Opinion: I avoided addictions all my life. Until I began collecting art

Opinion: I avoided addictions all my life. Until I began collecting art

The Connoisseur, a 19th century painting by Ferdinand Roybet.PUBLIC DOMAIN

Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s books include the novel Grand Menteur.

I used to believe that the vices that spun out into addictions arose from the Dickensian nature of people’s circumstances.

My grandfather, whose final cries from alcohol poisoning were so excruciating that my family moved him to a remote corner of their Mauritian home, knew of no other way to deal with his demons than at the end of a bottle. My friends, who grew intimately acquainted with the horrors of gambling, explained how relatives played cards with priests staking collection plate money or hid oversized novelty cheques at the back of closets.

For my own part, the chemical indiscretions of my youth never had a lasting hold over me; there was nothing habit-forming in the penitential hallucinations my Catholic upbringing inspired, no appeal to the shouting matches with my partner over nights of narcotizing substance use. My upbringing had been too staid to allow for extravagant compulsions anyway, and was indulgent enough that I possessed an awareness that good things could be wayward and undependable.

These ideas were upended somewhat when I entered the world of art collecting. I began buying comic and illustration art from what I believed to be “noble” motivations – aesthetic contemplation, snobbery, connoisseurship – and only sought pieces that would cost me what others might spend at the bar on any given week.

A friend remarked to me once that collecting originates in a desire to bring “the chaos of the world to heel.” I think that’s accurate, because I did not collect from the grubby reasoning of a speculator: I didn’t care whether acquisitions diversified a portfolio, or if they could eventually be status-forming. My collecting was about compulsively paying tribute to my obsessions.

I used to obsess over the idea of imitation as an artistic practice, for example: the way a painter might mimic their heroes in terms of style or technique. I found myself buying copies of famous works of art, budget studies of colour or design that could be considered facsimiles of masterworks. Knockoff Noriyoshi Ohrai paintings and cheeky tributes to The Broons (the beloved The Sunday Post strip by Scottish artist Dudley D. Watkins) still adorn my walls.

I began aggressively buying when I was accidentally overpaid at one of the terrible jobs I was working at the time. I was suddenly flush with cash. Rather than having largesse in mind, I bought a piece of art that would have otherwise been out of reach. This move would become precedent-setting – instead of an isolated behaviour, my spending rose to new heights with each purchase.

You justify such a selfish expenditure in several ways: You might tell yourself that “I deserve a little indulgence” or that you’re trying to “go out with a bang.” My resolutions to stop buying – to resign myself to reading sales figures from closed auction listings – predictably went nowhere; this merely became a way to understand moving averages of pricing, which informed a knowledge base begging to be used.

Understanding the rules of the game became just as beguiling as making off with a coveted art piece. Knowing the most opportune moment to offer a cut bid at an auction could produce a nice little top up to an otherwise pedestrian dopamine spike after a successful bid.

In private sales, I learned which approaches might secure favourable outcomes with the personalities I was dealing with – it made no difference whether I was faced with time-eaters looking for a friend or “weathervanes” who dithered about selling and price point. Everything was in service of educating myself about the complicated and changeable field of play that lay before me. The baize held no appeal to me, but a stretched canvas or some yellowed screentone on the other hand …

Sometimes collecting can be about the chase or the story you come away with, and not solely about the piece in question’s actual merits; often, it’s enough that you derive pleasure from some facet of the material world yielding to your will. Whatever the case, you know deep in your bones that this gratification can only be augmented by repetition, but that habituation to an activity is ultimately to dilute it – the paradox at the heart of most addictive behaviours.

The collectible market has come a very long way since my interest began in it as a teenager. Graded video games, trading cards, comic books and toys have become hot ticket items again – a Pokemon card sold for more than US$5-million in July, 2021, and an unopened copy of the very first Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game was procured by an anonymous buyer for US$2-million a month later. Market participant saturation and the inability to travel is often touted as the reason behind this pandemic-driven “retreat into the interior.”

In the same way that property values skyrocketed, and cryptocurrency and NFTs inflamed the minds of sharpers the world over, I began to realize that something unusual was happening in my small by-corner of the collecting universe.

Pent-up value was being released, inflated by new interest or an emerging form of arbitrage, for lack of a better term. Investors were buying as much “stock” as they could, and flipping it on the resale market for profit – in some cases, these plungers would buy from one dealer whose pricing perhaps did not reflect the overheating market interest, and then sell to another broker whose valuation did (although stock would equally sit as much as it would move).

Things got so outrageous, that the droit de suite argument reared its head again: the French idea that artists and their estates should be entitled to resale percentages of subsequent sales of their work. Whatever a collector’s attitude on the matter, the debate was a surefire indicator that overvaluation was occurring and that interest was crash-hot.

This stock broker mentality to collecting is hardly anything new, but what the pandemic did was bring a flurry of new “arbitrageurs” into the art collecting hobby, and in a similar proportion to those that were deciding to cash out. Art stock had always been concentrated in the hands of a few art representatives and dealers, but now upstart middlemen had entered the already crowded picture.

Collectors will abandon their hobbies for various reasons – they lose interest, their collections get unwieldy or they reach an age where they become reconciled to the idea that “you can’t take it with you.” I decided to walk away the moment I suspected that my engagement had become poisoned and maybe even a little pathological.

I had been obsessing over a particular piece of artwork for years that finally surfaced, but which ended in the hands of one of these arbitrageurs; let us say that I became unhealthily fixated on this art, and that I was addlepated enough to agree to its inflated pricing without having the means to acquire it. I broke the cardinal rule of smart collecting, which I had never been an advocate of to begin with: I let an emotional attachment get the better of me. Indeed, it can be argued that art buying guided by a purist sensibility is predicated entirely on this feeling.

A bad debt doesn’t just hang over you; it can become a part of the cycle of addictive behaviour that you require to experience the dizzying highs that diminish with each new acquisition (I had no other explanation for such an extraordinarily bad life decision). Climbing out of my hole afforded me a strange, rarefied pleasure of its own, and I discovered how abjection had its role to play in my compulsive buying. As I chipped away at what I owed, I felt that sordid little thrill more intensely – like anything was possible.

It was a clarifying moment that made all my art-buying endeavours seem a ludicrous privilege. I asked myself if I had the appetite to carry on as I had been – conferring ceaselessly with dealers (whether they showed me the knife or not), rooting out and arranging introductions with enthusiasts who collected work by the same artists as I did, draining my paycheque dry each month. I lamented my future as a black hole of mindless procurement. I imagined the new heights of financial folly I could reach and the relationships I would test along the way.

While I still half-heartedly look at auctions, between the outrageous expense of the hobby and the level of attention it demands, non-engagement and avoidance is a no-brainer for someone like me. I no longer want to devote thought to the commercial realities of artistic production beyond being abstractly happy for the artists who can be properly compensated in their lifetime.

It’s unclear what the next few years of art collecting will bring. Will something akin to a commodities exchange emerge? Will the NFT market collapse? That seems unlikely given the built-in scarcity of art objects, but regarding arbitrage, I often think about how gamblers will talk about the “house edge”: the competitive advantage that casinos hold over individual players in terms of net profitability.

It is tempting to believe that this edge has been dulled over time, and far too easy to forget that it is being sharpened on an endless supply of overextended art hounds.

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