Rising Stars, Rare Old Masters, and More: What the World’s Top Collectors Bought During a Pandemic

As much of the world went into lockdown in mid-March, the art world momentarily came to a standstill, accompanied by a flurry of cancelations of art fairs, exhibitions at galleries and museums, speaking engagements, and more. It would have seemed that there would be very few opportunities to buy new art this year. But artists, galleries, and auction houses soon adapted and began to more their wares online.

Each summer, ARTnews surveys its Top 200 Collectors to find out what has entered their collections over the past year. With the coronavirus pandemic having wrought huge uncertainty around the world, we would have understood if many collectors said they weren’t as active as they had been in years past. But that proved not to be the case. Many of the collectors who responded told us of several purchases they had made online. (Some said that because of their schedules, they had been buying art from JPEGs and PDFs for years; for others, the move online was a new experience.)

Buying New

Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen, newcomers to this year’s list, said it became even more urgent to support emerging artists, who are among those most impacted by the pandemic’s economic impact. This year, they made a key acquisition of work by Alex Anderson. But even more than what they bought, Lewis and Nguyen said, they have found more time to enjoy the collecting experience of getting to know contemporary artists. “The biggest change is spending the time to connect not just collect. This time has afforded us with the opportunity to have incredibly meaningful conversations with artists about their practices,” they said.

Janine and J. Tomilson Hill underscored that sentiment, saying “During this time I have had more time to look at the art on the walls, more time to move things around and test juxtapositions, and more time to bring works from storage into our homes.”

One emerging artist whose work has entered the holdings of multiple major collectors is Gisela McDaniel. Among those who are proud owners of her art are Michael Ovitz, Darlene and Jorge M. Pérez, and Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani.

Dale Lewis, The Great Day (Panel 1), 2020.

Dale Lewis, The Great Day (Panel 1), 2020, recently acquired by Li Lin.

The art world’s shift online because of the lockdown allowed Li Lin to buy more work by emerging artists, she told ARTnews. “It is important for artists to feel that their work is important even if they cannot do shows or be presented at art fairs,” she added. One artist that the collector recently learned about is Dale Lewis, whose exhibition at London’s Edel Assanti gallery reopened in July after its Covid-related closure. Though Li couldn’t travel to see it in person, she bought the entire 10-panel suite of paintings, titled The Great Day (2020). “Reflecting on the realities of contemporary urban life, [Lewis] focuses on subjects drawn from his immediate surroundings,” Li said. “He’s created a very intense narrative [that is] very much part of our lives. He could be a contemporary William Hogarth where great art and real life mix together in an ongoing diary.”

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2020

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2020, recently acquired by Rebecca and Martin Eisenberg.

Rebecca and Martin Eisenberg have a long history collecting the work of cutting-edge artists. Judging by what he’s seeing—and acquiring—Martin said the past half-year has been “an interesting time for making art.” He remarked that “Rebecca and I have purchased some wonderful works that tell the story of this pandemic. We acquired an Andrew Kuo flowchart painting that breaks down day-to-day aspects of the pandemic and was featured in T: The New York Times Style Magazine. As always, Andrew’s work is filled with humor and insight, and very well executed. We also bought a wonderful Josh Smith painting from his online one-person rooftop show entitled ‘High As Fuck.’ The cityscape depicts the lonely empty streets of his neighborhood. There is no street traffic and everything is closed down and shuttered. It’s a painting that captures the moment perfectly by an artist who continues to move forward in a new direction.”

Swiss collector Nicola Erni echoed that feeling. “The most interesting part was that some artists became extremely creative during [the coronavirus pandemic], and the results are outstanding pieces which would never have been on the market,” she said. One such work was a new piece by Rashid Johnson, Red Anxious Man, that was sold through his gallery Hauser & Wirth. Erni added, “It caught my attention immediately.”

Going Online

Jaider Esbell, Festa na Floresta, 2018.

Jaider Esbell, Festana Floresta, 2018.

While the cancelation of in-person events prevented some from seeking out new talent, many collectors reported that the growth of the online market helped them locate emerging artists of note. São Paulo-based collectors Andrea and José Olympio Pereira recently began buying the work of Jaider Esbell (Makushi), an Indigenous artist based in the northern Brazil city of Boa Vista. The couple learned of Esbell’s work through his inclusion in the upcoming 34th Bienal de São Paulo (José Olympio serves as president of the foundation that oversees the exhibition). In July, the Bienal postponed its 2020 main group show until September 2021 owing to the pandemic.

Bernardo Cavallino, Saint Stephen, ca. 1640–45.

Bernardo Cavallino, Saint Stephen, ca. 1640–45.

Being able to attend major exhibitions of Renaissance masters—Raphael at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome and Titian at the National Gallery in London—was among the many things Barbara and Jon Landau said they missed about the in-person art world. The couple recently acquired a terra-cotta work by early Renaissance artist Benedetto da Maiano, an example, Jon says, of “major works just now coming back into the marketplace” as a result of the pandemic. He added that the piece “has immediately become a cornerstone of our Renaissance sculpture collection.” Another recent purchase is a portrait of St. Stephen—“one of the greatest works still in private hands by Bernardo Cavallino,” Landau said.

Remedios Varo, Microcosmos (Determinismo), 1959.

Remedios Varo, Microcosmos (Determinismo), 1959, recently acquired by Betty and Isaac Rudman.

Betty and Isaac Rudman know their way around the auction houses, and have been participating in online art sales for some time now. “We see this trend continuing for a long, long time,” the couple told ARTnews, adding “something that will be interesting to see is if the auction houses decided to lower their very high commission, now that they have cut drastically their expenses by not printing catalogues, mailing them, and having auctions in person.” Since the lockdown began, they have bought at auction important works by well-established modernist artists, including Roberto Matta, Remedios Varo, Cundo Bermúdez, and Jean Metzinger.

For others, it wasn’t so easy. “If one cannot stand in front of a piece of art, then don’t buy it,” Anne and Wolfgang Titze told ARTnews, citing this as “an iron rule for us in our way of collecting.” For the couple, “acquiring a piece of art is a decision which is driven by both one’s brain and one’s stomach. And in the end the stomach is the final decider [of whether to] buy it or not.” During the first six months of 2020, they bought artworks they’d put on reserve prior to the lockdown. Since then, they’ve put several works on reserve that they hope to be able to see in person soon. They’ve been using the various online viewing rooms “intensively during the lockdown. We saw much more art in the last four months than we would have done normally … and we have detected some new names and we will definitely follow up on them when normality is back to our lives.”

In February—just before the pandemic closed the world down—Robbi and Bruce E. Toll acquired Jean Metzinger’s 1912 Le Cycliste, a dynamic scene in the French artist’s signature colorful Cubist style, in Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist evening sale in London. They purchased the work for just over £3 million ($3.9 million). Bruce has tried his hand at navigating online viewing rooms but still prefers browsing through printed catalogues, he says, adding, “I have tried to buy works by emerging artists, but they are all going through the roof. I tried to buy works by Amoako Boafo from Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips, but I was outbid on everything. I have not purchased anything by new artists at this time—only because of a lack of supply.”

Now Available

Paloma Varga Weisz, Flowering, 2020.

Paloma Varga Weisz, Flowering, 2020.

Many collectors also spoke of much work coming to market that might not have been available in other circumstances. Estrellita Brodsky and her husband Daniel, who chairs the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently acquired a work by late Venezuelan Op and kinetic artist Jesús Rafael Soto, which they said would have most likely been offered to a museum instead of them had it not been for the pandemic.

Because of the coronavirus, Petch Osathanugrah’s private museum project in Bangkok, Dib, now has a new opening date, in the early months of 2023, and a new design team, Kulapat Yantrasast’s wHY Architecture. On the acquisition front, Osathanugrah said he wasn’t too keen on purchasing via online viewing rooms, but he did buy a few drawings by Paloma Varga Weisz from London’s Sadie Coles HQ. He said he also bought something major made available by the pandemic, but would “rather keep it confidential so it will be a surprise for the art collecting world” when he finally reveals it.

“Some of the great artists were available,” said Elham and Tony Salamé, noting that they couldn’t be sure if this was due to the pandemic. Among the works they have been busy acquiring during the lockdown are pieces by Cecily Brown, Jordan Casteel, Heji Shin, and Sam McKinniss. “With the online viewing rooms, we lose all the impact of an artwork itself,” the couple continued. “We usually book or buy an artwork online and later, we go and see it in person, as it is always a better experience to see the work live.”

Helen Pashgian, Untitled (orange), 2009.

Helen Pashgian, Untitled (orange), 2009.

In February, during the Frieze Los Angeles fair, just before lockdown, Komal Shah did a studio visit with L.A.-based artist Helen Pashgian, one of only two female members of the city’s famed Light and Space movement. Shah said of Pashgian, who is known for her boundary-pushing sculpture, “her discs challenge the experience of sculpture; the physical object dissolves into floating rounds of color and light. She was so gracious during our visit, and so vibrant, funny, and extraordinarily nimble as she lifted these 15-pound discs to show me.” Shah’s first purchase during lockdown was one of Pashgian’s column sculptures. “Art is a refuge,” Shah said, “especially now, during this angst-ridden time, by often clearing a space for thoughts, uplifting spirits, or letting us revel in the gestures or colors.”

Vancouver-based collector Bob Rennie might be best known for his extensive holdings of works by Kerry James Marshall, whose art he has collected for more than 30 years. He added a couple more new works by Marshall over the past year, but the lockdown brought a new collecting opportunity. Earlier this year, MOCA Los Angeles director Klaus Biesenbach arranged a studio visit between Rennie and L.A.-based photographer Catherine Opie, after which Rennie called Opie’s L.A. gallerist Shaun Regen (of Regen Projects) and purchased the last full set of Opie’s 13-photograph series “Being and Having” (1991). “In a collection that is so heavily focused on social injustice, we realized we had a gap with Cathy and also with queer art from the late ’80s/early ’90s,” Rennie said. “This acquisition and the questioning of a gap may not have occurred had it not been for Covid-19.”

Keeping Up Correspondence

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Tillie, Lassie, and the Don, ca. 1998.

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Tillie, Lassie, and the Don, ca. 1998.

One common theme was to keep collecting artists whose work collectors are already familiar with. “I have been primarily focused on filling gaps and expanding holdings of work by artists already in the collection,” said Pamela J. Joyner, who has built one of the most important collections of contemporary art in the world with her husband, Alfred J. Giuffrida. “It has been more difficult to add new artists because there has been no opportunity to see the work. As a result, I am focusing on practices where I have already done the research.” Among the couple’s recent purchases are two works by Suzanne Jackson and three by Mary Lovelace O’Neal. “Both Jackson and Lovelace O’Neal have exhibited transformational innovations in their individual practices,” Joyner said. “Moreover, consistent with our interest in how artists engage and interact with each other, these women have a long history together.”

Another newcomer to the list, Atlanta-based couple Sara and John Shlesinger, said, “The coronavirus lockdown actually gives us the opportunity to catch up with galleries with whom we have had longstanding relationships, to check in on how they were faring and see what we might be able to consider for the collection when sales were few and far between.” Among the works they bought recently are ones by Glenn Ligon, Katharine Fritsch, Shanequa Gay, and Blake Rayne, whose work they first began collecting in 1999.

Not Vital, Tuor per Susch (Tower for Susch), 2020.

Not Vital, Tuor per Susch (Tower for Susch), 2020.

Collectors also spoke of the ways in which the pandemic had affected work that they were commissioning. At the beginning of July, Grażyna Kulczyk unveiled a new commission at her Muzeum Susch in Switzerland. Titled Tuor per Susch (Tower for Susch), the work, which stands more than 30 feet tall and was carved from a single block of marble over the course of two years, is by Swiss artist Not Vital, whom Kulczyk called “one of the most impressive and stimulating artistic figures deeply connected with the Engadin,” the valley region that is home to the museum. Kulczyk, who has been cited as Poland’s richest woman, also launched a program in response to the pandemic that provided direct financial support to 100 Polish artists. “My support for artists is unconditional whenever they are in need, but of course the pandemic has shaken the stability of so many artists and institutions,” she said.

When the pandemic began forcing shutdowns around the world, ultimately causing the cancellation of numerous exhibitions and other programming, Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza said she “became increasingly concerned about the cultural loss that we were about to experience.” She decided that she and her team at her TBA21 foundation would “create a mechanism which enabled artists to continue working but at the same time record and tell the stories of these times.” The result is The St*age (short for The Streaming Age), which launched in September and acts as an online convening space for artists, institutions, and activists. Thyssen-Bornemisza went on to say that “the longer this crisis lasts, the more I feel that it is important to live through these days not as if they were a temporary situation, but rather a state from which we can learn, through which we can seek ways to generate new frameworks of production and possibility in the most ethical and caring manner.”

Rendering of a sculpture by Oscar Tuazon

Rendering of a sculpture by Oscar Tuazon, a collaboration with the Zabludowicz collection.

Anita and Poju Zabludowicz spent the initial phase of the pandemic lockdown in Finland, where they are planning to open a new space for their collection just over an hour outside Helsinki, on the island of Sarvisalo, where they established an informal artist residency program in 2010. The campus comprises three locations around the island that display work from the collection, including pieces designed by artists on-site. “We used the time and space to think long term and make concrete a proposal that has been percolating for some time,” they said, referring to a large-scale commission by artist Oscar Tuazon (pictured here as a rendering) that will be installed next spring.

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