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All hail the collectors: Why people love stuff

September 14, 2020

reading time: 8 minutes

by Sophie Campbell, guest author

Chicks with Kicks sneakers collection

From sneakers to 27-Million-Euro cabinets: What makes collectors tick? 

Don't you just love humans? I mean, why would anyone obsessively collect lawnmowers (England), Tintin ephemera (Belgium), or 'Questionable Medical Devices' (America)? What drives celebrities such as Tom Hanks to buy typewriters, which he has done on a grand scale since the 1970s, Amanda Seyfried to accumulate stuffed animals (that's taxidermy, not soft toys), or Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman to covet cars, cameras, synthesisers, tool watches – oh, and rare clothing?

Ah, the collector! There may be few similarities between the things above, but their owners share a powerful need to assemble and impose order upon objects that goes back to the earliest humans. And while the impulse may be complex to analyse, without it many of the world’s great museums and art galleries would not exist.

Coldplay Guy Berryman
Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman collects cars, cameras, synthesisers, tool watches and rare clothing. © Amy Shore

The Prado and the Louvre were built on confiscated royal art collections, once the personal passions of rich monarchs. The British Museum, the world's oldest national collection, began with objects owned by the royal physician Sir Hans Sloane, and the National Gallery with a bequest of 38 paintings from the Russian-émigré banker John Julius Angerstein. The Princely Collections of Liechtenstein, split between two palaces in Vienna and the Castle of Vaduz, reflect four centuries of connoisseurship.
   
Today, an entirely new generation of collectors is emerging, increasingly happy to buy online – and more so with current restrictions on travel and shows – in order to indulge eclectic interests ranging from digital installations to Chinese ceramics.

20,000 US dollars for a pair of sneakers

Take the three 20-something Peters sisters in Florida, aka @thechickswithkicks, whose collection of more than 6000 pairs of sneakers was started by their dad in the 1980s. Before you laugh, they have a pair of pristine Nike AirForce 1s with a price tag of around 20,000 US dollars and the collection is thought to be worth some 2 million US dollars. The sisters explain that they have numerous pairs worth tens of thousands of dollars. Some the price of luxury vehicles.

Chicks with Kicks
Ariana, Dakota and Dresden Peters aka The Chicks with Kicks: "We grew up with our father receiving boxes of sneakers on a weekly basis." © Chicks with Kicks

The "chicks with kicks" grew up with and loved their father's collection. They told MAG/NET: "Our father has always been ahead of the curve and admired sneakers as an art form before anyone paid mind to them beyond their sole necessity." Due to his sheer love for the craft, he started to buy doubles of certain pairs so he could wear one and preserve another. "We grew up with our father receiving boxes of sneakers on a weekly basis. He always kept us involved in the process."

The sisters enjoyed seeking out rare pairs their father had sought out. Over time, sneakers also became an investment. When they started uploading images to Instagram, it spawned a lucrative business selling rare sneakers – only on Instagram. "We also saw the monetary gain in every pair our father had bought." The sisters argue that collecting does not have to be either passion or business: "Oftentimes, the greatest businesses stem from true passions pursued." 

Badminton Cabinet Princely Collections
H.S.H. Prince Philipp in front of the Badminton Cabinet, the world's most expensive piece of furniture. © LIECHTENSTEIN. The Princely Collections, Vaduz–Vienna

Investment often remains a central motive for collecting. Over the years, H.S.H. Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein has added 700 works to the family fine art collections, including the 27 million Euro Badminton Cabinet, to improve quality and therefore its value. 'Art collections and banking fit to¬gether very well,' he observes drily, 'and we have the major advantage that our Bank combines the two.' However, the Princes of Liechtenstein do not see art merely as an investment opportunity. They have been a family of passionate art collectors who value paintings and statues for the values they convey – tradition, competence, longevity. 
  
The fashionable pursuit of collecting art, the 17th century equivalent of sneakers if you like, only really emerged during the Baroque period, as paintings and objects moved from the purely devotional to the more secular – and the artists who made them followed a similar trajectory from craftsmen to celebrities. 

A serious obsession

Art historian Niko Munz was a curator for the Royal Academy's exhibition Charles I: King and Collector, which included paintings from the 1627-8 'Mantua Purchase'. 'Charles effectively bought the artistic heritage of a whole city state,' he explains, 'But it didn’t cost that much compared to masques or tapestries. By the late 1600s paintings were beginning to develop the monetary value we associate with them today - but in Charles’s time, a silk outfit was probably going to cost more than a Raphael.' 

Charles I king collector
King Charles I's collection: the result of "a serious obsession". © Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

For Charles, it wasn't about the money, as is clear from the inventory compiled by the Surveyor of the King's Pictures and annotated by the King. 'You sense that it's the result of a serious obsession,' says Munz, 'The depth of description, the nit-picking detail...it happened barely anywhere else, even in the European courts.' 
  
Today you can see many of Charles's paintings in London, and not far away there are two very different sites that show both the broadening appeal of collecting as time went by - and the gradual emergence of collections into the public view. 

Sir John Soane
Three houses full of statues and paintings: Sir John Soane's Museum in London.© Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane's Museum, a spectacular assemblage of architectural and artistic purchases created by the eponymous architect from the 1790s onwards, fills every centimetre of his former house (actually three houses) in Holborn, central London.    

Soane, a self-made man, collected all his life for pleasure and for his students who, during the Napoleonic Wars, couldn't visit classical sites in Europe. Helen Dorey, the museum's Deputy Director and Inspectress, explains that he did have an ultimate aim: ‘He probably wasn’t looking to fit things into any sort of sequence...but he did want to leave a legacy for artists, sculptors and architects. The house became, if you like, an essence, a step back into antiquity, a source of excitement and inspiration.' 

Quitting is not easy

A tube ride away from the Soane is a world-famous collection of plant and flower paintings amassed by the botanist Dr Shirley Sherwood, in its own gallery in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Like Soane's collection it is based on deep knowledge and a passion for art. Unlike Soane's collection, works are by contemporary artists. 

'I was attracted to the integrity of botanical painting,' says Dr Sherwood, 'The observation it required, the elegance and pared-down quality of some paintings. I always wanted to pare apart a flower... in that way it was better than photography.'

Shirley Sherwood collection botanical painting
Dr Shirley Sherwood and her collection of contemporary botanical paintings. © Jeff Eden

Collecting contemporary works 30 years ago was rare, and she could watch artists emerge and mature: 'The internet has made a huge difference,' she says, 'I can collect someone painting in Spain, or struggling along in Australia. It's frighteningly easy!'

And while she doesn't collect past masters, their work fascinates her, particularly that of the Bauer brothers, coincidentally, sons of Liechtenstein's court artist, who painted from the 1770s to the 1830s. Their early work, including the index of plants known as the Codex Lichtenstein, survives in the Princely Collections today. 

'I don’t think my collection is controlling me,' says Dr Sherwood, thoughtfully, 'I decided when I got to a thousand paintings that it was getting too cumbersome, so I stopped. For about two months. Then I had to start again - and I’m still collecting!'

All over the world, heads will be nodding in sympathy.

400 years of collecting art

The Princes of Liechtenstein have been passionate art collectors for more than 400 years. During this time, they have built up one of the most important private collections in the world, containing major works of European art spanning five centuries.

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