The question of what a collector is and why he or she collects has been in my mind for a long time. There are many theories about projected narcissism but I think they fall into the same black box dynamics of explaining everything without really doing so. Gordon Gekko-ish über-aggressive Hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt and his wife Judy has been collecting 12th century Hebraica, Paul Klees and Ancient Roman pieces for thirty years. In an interview with Apollo Magazine it is very difficult to realise what is the point of collecting. Susan Moore, the interviewer, opens her article by saying: ‘Steinhardt is more forthcoming about his reasons for selling art than buying it, and he only began to collect when he was in his late 30s or early 40s. ‘I had an aversion to collecting because I had an aversion to most of the collectors I knew’, he begins slowly and continues “I can’t quite articulate this in a way that is totally reflective of my feelings at the time, but what I think I felt was that people collected without much intellectual energy or without much depth of knowledge. There were some exceptions but for me, the image of collecting was a negative one’.
His wife, however, didn’t think like him and started to buy Paul Klees, seventeen of them, as you do… About Paul Klee, Steinhardt says: ’He is intelectual, funny and teasing and that is a good fit for me’. Then he adds: ‘If I have one favourite artist, it is Goya’. In spite of this, his passion lies in what he calls ‘his second collection’ which is comprised of classical, Near Eastern and -relative few- Egyptian antiquities which were more or less acquired in parallel, although, as he says, his wife doesn’t like that kind of ‘art’. The ‘third collection’, housed in their home in the country, is of Peruvian feathered textiles. The fourth and fifth collections are the one on Judaica and their holdings of archaic Chinese bronzes. About the obvious diversity of his collections, he states: ‘I felt at some point that I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to absorb all these things at the same time, so the one I first dropped was the Chinese as it required a considerable amount of learning. At one point there was a larger collection of textiles too but that has now been reduced to the feathered pieces only’.
What comes as a surprise is that one minute later he says: ‘Our place in the country -I say out loud- is the only physical possession in my life from which I derive pleasure’. At this point one starts wondering what is the point of the rest of the collection (apart from the Peruvian feathered textiles) if the only source of pleasure is the feathered textiles one. Well, unless his collecting is not about pleasure but about duty as associated to knowledge. It seems that his relation to what he collects is a sort of self imposed commitment mainly linked to accumulations of different kind (money, pieces, knowledge, etc). The problem with this self made billionaires is that they give a new meaning to ‘otium’ (leisure) as the opposite to ‘neg-otium’ (business) not as the cultivation of the self but as an, I would say, aerobic integration of….data.
So at this point Moore asks him: ‘What about the pleasures derived from this collection of antiquities? Why did you begin to collect them?’. To this he answers: ‘I was struck in two ways: the first, visually, the second, historically. To think that these things were created by human beings maybe 6,000 to 8,000 years ago’. From this, I can see that his fascination does not lie in the objects themselves but in the concentration of ‘energy’ that they convey. For him, these objects embody (in animistic and totemic say), the history of civilisation which he believes he can own. This is the sort of magical belief that transforms these pieces into ‘totemic and animistic pieces’ instead of ‘cognitive objects’. It is evident that our hedge fund manager is not that rational after all.
There is one last question that this kind of collecting raises and is the right to collect antiquities of which Steinhardt seems to be a staunch defender. I am saying this because he has just lost a costly court battle to recover a Greek gold phiale, or ceremonial dish that was purchased by him and which had been illegally taken from a museum. As a matter of fact, this case triggered one of the decisions to enforce foreign patrimony laws and enhance customs decisions. But this is a whole differente ball game. Just a thought.