The Good Collectors & Bad Collectors Series: Marta Gnyp on The Power of the Collector

Image courtesy of Marta Gnyp
Oscar Murillo, the first artist to become resident at the Rubell Family Collection. During his five week stay, he created 50 artworks. Source: Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg
phyllida-barlow-untitled-dock-crashed lintel broken sculpture painted tarps
CoBo Social Market News


Let’s get to the core!

How does the behaviour of collectors affect the market and the career of an artist?

TEXT : Selina Ting
IMAGES: Courtesy of Marta Gnyp

We could list the names of speculators who flip works for their own gains and the names of art patrons who support artists throughout their career on two opposing poles called  the “Good” and the “Bad” collectors, and assess their respective “contribution” and “damage”  made to the ecosystem of the art world.  However, such dichotomy is not only becoming impossible but overtly a purist ideology as more and more members of the collector class are crossing the borderlines of each pole.  What motivates a collector to collect art? Can the market of a certain artist be  fabricated? What are the differences when a collector buys from primary market or second market? Why any decent artist (unlike Damien Hirst) should not sell their works at auctions themselves? How do collectors influence each other so as to diminish their own risk? To what extent is buying art equivalent to investing in art? Are collectors become more and more conscious of the capital value of their collection?

As the Part 2 of our interview with Marta Gnyp, collector and art historian, we start to step into some of the art world’s taboos. Marta, with her wit and humour and openness, shares with us her acute observation on the market dynamics and the phenomenon of collectors’ rising power.

To read Marta’s investigation on the codes and myths of the so-called “good” and “bad” collectors, check out our Part 1 of the interview here.


Image courtesy of Marta Gnyp
Image courtesy of Marta Gnyp


Why do some collectors prefer to buy from galleries and others prefer the second market and buy from auctions?

I think it is a combination of personal preference and experience. Sometimes, it can happen by chance, you develop a trustworthy relationship with a gallerist who can explain art to you and guide you, so you become a “purist” collector who buys only from the primary market. But there are also collectors who love the gambling spirit and excitement of the auction mechanism. We can say that auctions are a different kind of animal because it’s very clear how they function, compared to the primary market where trust and personal relationship play an important role. At auction you can sense the demand and supply logic, there are sales records for reference, etc. Auction houses function differently from galleries, but many collectors buy from both, auctions and galleries.


Is such a preference another indication of someone being a good or bad collector?

No, but selling the work of a living artist at auction can be actually a very bad experience! If you want to sell an artwork, the best way is to offer it back to the gallery. Let’s say this is the noble, moral behaviour on the part of the collector. But it is problematic either way. If the artist is not very popular, the gallery is not inclined to accept it. Alternatively, if the work is very popular, the gallery will want to have it, but at a much lower price than the second market price. So the auction offer an exit. But many artists hate auctions, especially the young ones, because it can have a significant impact on their career.


Could you please elaborate this impact by also giving one or two examples?

In 2014 we had a surge of young artists at auction whose works sold at auction for double or triple price as compared to the gallery prices. Today many of these artists cannot sell their works even at gallery prices which for many of them means a stagnation hangover.


Talking about young artists, there are also collectors who support young emerging artists. It’s very positive for the collector’s image if they say, “I collect their works and help them to continue in their career.” Would you say this was also a key feature of being a good collector?

Absolutely. It is a feature of a good collector because it implies risk-taking, whereas someone who collects Warhol or Rudolf Stingel (*1956) doesn’t really take a risk. These artists have already made their names and command high prices, so their market is considered safe from the investment point of view, at the moment at least. The situation is completely different for younger artists because they can change their profession, lose their skills or simply disappear. We have seen many cases like this. So, if you are collecting emerging artists, you are simply taking risks.

However, there is something very specific about the notion of risk-taking in our current collecting scene. You are not taking any risks if you only buy works that you like, because you will own the work that you like and that’s enough. But by saying that you are “taking risks”, you are actually implying that there is more at stake than just buying beautiful works that you like. Very often it means that you want something to either stay valuable or increase in value.

Buying from very young artists is also very rewarding for collectors because if collectors grow themselves, then they will grow with the artists. This is one of the most relevant features of contemporary collecting. If you are lucky, or if you have a good eye, then you will find an artist who can grow very quickly. When we look at the careers of Mark Bradford (*1961, USA) or Mark Grotjahn (*1968, USA), we see that the prices went up 10 or 100 times over 15 years. A piece of theirs you bought 15 years ago for US$ 50,000 might be worth $ 1 million today. So, if you were interested in the artists early on, you could be a part of a really amazing shift in their careers.

These kinds of stories are very present and often told so they permanently feed the excitement of the art world and the perpetual need to collect. Almost everybody wants to be the one who finds the next Picasso.


The way collectors influence each other is very interesting to observe. They like to share information on new discoveries and I often hear them telling friends, “Do you know this guy? He is amazing. You have to go and see his work. I just bought this really wonderful piece.” I sometimes  wonder if that’s a tactic to diminish their risk. I mean, if more collectors are into the same artist, the chance of success becomes much greater for the artist.

Yes, you are absolutely right. This is a very interesting phenomenon and there are a couple of reasons for this behaviour.

There are collectors who have been collecting for a long time.They are so convinced about their own taste and their own mission in the art world so they will tell you, “You have to buy this. It is fantastic.” Very often, it’s natural for them to make this kind of comment, as they are so convinced about their own taste and choices. However, behind this process is probably the idea that if many collectors buy from the same artist, then your own choice is being confirmed and proven right. As a result, the works will be in good hands and sold out. So, by doing this, you have helped the artist to secure a better position in the art market.


We sometimes ask how the market functions, and if it’s possible to fabricate the market of an artist and make an artist successful commercially? Does talent still count? This is a very sensitive, yet interesting question. Have you made any observations from your research?

I analysed two artists in my book – Oscar Murillo (*1986, Colombia) and Phyllida Barlow (*1944, UK). They have completely different positions and are from two different backgrounds. One is 30 and the other is 72. I was very curious to know what makes an artist suddenly visible and desirable for so many collectors. Murillo and Barlow are two extreme cases, as both of them became very visible within a very short period of time. For this to happen, you need every actor in the art world to be mobilized for you.

Talent, skills, artistic vision and determination are of great importance but you need a whole constellation to make you visible in the first place. You need something to make the others believe in the quality of your art – and quality is something that is very problematic. You need people who perceive the quality and mediate it to the art world.

Murillo is a good example. He was suddenly discovered by a number of significant collectors, dealers, curators and gallerists, all at the same time. A gallery showed his work, then another one became interested, and another. A collector who saw the shows then said, “Wow, such energy, the energy of Basquiat!” and immediately, there was a relevant context for his art. Another dealer found Murillo’s work fantastic and gave him greater visibility, and a famous curator discovered him as well. Many people with tremendous authority liked his art, rumours started and people who buy with their ears began chasing his artwork. All of a sudden, everybody was interested in the artist.


During your research, have you mapped out who these people are exactly and what kind of relationship there is between them? Do they work together, for example?

In the case of the Murillo, many of his supporters acted independently. He was showed by the young gallery Carlos/Ishekawa from London, Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin and Stuart Shave Modern Art in London. The powerful collector-couple Don and Mera Rubell invited him to a residence program and showed his work in Miami. He got a full support from the very visible dealer-collector Stefan Simchowitz, who is followed by many people on social media. The superstar curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, invited him to the Luma Foundation. So, all of these people, who are very influential in the art world, played their part and did this more or less independently from each other at the same time. So now the question is, why were they all so interested in his work? Maybe they were also interested in other artists, but in the case of Murillo, they all came together at the same time to support him.

Oscar Murillo, the first artist to become resident at the Rubell Family Collection. During his five week stay, he created 50 artworks. Source: Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg
Oscar Murillo, the first artist to become resident at the Rubell Family Collection. During his five week stay, he created 50 artworks. Source: Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg



The case of Phyllida Barlow is also very specific because she had been working as an artist all her life, but had almost no visibility until she was 65. She was teaching at Slade School of Fine Art and has educated a lot of big artists. The turning point came when Nairy Baghramian (*1971, Iran) invited Barlow to join her for an exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries In 2010. Barlow then joined Hauser & Wirth in the same year. From that moment on, everything changed for her. This shows you the power of the big galleries. Barlow began to be invited to institutional exhibitions in different continents, including the prestigious Venice Biennale, and right now she is showing at Tate Modern [Materials and Objects – Artist Rooms Collection: Phyllida Barlow], not to mention the special commission she received from Tate Britain in 2014. During her solo show at the New Museum [Phyllida Barlow: Siege, May – June 2012], she was as named one of the most important sculptors of post-war Europe, and yet ten years ago nobody had even heard of her.

I think that you need the support of at least one of the gatekeepers of the art world in order to become visible and important as an artist. So, yes, that’s how it works.

phyllida-barlow-untitled-dock-crashed lintel broken sculpture painted tarps
phyllida-barlow-untitled-dock-crashed lintel broken sculpture painted tarps


Art Fairs, such as Art Basel, play a pivotal role in the art market, as well as collectors and galleries. To go back to our subject – the collector – how does the art fair phenomenon generally influence collecting behaviour? What are your observations?

I think the biggest impact these fairs have on collectors is they increase awareness of the financial value of art.

When you can see a lot of work in a very short period of time, you start to compare. In fact, you’re comparing all the time. From a different perspective, fairs add enormously to the popularity of contemporary art because there is a very intense social life around them. Many collectors and art lovers enjoy the fairs, as much of their life is organised around the art calendar of fairs across the world. These collectors jump from one event to another in the art world and meet many other people there. So, it has helped to create a worldwide art community.

At the moment, these fairs are extremely important. As someone said, “We are in the Age of the Art Fairs.” However, it can change at any point, depending on factors that are external to the art itself. For example, there were not so many important American collectors this year in Basel, and there are many possible explanations for this.

In terms of artistic production, some people think that for art fairs artists are force to deliver easy, eye-catching pieces. This might be true but at the same time, if you are an experienced collector, you can always find some very good works. I think the quality of the work at Art Basel is very high.

Thank you.


About Marta Gnyp

Marta Gnyp is a Dutch art historian based in Berlin active as international art advisor, art journalist and art collector specialized in contemporary art. She recently published the book The Shift. Art and the Rise to Power of Contemporary Collectors based on her PHD research in the field of art history/art sociology and also started her own gallery GNYP in Berlin.


Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo)

Selina is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2014, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine and Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.
Instagram : @selinating

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