Simon de Pury on How the Obsessions of Our Youngest Generation Can Predict Future Trends in Collecting

The veteran auctioneer shares what he's learned from observing successive generations of buyers.

Simon de Pury, London, 2017 ©Juergen Teller, All rights Reserved.

Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

Next week, at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, the FT Business of Luxury conference is taking place. With art probably being the ultimate luxury, I was asked to participate in a panel discussing the buying patterns of millennials. I immediately accepted, falsely and naively assuming that millennials were people born in or since the year 2000. I thought it was particularly cool that they would ask a baby boomer like me i.e., a candidate for reaching a biblical age, to share his wisdom on the topic. Before I found out from Wikipedia the correct definition of millennials, i.e., people born between 1980 and 1994 and the names that are given to the preceding and following generations, I knew only the much simpler classifications that Stefan Edlis, the fabulous contemporary art collector and philanthropist from Chicago had given me. According to him, there are three ages in life: Youth, Middle Age, and ‘You look amazing!’.

The reason that the panel is interested in millennials is that they represent what is by now the financially most potent segment of clients in the luxury market. This also applies to the art world, as it was already being highlighted in the 2021 Art Market Report prepared by UBS and Art Basel.

My first-hand knowledge of millennials is that I fathered four of them. As toddlers, their moves were synching the music by Prince and Michael Jackson that was blasting from the loudspeakers of my turntables. Their toys were all Japanese space men, Godzillas and robots. Japanese popular culture was also omnipresent through the anime movies they would watch, and the games they would play on their Nintendo consoles. I would have to fight with my sons over their GameBoy gadgets as I had fallen more addicted to Tetris than they were.

A woman looks at Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara's 'In the Pinky Lake' during a media preview of Christie's Hong Kong Spring Sales in Hong Kong on March 30, 2018. Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images.

A woman looks at Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s ‘In the Pinky Lake’ during a media preview of Christie’s Hong Kong Spring Sales in Hong Kong on March 30, 2018. Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images.

Their adolescence coincided with the advent of grunge which had a not so great impact on their way of dressing. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden provided the soundtrack to those years. CDs had meanwhile replaced the vinyls and cassettes. My kids were learning how to use a computer at school. It was not idiot-proof enough then for a baby boomer father like me to understand how to do it as well! James Cameron’s Titanic movie, which made a mega star out of Leonardo DiCaprio, was not only the highest grossing film ever but certainly one that no millennial could have afforded to not have seen. The reason why I am outlining in such detail what might have had an impact on the youth and adolescence of a millennial is that during all our adult life we are chasing the dreams that we had as teens and preteens. Millennials had to wait less long than previous generations to make some money and to be able to spend it on what nourished those dreams. Not at all surprised by the super-strong demand for works by artists such as Yoshimoto Nara.

I also have first-hand experience with members of Generation Z who were born between 1995 and 2012 as I am the proud father of a daughter born on 1.1.11 (January 1, 2011). Peppa Pig had a massive impact on her early development. I got so into it that I was deeply depressed when she eventually moved on. I try not to be too outspoken about my political views in these days of extreme polarization. It is the most secure way to immediately alienate all your friends, whether they are real or virtual, whether you have any or not. However, I have to refer to the most exciting press conference ever given by former British prime minister Boris Johnson which he began by extolling at length the virtues of Peppa Pig.



That phase was followed by the craze for Disney princesses and by continuous live renditions of the main hit from the Disney smash film Frozen. She knew how to perfectly navigate an iPad or iPhone long before learning how to read or write. To my great surprise the first word she ever read out loud was DIOR, which she did when I took her on a stroll on London’s Old Bond Street. An interest for fashion and articles of luxury never left her since. Party bags for birthday parties have to be filled with items purchased at Sephora. She knows how much a given pair of sneakers will cost you in London, Paris, Monaco or on the net. At the start of the pandemic Roblox became her game of choice. It allowed her to play for hours with girlfriends who could be based anywhere during lockdown. All these girls were asking their parents if they could do chores for them against pocket money. These hard-earned gains would then immediately be transformed into digital clothes for their avatars. There is no question therefore that when Generation Z members get into real money they won’t think twice of spending it on digital art. Instagram, which is the main source of information for millennial art collectors, is so boring for them that they will not waste their time on it. It’s all about TikTok from which Generation Z members derive their considerable knowledge in a multitude of topics. Every action is meaningless unless it is documented with a selfie. No elevator mirror, no store window will be left undocumented.

Narcissus finally made it to paradise. The musical soundtrack is provided by K-pop, BlackPink possibly being the favorite act. This seeming superficiality and selfishness goes hand in hand with a highly developed environmental consciousness. They are aware that time is up and are upset at the inaction of their elders. While writing this article I realize that I am actually much more motivated by trying to analyse the tastes of Generation Z than those of the millennials. Before we know it, that will be the commercially most lucrative segment of the world of luxury and art market.

Not for long because Generation Alpha consisting of those born between 2013 and now is already firmly waiting in the wings! You will be happy to know that I will spare you now of my first-hand knowledge through my two Generation Alpha granddaughters!

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

One thing is sure: collecting is here to stay. It is one of the earliest activities we develop in early childhood. It is a sort of illness from which we luckily never recover regardless of whether we are members of the Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, Generation Z or Generation Alpha! It is linked to our fascination and zest with life, and our deep curiosity. It is also our attempt to reach timelessness and challenges our attitude towards mortality.

An always impeccably dressed friend in his late eighties once told me that upon hearing from his doctor the diagnosis that he was suffering from an incurable cancer, he went straight to his tailor to order three new suits. He couldn’t help also mentioning his sad medical condition to his tailor. The shocked tailor then asked him: “Is there any point for you having these suits made now?” My friend was so upset by the tailor’s question that he instantly cancelled the order.

This would never happen in the art market. I have experienced several times that it is precisely in moments of advanced age or very poor health that collectors are most likely to make a very bold purchase. It is an act of embracing life right up to the end.

Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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