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Why Collecting is Viral

Natalya Semenova

Why do people even begin collecting? This has been bothering me for a long time. After all, I collect the stories of my protagonists in the same way they collected paintings and sculptures. Collecting is undoubtedly one of the most ancient viruses, even though collectors as we know them first made their appearance only in the 18th century, together with the concept of “individuality.” 

The very existence of the world’s best-known art collections is based on their creators’ desire to prove their own uniqueness and to possess as many masterpieces as they can. Money has, of course, always played a very important role.  It was the unlimited financial resources of the Russian Tsars and French kings that created the collections now in the Louvre and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage and it is thanks to American money, that the museums of the New World match those of Europe.

While Western Europe was experiencing a golden age of collecting, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great was just starting to force his court to adopt the symbols of civilization, obliging his Boyars to shave their beards and decorate the walls of their homes with art. Needless to say, the process of replacing traditional Russian icons with Dutch landscapes and Western manners was not an easy process. However, by the end of the 18th century, all of Europe was jealous of the superb private Russian collections that the Empress Catherine the Great and her noblemen had managed to collect.

Russian collectors, who were well known in the West at the beginning of the 20th century, disappeared from the world stage after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Their collections were nationalized, many of them left everything behind and emigrated, but there was no cure for the collecting virus. Those who stayed continued to collect even under the Bolsheviks.  For them, collecting turned into a shelter, a kind of “internal emigration,” which protected them from the surrounding reality. In the former Soviet Union, collecting was a privilege enjoyed by an intellectual elite of scientists, doctors, diplomats, and artists. In addition to the ability to understand art in its variety, what was required for these collectors was a constant source of income that significantly exceeded the average Soviet salary. However, in contrast to the pre-revolutionary times, it was possible to collect with practically no funds.

In the world behind the Iron Curtain, which lived according to criteria and regulations completely different from the rest of the planet, collecting was relatively easy. People focused on surviving and didn’t pay much attention to the superfluous possessions they might own. On the other hand, in a country with no concept of private property, the purchase and sale of art objects was illegal. This is why Soviet collectors always tried to avoid monetary transactions. Instead, they traded with each other, carefully hiding those completely harmless exchanges, in the same way that as some might hide their non-proletarian origins or unconventional sexual orientations.

During the years that the late Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union, a period popularly known as the Era of Stagnation, the authorities found a more “humane” way of expropriating private collections. In 1977, the collector George Costakis donated to the state 839 works of the Russian Avant-Garde and more than 50 icons.  Soon enough, he received permission to leave the USSR for his “historical homeland,” Greece. It was only Perestroika that brought back to Russia the concept of private property, and with it the concept of the “collector.” In our times, the collecting virus has spread even more broadly. You don’t need to be of Royal birth or have tons of money to create a beautiful collection. What is needed is a passion and vision. Naturally, the incentives which used to prompt people to collect have significantly changed. For instance, it can be a Swiss billionaire’s way of escaping from the routines of business or a way out from the monotonous activities for a Soviet intellectual. Actors, musicians, doctors, lawyers, and scientists, not to mention the top echelon of the business elite, regularly become collectors. Interestingly enough, scientists are often the most sensitive art connoisseurs. Those who are accustomed to think logically are able to develop new thoughts and unusual associations in addition to accessing direct emotional experiences.

In their search for harmony, beauty, and inner perfection, the true collectors always strive to find something unique. Strangely enough, the less knowledge collectors have about an object, the more attractive it become for them. Sometimes it’s a risky enterprise and only the most courageous, such as the American siblings Gertrude and Leo Steins or the Russian textile merchant Shchukin, are able to envision the success of new trends in art and buy paintings by Picasso and Matisse when no one had ever heard of those artists.

Passion is the main thing that unites the collectors of the West and the East. It completely surrenders them to this ancient “disease.” Fortunately, unlike the coronavirus that has threatened the very foundations of our civilization, collecting is a virus that arises out of the deepest human desires, and, hopefully, it will never disappear.

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