The Game is Afoot

Frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum

Always a mainstay of the art world, private collectors have been especially active of late, and engaged in a riveting game of one-upmanship, subconscious though it may be.

The husband-and-wife founders of Gap recently revealed plans to open a museum in San Francisco for their modern art collection.

The French mogul François Pinault continues to steamroll his way toward turning Venice’s Punta della Dogana (the city’s old customs house) into a contemporary museum all his own. He plans to open the museum in time to complement, or more likely compete with, the 2009 Venice Biennale.

In Washington, D.C. another private collector has landed a show at the prestigious National Gallery of Art devoted solely to his photography collection.

Yet whenever contemporary private collections like these come up in conversation, I can’t help but hearken back to the quirky progenitors of all modern-day collections—the cabinet of curiosities. In vogue during the 16th and 17th centuries, these wunderkammen (wonder rooms) housed strange specimens of flora and fauna, religious relics and artifacts from far off lands, as well as paintings and sculpture. Many such collections became the cornerstones of some truly outstanding museums—the British Museum in London and the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, to name a couple.

But more than prestige, the impetus for these collections was the wonder of the object, no matter how humble or extraordinary, and the excitement of holding something rare or exotic in one’s hands.

Nowadays collecting is often devoid of such spirit. Financial gain and status seem to steer acquisitions. The reward of a collection is inextricably linked to marketability and making a name for oneself—and there’s the folly. A collector might stipulate how his or her cache of goodies should be handled, but there is no guarantee that such guidelines will be followed forever, as the ongoing upheaval at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a sterling example of modern collecting, shows.

Better to savor a collection for the pleasure evoked by the objects themselves. It’s the only certain payoff.

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