The Art of Collecting
By Jan David Winitz
June 17, 2021
OAKLAND, CA.- Having spent more than four decades as an art dealer specializing in antique Oriental rugs, I have had the privilege of working with thousands of clients. They share my passion for collecting and deeply value their collections, which range from classical and contemporary art to automobiles, jewelry, fine wine, furniture, and sports memorabilia.
The late Eli Broad, an American business icon and art patron, once quipped, “a real collector does not sell.” While that is generally true, the personalities and habits of modern collectors are less easily defined. Whether we collect stamps or Pre-Columbian Art, American Impressionist paintings, or rare rugs, each of us is compelled by a passion as unique as the treasures themselves.
My work at Claremont Rug Company which I created in 1980 specifically relates to the genre of elite-level antique Persian and tribal rugs. In that regard, I am not dissimilar from the collector who focuses solely on mid-century modern furniture or the aficionado who covets only Chinese porcelain. We collect items appropriate to our preferred genre that were often created within a clearly defined place and period and are in limited supply. That each acquisition is an elusive, exclusive artifact discovered within the depths of a larger, dwindling whole is, I believe, the common element that fuels our passions.
Irrespective of my own area of expertise, I note that the clients I have worked with often show a penchant for collecting multiple art forms. For those whose interest is deeply steeped in fine art, acquiring rare rugs naturally complements existing collections that are often rich in paintings, sculpture, and period furniture. Collectors with an ingrained fervor for objects of great beauty often extend their reach from near priceless watches or stunning jewels to encompass rare rugs.
What piques the attention of any impassioned collector is fascinating. My experience has led me to break down the audience into three archetypes: The Aesthete, The Connoisseur, and The Collector. While they share some common attributes, they exhibit different behaviors.
The Aesthete buys works of art to create a stunning individual residence.
Having a place to put an objet d’ art is vital, and they are incredibly creative in finding display areas. I have been in homes with Oceanic art displayed on shelves in the guest bathroom, early Chinese porcelain in elaborate cases in a rear corridor leading to the laundry room, and high-collectible antique rugs draped over banisters, on furniture, or under glass on a dining table.
Recently, when meeting a client in her home, I remarked how lovely I found the environment to be. She thanked me and replied matter-of-factly, “It is important for me to be able to look in every corner of my home and see beauty.”
Exemplifying the personification of the aesthete collector, she is a person for whom a stirring aesthetic is not merely desirable, it is paramount to her lifestyle. While the Aesthetes may possess a well-honed appreciation for artistry, craftsmanship, provenance, and rarity, it is the visual allure and aesthetic appropriateness of an artwork that will ultimately win their hearts.
An Aesthete’s acquisitions are celebrated only after careful selection and deliberation about how they may be viewed and appreciated. Not content to have treasures languish unseen, the Aesthete chooses only those pieces – often with precise placement in mind – promising to work in copasetic harmony with other elements found within the intended space. This type of collector can walk away from a stunning piece that would undoubtedly sway many others, simply because it does not work within the space. It is not merely the thrill of the chase; above all else, it is the inherent beauty of the world around them that moves and motivates the Aesthete collector.
Overlapping with the Aesthete, the Connoisseur creates a memorable home surrounded by art forms of choice, but also has additional pieces in storage, which are periodically rotated with those in use. For instance, the connoisseur of antique rugs often has numerous dedicated storage chests and closets, and sometimes entire rug cellars, from which to draw. For the Connoisseur, putting a previously stored piece on display is analogous to revisiting an old friend, who had been out of sight, yet never out of mind. As one client put it, “Visiting a piece that was in storage for a year is a fascinating process. I see that my relationship to that rug actually grew during the time it was put away.”
The Connoisseur’s desire is to collect the most covetable offerings of any given genre. Like the Aesthete, Connoisseur collectors take great pleasure in surrounding themselves with beauty. Yet two aspects set the Connoisseur apart. Connoisseurs will allow their surroundings to be stretched or changed to include a new acquisition. Their homes can evoke a changing display in an art museum; they are more curated. Connoisseurs also are comfortable with having part of their collection in storage, and they take great delight in changing out pieces. For Connoisseurs, knowing that they have identified, sought out, and – perhaps most importantly – obtained an exquisite example for their collection is irresistible and alluring. At my art storage facility, I have nearly 1000 client-owned pieces held for clients, most of whom are in this category.
During my career, I’ve worked with a great many Connoisseurs. I consult with them to fine-tune the focus and reach of their collections. I assist them to hone impressive inventories, which encompass the broader genre, into more succinct portfolios and I help them showcase those pieces that epitomize excellence within more precisely defined fields. For the Connoisseur, regardless of context, only great examples will satisfy.
The Collector often has no quantity limits. Some become fascinated by studying variations in the many collections that they own, the differences in the tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon vintners, the subtle nuances of Burmese rubies, the changes in grillwork from different car companies over the years or recognizing each of the 85 subgroups of Caucasian Oriental rugs. Some become true experts in their field of focus.
Perhaps the most unadulterated type of art gatherer I see in my business is the Pure Collector. Unlike the Aesthete or Connoisseur, the Pure Collector is dedicated to filling specific voids, real or perceived, within a collection. Less swayed by any personal aesthetics and less apt to surround themselves with their treasures than others who share their passion, the mark of the Pure Collector is a quiet dedication to the collection itself.
The very existence of the Pure Collector’s noteworthy acquisitions – regardless of physical location and whether or not they will go on display in the foreseeable future – is enough to satisfy.
Unyielding in their desire for excellence, Pure Collectors are diligent in their search for pieces of great rarity and artistry.
Pure Collectors are typically more prolific in their acquisition than either the Aesthete or the Connoisseur. Indeed, many build extremely large, world-class collections that while seldom out of mind, are often held safely out of sight. In fact, some who I work with are content to view most of their rugs solely online or in a dedicated photo album, while others make a habit of viewing each piece they own once a year. At Claremont, we have a program for Pure Collectors to periodically rotate their pieces in use with rugs in storage.
In looking at the three types of collectors, one can, of course, see many overlapping areas. Pure Collectors also take great pleasure in surrounding themselves with the products of their passion, while there are Aesthetes whose acquisitions are of the highest, most stellar quality. There are Connoisseurs who collect everything from cookie jars to Ming vases with the same, unyielding attention. Among my clients, there are preeminent fine art Collectors with an unabashed affinity for comic books.
What one collects is determined by one’s own, unique passions.
Ultimately, you may question why does it matter? The elucidating differences tend to lie deeper, revealing themselves slowly. Defining one’s style as a collector, it seems, is an evolution born of attraction and honed by experience
Understanding what motivates my clients helps me assist them to define and discover those pieces that will most thoroughly please them. While the Aesthete may be enamored with a particular rug because of its rich color, the Connoisseur may covet the same piece as a pristine example of a rarely seen hue, and the Collector may desire it as a rare, one-of-a-kind specimen featuring a dye color long lost to the world. Therein lies the delight of discovering the many fascinating facets of the modern-day collector.
Vive la difference.