The Frieze Art Fair, its offspring Frieze Masters, and the various exhibitions that open at the same time, send us a clear message. ‘Buy new.’ New art, that is. Even while Frieze Masters promotes what I’ve heard referred to by an American dealer as ‘second-hand art’, it does so though the lens of the modern — old-master paintings made palatable with the hundreds-and-thousands of contemporary art. It is this veneer which leads international collectors, who have the attention spans of microbes, to the fair. The art market is sound, booming even, but this boom is restricted to young up-and-comers and 20th-century old masters like Andy Warhol — who in the pantheon of recent art history sits, at the end of the alphabet, after Picasso and Rothko.
Art market commentators and those few dealers willing to speak to the press tell us two things. The first thing is that the market for items of great quality is robust. ‘The problem now is finding good material,’ they say. The second thing — the consensus even among gallerists working in the field — is that the market for contemporary art cannot stay at its current heady levels. We are playing a game of musical chairs to a deafening and seductive Kraftwerk soundtrack that at some point — tomorrow, next year, or later — will abruptly end. When it does, half of the art world will be left naked holding their iPads and wondering how to sell an installation or video piece when the collective attention has refocused on art of real value and cultural worth.
However, as I mentioned in my last column, there is little point being morose. If we fail to connect to contemporary art we are missing out — if only on the chance to laugh at ourselves. Silly much contemporary art may be, but it is the art of our times and we are connected to it for the ages. We will be remembered, if at all, for unmade beds, pickled fish and Banksy’s graffiti.
Collectors, I have always maintained, are defined by a common instinct, whatever their focus might be. We all have a bit of the stamp fetishist in us. The book dealer Ed Maggs told me that all dealers are part therapist. They have a unique understanding of that private obsession that drives the market for, say, antique model trains just as it does that for Renaissance prints.
It was my father who got me into book collecting. A man possessed of 40,000 books has a bibliophile’s lust in his DNA. From him I have inherited my cheekbones, eyes, certain moles, an aversion to Chinese opera and a love of books. My library is a very junior version of his and predictably a little more modern. Collecting books, whether they be photo-books or books on art or first editions of books that you love is as rewarding for me as the pursuit of works of art, if not more so. In a world in which much of what we read, listen to, and watch is disappearing into the cloud, books, especially old ones, tether us to the real. The things that we collect form a portrait of ourselves — they reveal how we wish to be perceived. A Picasso says we’re rich, cultured, and modern. The objects that surround us tell their own and our stories. My books are my autobiography: they expose my pretentions and my vulnerabilities. The gap between the books we have bought but haven’t read and those we have read is the difference between what we are and what we want to be. We might read trash, but our shelves describe a very different person — high-minded and studious.
Larry Gagosian knows how, through art, to give a Texas billionaire exactly what he wants — sex appeal, the appearance of taste, a history though art history — and book dealers deliver a similar elixir. What we buy, rather like what we google, defines us. On a recent trip to Paris I stopped by a shop in the 6th specialising in 18th-century medical texts. ‘Monsieur Humphries,’ they said, ‘we have something that might interest you.’ I was led by the furtive shop assistant to a back room where, presumably, they keep the strong stuff, and shown an innocent-looking book illustrating cases of late- stage venereal disease. I was shocked. Why did they think this would appeal to me? What had I bought that would make them think I’d want something so weird and macabre? It was rather like being tripped up by a questionable Google search: they had my number. But just because I have books on STDs, that doesn’t mean I actually have one — despite what I said about our books defining who we are. I feigned shock and passed on the book. I didn’t tell them it was because I already had it.