Book review: Could Have Would Have Should Have

Collectors are very strange people. They are secretive, competitive, acquisitive, lodged somewhere along the obsessive-compulsive scale in a way that makes the rest of us feel uncomfortable. Or … they are brave, generous, visionary, devoted selflessly to the art and its creators in a way that the rest of us can only be grateful for.

Or they are all of those things some of the time. The anecdotes in Tiqui Atencio’s new book, which is subtitled “Inside the World of the Art Collector”, touch on the full range of these attributes but — perhaps not surprisingly, given that most of her interviewees are her peers and friends — the focus is on the more admirable qualities.

The Venezuelan-born Atencio is a distinguished collector of modern and contemporary art herself, with a focus on work from Latin America. As this book shows, she knows the art world inside out. Here she gives voice to her fellow collectors — some 100 of them, and all A-listers — to investigate the phenomenon of acquiring art today.

The roll-call includes some of the grandest and most ambitious names: Fatima Maleki, Dimitris Daskalopolous and many more holders of business or financial fortunes are joined by a number who have opened their own foundations, galleries or museums (Ronald Lauder, Eli Broad, Maja Hoffmann, Anita Zabludowicz) or made huge endowments to public institutions (Uli Sigg) as well as collector-artists such as Jeff Koons, George Condo and Damien Hirst.

And indeed Andy Warhol, whose obsessive collecting was closer to full-on pathological hoarding: he would sometimes not even unpack the things he amassed.

In lively chapters that encompass auctions, dealers, advisers, living with one’s art (or not), the acquisitive impulse, the importance of research and knowledge and more, the text is gently advisory but largely anecdotal. The stream of stories makes for very agreeable reading, and Atencio does convey the genuine love and enthusiasm for art felt by many of her interviewees, but the relentlessly pleasant tone can become wearisome. Sometimes the quotes cross over into the frankly saccharine, as when one woman expresses her feelings that, “We are so lucky to have all this around us, to have grandchildren playing with their toys next to a wonderful Giacometti.”

Well yes — quite. The London dealer Kenny Schachter is one of the few to sound a different note when he declares that the pursuit of art “elicits all kinds of primal emotions … It’s very base, almost a sin. There are wars and people starving and you pay a million dollars for some pigment on canvas. It is disgusting.”

Apart from that, you’ll look in vain here for some of the darker or more roguish aspects of collectors’ activities, or for any acknowledgment that the art world has boasted some outright scoundrels for whom art and artists are nothing but a source of profit. Or that collecting art has become, for quite a number of people, an empty lifestyle choice, a display of wealth and status.

So the most fascinating parts of the book are those that investigate the nature — one might say the pathology — of the true collector. Uli Sigg’s recollections of secretly climbing smelly back staircases to discover the grimy haunts of China’s forbidden artists are moving in their evidence of energy, care and real passion. The urge often starts early: restaurateur Michael Chow collected Soviet stamps as a boy; David Rockefeller Sr collected beetles at the age of 10. Chow also describes what’s needed to transform that childhood intensity into a life-long project: “money, knowledge, courage and an eye”. He then rather spoils things by adding that “money is the least important” — a remark that can surely only be made by someone who has a great deal of it.

51ULqwIhh3L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Indeed this book is by, and about, and perhaps for the super-rich. Real collecting taking place at other levels barely impinges on Atencio’s view of the art world. She regales us with the regrets of people who didn’t get round to commissioning their portrait by Warhol (at $25,000 a pop) despite the artist’s eager solicitations, but none of them says that it was because of the price. An exception here is the great British dealer Anthony d’Offay, whose tales of building his world-class gallery and personal collection from penury seem like something from another world.

Such reminiscences remind us yet again that great collections are created over the course of decades, and often across more than a single generation. And the money that makes it all possible is often a family affair. Yet the unspoken element running through many of these stories — namely, collecting for investment — remains largely unexamined. That is the subject of a different book: this one, thoroughly enjoyable and warm-hearted as it is, keeps its eye firmly on the sunny side of art’s street.

Could Have Would Have Should Have by Tiqui Atencio Art/Books £22.50, 238 pages