Frames of reference: Frank Kilbourn, left, and fellow abstract art collector Pieter Colyn stop to admire a work by SA artist Walter Battiss in 2017. Picture: SUPPLIED
Frames of reference: Frank Kilbourn, left, and fellow abstract art collector Pieter Colyn stop to admire a work by SA artist Walter Battiss in 2017. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sotheby’s announced stellar results in August for single-owner auctions in the first half of 2018. In May, the collection of Morton and Barbara Mandel raised $107.9m with a 100% sell through. The American entrepreneur and his wife had assembled a collection representing important artistic movements of the 20th century.

At Christie’s, the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, comprising of about 1,500 objects spanning art, furniture and a variety of collectables, achieved a staggering $832.6m — the highest price realised for a single-owner collection.

Collectors play an important role in the preservation and display of works of art. Private collections often form the backbone of major institutions through important donations or the creation of museums.

It nearly doubled the previous record held by the collection of Yves St Laurent and Pierre Bergé, which sold for $443m in 2009.

While art collectors usually do not achieve the same level of attention as the artists and their dealers, their influence cannot be underestimated. Visionary art collectors shape art history by enabling their favourite artists, and play an important role in endorsing new talents and artistic movements.

Many artists develop their careers because of financial backing from collectors. Who knows whether Pablo Picasso would have achieved the same level of success without the unflinching support of writer Gertrude Stein?

Dealers have long understood the power of the inspired collector who displays acumen and taste. Dr Maurice Girardin, who died in Paris in 1954, commanded much respect as a collector.

When Girardin had wanted a painting by Henri Matisse, the dealer reportedly turned down two other offers to sell it to Girardin for less.

The doctor’s stamp of approval carried authority.

Collectors play an important role in the preservation and display of works of art. Private collections often form the backbone of major institutions through important donations or the creation of museums.

Today collectors are more influential than ever. According to Magnus Resch, cofounder of the art collector editorial and art market knowledge company Larry’s List, "more collectors are opening their own spaces and taking a leading role in museums, influencing the direction they take".

The choices collectors make have a profound effect on the price of art too. In the US in the 1920s, when self-made industrialists started collecting art in search of status and historic identity, they collected the European Old Masters.

But when US collectors started buying their own artists, local prices sharply increased and the market for American art was established.

The Chinese art market followed a similar pattern. When they first started buying art, Chinese collectors were seeking the French Impressionists — they could afford it. Their tastes matured and broadened to eventually focus on art from China.

As a result, prices for Chinese art increased significantly and consistently, showing once more that, to achieve value and stability, it is important for the art of a nation to be collected by its nationals.

China became the world’s second-biggest art market in 2017. This understanding partly motivates SA collector Sonja de Bruyn, who started collecting more than 20 years ago and who focuses on black local artists, particularly those who are no longer alive and could be referred to as masters.

De Bruyn, who works in finance and investments, speaks about the importance of having cultural and social narratives in the home and work environments. "Art is a representation of who we are," she says.

"Our artists and art forms didn’t receive much support in the past and it is high time we start recognising that we cannot consider ourselves whole or advanced as a society without being anchored culturally and creatively," says De Bruyn.

Business entrepreneur Frank Kilbourn collects art with his wife Lizelle and they have more than 1,000 works. They also show parts of it once a year at Welgemeend Manor House in Cape Town.

Kilbourn explains that they wanted to build a collection that was representative of a broad range of SA artists.

"We collect quality works that will enrich our lives for a long time and we are expanding now to African art," he says.

Sudanese artist, former politician and diplomat Ibrahim el-Salahi once poignantly explained that the principal indignity he and his fellow African artists have faced over the years was being ignored.

Collecting art is about telling the story of a people, a time and its values. While enjoying the pursuit of their passion for art, collectors can exert much influence on how these stories are told and how they will be remembered. With influence comes responsibility.

Nigerian art collector Prince Yemisi Shyllon once said: "Stop making excuses and take responsibility for the destiny of African art," articulating in a few words how important it is for African art to be collected by African collectors.

• Alexia Walker is a partner at Walker Scott, which offers end-to-end art management services.

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