The Art Detective
‘It’s Sick But It’s True’: Why Art Addicts Go on Shopping Sprees and Then Don’t Pick Up Their New Artworks… for Years
Unclaimed art purchases are a widespread phenomenon. Sometimes there's a good reason, but often there just isn't.
Collectors often say they are art addicts. They buy too much. More than they need, or have space for. They spend too much. More than can feed a small village.
A true collector, goes the old adage, is a person who’s exceeded the walls of a house (or two, or three) and is buying art for storage.
Even wilder? In a twist that may inspire some folks to reach for pitchforks, some collectors don’t even bother to pick up the art they’ve bought. Studios and storage rooms are filled with artworks that have been invoiced, paid for—and then left behind for months and even years.
I heard a story about a museum trustee who agreed to buy a painting by Robert Nava for $550,000 over drinks at Zero Bond in New York last year, wired the money to the seller the following day, then didn’t bother getting the work for seven months. A partner at David Zwirner gallery paid $22,000 for a 7.5-foot-tall Richard Serra print at a charity auction for Independent Curators International in 2018, but was too busy to pick it up till 2022. Two commissioned paintings, each priced about $28,000, are lingering in the Los Angeles studio of artist Canyon Castator months after being completed, paid for, and ready to ship.
“When you are stinking rich, have unlimited buying power, and you are buying indiscriminately, it’s hard to keep track,” said Kenny Schachter, an artist, collector and fellow Artnet News columnist. “It’s sick but it’s true.”
I first interpreted this trend as a sign of a slowdown in the art market, the froth coming off—or maybe the low tide that exposes all the broken shells and mollusk skeletons on the now-visible ocean floor.
Then, as my reporting progressed, I realized it’s a much deeper topic, rooted as much in compulsive behavior as in the growing commodification of art. There are also pragmatic reasons, ranging from collectors undergoing house renovations to sensible efforts to consolidate shipments—and, yes, some penny-pinching.
“If you have a house filled with art and you’re buying stuff at every single art fair, every wave of auctions, and at galleries all the time, where do all these waves of art go?” Schachter said. “They go into storage and they get left behind.”
Schachter would know. As a compulsive collector, he had amassed so much art it long filled storage spaces in New Jersey and Switzerland in addition to his apartment in New York. To raise money for his passion, Schachter has organized four annual, mostly no-reserve auctions at Sotheby’s, aptly titled “The Hoarder” (and plans new editions every December for the rest of his life, he said.)
During COVID, Schachter did a series of online shows; one work sold to a private museum but went unclaimed for more than a year, he said. As a curator, he’s been on the receiving end when artists left their art behind with a gallery. He estimated that about 10 percent of all art acquisitions are not claimed following the purchase.
“Things just fall into this gray area in the same way as when you take your clothes to get cleaned and then you forget to pick it up,” he said.
One London-based collector told me he’s left paintings and sculptures at galleries for years after paying for them.
“I see something I like, I want to buy it right this second,” he said. “Then I forget. It’s 100 percent ADD.”
Delayed pickups can be difficult for small galleries that have limited storage. Francisco Correa Cordero, owner and director of Lubov gallery in New York, said he wasn’t thrilled when China’s Xiao Museum left behind a group of eight purchased paintings for seven months. Why the delay? The museum’s founder had gone on a shopping spree in New York and was waiting to consolidate all artworks in one massive shipment, Correa Cordero said.
“I understood the reason,” he added. “But it was kind of annoying because it occupied a lot of my storage.”
While some collectors have legitimate reasons—a leak in an apartment or construction delays—“I suspect mostly they don’t want to pay for storage and shipping,” the gallerist said. “Or they want to delay it as much as possible.”
New York collector Evan Ruster would be the first to admit that he doesn’t like to pay for shipping and storage. He’s planning to go to Vienna to pick up a painting that’s been at the gallery for three years. Another painting has remained in an East Hampton gallery for a year and a half.
“Really dreading that one,” Ruster said about a 6-by-4-foot painting that’s too big for his apartment. (Too “cheap” to pay for outside storage, Ruster built a storage up in his ceiling for 15-20 artworks, a couple of paintings are under the bed, and several hang two-deep on the walls, he said.)
Is he an addict? “Absolutely,” Ruster said. “For every $10 I make, I spend $11 on art. It’s a problem.”
And it’s not just trendy artists or gallery splurges—people who purchase high-priced art at auction sometimes also neglect to collect their winnings, so to speak. The mega-rich who are buying there aren’t looking for free storage, of course, according to Thomas Danziger, a lawyer who specializes in art transactions. (At least on paper, auction houses say they start charging collectors for storage after 30 days post-sale and may even sell the object.)
“A lot of it has to do with tax issues,” he said. “People take a view that they can delay the tax. Maybe they don’t have the cash and they need to sell something else. People do a lot of things to move assets around. Many of the richest people in the world are not liquid.”
So, what explains the mindset of someone who spends tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on an artwork and then doesn’t bother to pick it up?
I turned to Allen H. Weg, executive director of Stress and Anxiety Services of New Jersey that specializes in treating obsessive compulsive disorder. For the most part, he said, the high associated with buying art can be just another addiction among many.
“People who are addicted to gambling or addicted to sex or addicted to food, it’s the same sort of thing,” Weg said. “Some people are addicted to the high that you get from engaging in very extreme sports. You can get addicted to the emotional experience of getting a tattoo.”
Addictions aren’t always pathological—they can provide a shot of adrenaline or help us calm down and feel in control. “It’s not a problem unless it’s a problem,” Weg said.
Left-behind art may also reveal an investment-minded buyer, he explained: “It’s mine. I have control over it. I don’t necessarily need it to be this place or that place. I just know it’s mine wherever it is.”
“He was in trouble financially and literally disappeared,” Klein recalled this week. He managed to get his work back after paying about $500 for its storage.
“This was the only time in my career I was ripped off by the gallery,” he said.” I guess I’m lucky.”
Going back to Castator, the Los Angeles painter of aggressive, pop-culture tableaus, he admitted that being stuck with the works that have been paid for isn’t the worst thing—it certainly beats being stuck with the unsold and unpaid works. Yet it can leave a bad aftertaste.
For one thing, he worked hard to complete the two commissioned canvases on time.
“I got it done,” he said. “It looks amazing on Instagram. It paid for my rent and dinners. But there’s no finality. It’s still in the studio.”
This scenario is so common that it became an inside joke among his artist friends at the Mohilef Studios, he said.
“I am going to send the collector a second invoice—for storage,” goes the joke.
But of course no one ever follows through on the threat.
“Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?” Castator said.
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