The Artful Collector: Dealing with Art Hierarchies

In nature, hierarchies play a necessary, if brutal role.  Pecking orders rule roosts, runts in a litter may starve, and Humans venerate their celebs, and Brit Royals.  Even in cultural artifacts, the vertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. Whence the phrase “low man on the totem pole.”   So it shouldn’t come as any surprise to discover there are “rankings” or hierarchies, in the world of art, and – like an anthropologist – here I am to offer my observations.  🙂

Artists can try this route, but it won't help. Collectors will step up, if others won't.
Artists can try this route, but it won’t help. Collectors will step up, if artists won’t.

I got this idea – to spend some time on “hierarchies” – from a recent (and very spirited) dialogue on facebook among artists and collectors having to do with their views toward, and definitions of, (so-called) “original digital art prints” and (so-called) “real art”.  My “so-called” added only to highlight and emphasize the variance in views among the correspondents. 😉  How do we value what we collect?  Is there some “pecking order” that determines the desirability or attractiveness or worthiness of artworks – the equivalent of ‘high’ or ‘low’ status –  in our small part of the art universe?


If you are a collector who spends any time with other collectors, or an artist who keeps the company of other artists, then you know to expect that comparisons will be made . . . between what you own and someone else does, or what you create and someone else does.  I’m not just talking about differences between collections (“hey, didja see the money Joe dropped on that ’29 standing liberty quarter?”) but also comparisons of dealers, agents, sales, conventions, auctions, prices.  Reinforced by amazement that OTHER collectors of OTHER things, would ever spend the money they did on such items.  “Hey, I’m crazy….but not as crazy as Joe!”

My father, for example, a long time numismatist (a label he prefered to “coin dealer”) could never understand why anyone would spend good money on a STAMP.  Which – believe it or not – attracted the same sort of collector, at his point in time, as coins (hence the “stamp and coin shops” of the 1940s-1950s).  “A tiny piece of paper,” he’d exclaim, “can you believe it?!”  A stamp . . . can vaporize in an instant, can get a tiny crease in a corner and lose all value.  A gold coin, on the other hand, can be carried anywhere in the world and be traded for cash, has been a standard for value for thousands of years, and “even if it melts in a safe, from a fire – you still end up with a lump of gold”  (!!!).  Obviously, this was a man who was never going to be a stamp dealer. 🙂

My father would cheerfully trade coins for stamps (because of the cross over in these collectibles, back then), ending up with “stock books” filled with out-of-date stamps that some collector somewhere had carefully stashed away, for that rainy when they’d be worth a fortune.  Then he’d use those stamps as common postage on his business mail!  Yes.

Back in 1993 I thought Arnie was cute in Last Action Hero.  Today, I can't give them away. I'd be happy to open these suckers up if anyone showed the slightest interest in playing with them.
Back in 1993 I thought Arnie was cute in Last Action Hero. Today, I can’t give them away. I’d be happy to open these suckers up if anyone showed the slightest interest in playing with them.

Sort of like taking a closet full of 50-year old MIP action figures and letting your grandkids play with them.

Or, as I have done, bought a “collectible” Franklin Mint Dragon dinner service (for 8) and actually served dinner on them (and threw away the special boxes they came in!!!)

HOWEVER:  The amazing thing about collecting is not that there will be this kind of bias among collectors, and what they collect.  Or disdain for professional artists who care about making money from their art, by artists who make art purely for “art’s sake.”  No. The amazing thing is that  there can develop such strong agreement in terms of ranking what matters to those who collect, and create.


I may not ever care about coins, stamps or comic books – or Franklin Mint Plates.  But once I CARE – then it behooves to attend to the  HIERARCHIES that establish “worthiness” in the field I’ve chosen.  In the field of illustrative art, the challenge has never been about finding authentic items, nor even a good supply of them (until recently, illustrative art has been plentiful).  Rather, it has always been a matter of finding what experts call “meritorious items” – those that are of the highest, one hopes extraordinary, aesthetic quality . . . while at the same time, understanding that values will be influenced by these distinctions within the field as well as the field’s position on the grand Art “totem pole.”


If you collect or create art, then you are probably aware of some basic hierarchical distinctions:

1. “arts” are better than “crafts” (painters are higher….on the arts “pole” than crafters)

2.  “fine art” is better than “illustrative art” (“high” art vs. “low” art)

3. art done “for love” is better than art done “for money”  (for self-expression vs making money from the art, “commercialism”)

4. “one-of-a-kind” originals are better than “multiples” which are better than “reproductions”

5. artworks that are signed are better than those unsigned

6. art by someone “famous” no matter what the quality, is better than art by someone unknown, however good the art

7. art that costs a lot is better than art that costs a little

8.  art that is “permanent” is better than art that is “fleeting”

9. art that is created by hand without mechanical or machine intervention is better than art created with that sort of help. (hammered stone sculpts vs stone sculpts created with the help of power drills; “lost wax” bronzes vs. CAD/CAM; silkscreen prints vs photographic lithograph prints)

10?  Your input here

I’m sure that, with a little thought, you can add to this list.  It’s by no means inclusive.  It’s just to give you the general idea of what I mean by “basics”.  So as to provide me with a platform for talking more specifically about each of these concepts, in turn.

Next week: we start with #1.   Which explains why so few 3D artists in this field “made it” professionally until they left it, why so few of us collect sculptures with the same zeal as paintings, and why the best “3D” art could never compete with the best in “2D art” at traditional convention art shows..

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