid can have more impact than a Bugatti Veron or Range Rover. Space still impresses. A flat with a superfluous room in it, such as the rarely used ‘media room’, says you’re ‘serious’, even though the Xbox in said room says something quite different.
The string of pearls and tiara of the past live today as yellow- diamond rings and lobe-stretching studs. Despite the fickle tastes of the pleasantly idle rich, art remains the most visible barometer of someone’s success and sophistication – two things that don’t necessarily go together.
A New York dealer in Chinese art recently told me that he had hedge-fund managers coming to him with scraps of paper. ‘They arrive with lists of Chinese artists whose work they want,’ he said. ‘They can’t pronounce the names – know nothing about them – and even if I haven’t any of their work these guys will pay me a 25 per cent premium to find some.’ The buzzwords ‘Chinese’ and ‘Contemporary’ prove an irresistible lure to men who want to become ‘collectors’ – a lofty word for someone who likes shopping for art.
Art is the international language and currency of success. The Italian’s love Fontana, the Spanish have to make do with the rather kitsch but popular Botero. The Germans have George Baselitz and Franz West. The British have Hirst and Douglas Gordon. The Americans are spoilt for choice. Being the first guy on the Gagosian stand at Frieze brings with it a cache, which can be likened to being the first guy at school to get to third base with the hot cheerleader.
Unlike a mega-yacht or private plane, a ‘major’ Picasso or Lichtenstein says both that you’ve arrived and, crucially, that you’re also cultured. I asked an American squillionaire if he collected. ‘I’m a “major” collector,’ he replied. (These guys like the word ‘major’ along with ‘important’.) ‘What of?’ I asked, pegging him as a Basquiat man. ‘The things I like’: this honest and ambiguous answer was quite refreshing in a world where people tell you what they paid for something and what it’s worth now. It turned out that he liked Monet and Degas. The idea of personal taste being ridiculed by other people is a frightening one, and no one likes the idea of appearing ridiculous.
Nonetheless, bad art – which can be seen in profusion at C-list art fairs and in galleries in Fulham – has an audience. Both Rolf Harris and Jack Vettriano make a good living off bad taste. All over England there are businessmen boasting at dinner parties about how they bought their Rolfs when they were only £10,000. Taste is relative and there will come a day when a Hirst spin or spot painting is no longer the badge of the very rich.
I am a ‘minor’ collector and buy ‘unimportant’ pictures. The stones I buy my fiancée Sara are the sort of thing you’d find in a Graff ring. Despite the fact that I say I buy art because I love it and jewellery because I love her, I’m still trying to keep up with the Joneses.