Melvyn Minnaar: Collecting – why?

By , 5 October 2022

Whether art or wine, wealthy South Africans have been lured into this world of high prices and auction speculation.

In the rarefied world of art, the concept of “collection” is a loaded one. The word suggests not so much a gathering of bounty as it endows the holder thereof – the collector – with cultural gravitas and prestige. In the contemporary world of wine, the word takes on some of this, but unlike a great Picasso or a panoramic Pierneef, such collections are, of course, subject to the effect of time on what is essential a consumable. 

This is not the cheerful world of one’s childhood when a collection of stamps, cards, Dinky Toys, or, nowadays, Checkers’ Little Shop Mini Collectibles, provide in their gathered fulfilment a joyful sense of accomplishment.

When my friend Tim James recently wrote here about wine storage issues (wine collector worries!) and Greg Sherwood too enthused “Wine is intoxicating for collectors in so many more ways than purely from the effects of the alcohol!” the debate about collecting stuff returned to mind.

Is gathering and hoarding basic human conditions? How does wine fit in here?

I thought about my earlier travelling years when the labels of foreign bottles of wine, pleasurably emptied, were soaked off to be stuck in my ‘travelogue’: literally a collection of contentment memories, visual memes of historical experiences. So very, very different to the wine bottles stored on basement shelves, in ‘wine fridges’ or at pricey Wine Cellar – gambles to the tribulations of passing time. Those bottles, they say are the (unknown) future. My labels were pure past bliss recorded.

So what does “collecting” imply?

Let’s move back to art. In, let us say, a culturally more stable past, for an artist’s creation (painting, sculpture, etc) to be entered into a Collection (the capital is on purpose) came with rather significant kudos. For example, for an artwork to be taken up in the South African National Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection (nowadays under the flagship Iziko) signalled that that piece is of significance, the artist accomplished, and the work will have importance years from now and never leave the collection.

This accomplishment is preceded by careful vetting and expert debate among those making the gallery decisions not lightly taken. In a number of ways this decision is a benchmark. You understand the weight of ‘Collection’.

Until a few decades ago, this kind of connoisseurship was in the hands of museums (such as the Iziko SANG), academic institutions and sometimes culturally- highbrow corporations (Rembrandt, Sanlam). But things have changed quite dramatically. Nowadays it’s big money that set the tone of who’s in, what to collect, to buy for the rich, flashy Collector. (This is a new title usurped by hedge fund hunters and other billionaires. Private art museums by the wealthy are de rigueur in this late neocapitalist era.)

Collectors and too much money have upended many a cultural construct. I certainly include wine (and its ‘appreciation’) in this.

Art collecting takes on perhaps a more sinister, ironic notion when one considers, for example, that the warehouses of the Geneva Free Ports & Warehouses Ltd in Switzerland have a treasure trove of masterpieces locked away in the dark.

It is estimated that those precious and anonymous spaces house, among loads of booty, 1 000 Picasso pictures – never shown or seen by a soul, not to mention the public at large in galleries or museums. These are storage spaces for the ultra-rich who buy art (and wine and other things) only for their monetary worth – to have and to keep, and to brag about, and to hold as investment, and to sell for a solid profit when the time arrives.

Art has become the most tradable commodity among the wealthy. Art works are now their mobile currency. When the one-percent has all the super yachts, wives and wine estates they can play with, art is a delightfully colourful plaything when stock keeps on rising.

It has serious consequences for our very concept of what art is and could be. That is a complicated, long story. If you draw the parallel to wine-at-auction, we may be facing similar issues. Switch ‘art’ for ‘wine’ in the paragraphs above, and you may get my drift of concern.

Over the past years, wealthy South Africans too have been lured into this world of high prices and auction speculation. On the side, smart producers (such as identified by Christian Eedes here) have polished that appeal of luxury with ultra-pricing – the be-all of quality, worth and ‘enjoyment’.

So where does a ‘wine collector’ fit into this contemporary scheme of things?

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.


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