What Your Art Collection Says About You – Psychology Today

Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.
Verified by Psychology Today
Posted  | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
Does the fact that the collector chooses a certain area to collect reveal anything about the collector herself or himself? This is a tough one, and certainly, a question that has not been scientifically studied, to my knowledge. Still, it is a question that when/if resolved, the answer would be of interest to collectors.
My own exploration into this area included several essays I wrote about the now-deceased Eli Lilly (1885-1977), the CEO of Eli Lilly and Company from 1932-1948. In these publications, I discussed psychological concepts related to Lilly’s buying exchanges when he purchased Chinese art in the late 1940’s. For background, I had a stack of letters written between Lilly and his major dealer at the time, C.T. Loo. These documents made my task of retrospectively assigning recently discovered psychological principles to Lilly’s earlier porcelain transactions infinitely easier. Without them, any conclusions made could only be speculative.
Now, new research has surfaced regarding this subject, but in a whole new way, one which may lead us forward into the future. The current collector examined, Francois Pinault (1936-), is very much alive. He is known worldwide as the billionaire stakeholder of multiple luxury brands and also one of the top 200 art collectors in the world. Since 1998, he is the owner of Christie’s, the prestigious auction house based in London, with offices throughout the world.
The researchers, Codignola and Mariana, used a descriptive data analysis in conjunction with a decision tree classifier to draw conclusions from the Pinault Collection exhibition catalogues from 2006-2015. From this data, patterns emerged.
Pinault purchased more art produced by men than women (82.1 percent compared to 17.9 percent) which, I believe, would be consistent with the choices of other buyers at the time (and also may have to do with availability). He was oriented toward young artists (40-49 years of age), who could be classified as emerging or newly emerged (a side effect is that an artist’s career can be profoundly affected by inclusion in the Pinault collection). Older or deceased artists were represented less often.
The artists Pinault purchased were mostly European (43.9 percent), with the majority being born in Italy, France, and the U.K. North American artists (28.5 percent) were next, and Asian artists last (primarily from China, 16.3 percent).
From these data, the researchers provided several hypotheses relating to Pinault’s psychological makeup.
Why? Pinault purchased where the art market was gaining traction. For example, the American and Asian markets outperformed in the period examined and Pinault invested nearly one-half of his art-purchasing dollars in these areas. Thus, Pinault could be construed to have a sharp eye, sensitive to market forces, which was reflected in his buying choices.
Also, Pinault was a businessman, and now, since 2003 is a collector. Since the profit motive is a key tenet of rational choice theory (economic agents tend to pursue what is in their own best interests) Pinault would be influenced by it in his professional life. This, no doubt, continued to impact him when he purchased art.
From the art choices Pinault made, his political leanings can be postulated. Codignola and Mariani categorize those who purchase in the art market into traditional and conservative art collectors (TAC) or avant-garde and innovative art collectors (AIC). From the data, Pinault falls into the latter. An earlier (1973) study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that individuals who preferred more complex and abstract paintings, like Pinault, tended to be liberal rather than conservative.
What we explore here is virgin territory, a new concept: How to decipher inherent psychological principles related to a collector when she/he makes choices about art. In the first case examined, that of Eli Lilly, price concerns, the sunk cost principle, flattery, fear, and even disgust came to light. In the second, Francois Pinault, a profit motive and liberal leanings were suggested. Although perhaps not important for the world to know, it is to collectors who, like everyone, want to understand themselves.
Mueller, S.M. (2011) C.T. Loo and Eli Lilly: Neuropsychological Insights. Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archive Professionals, Volume 7 #3. Summer 2011, pages 289-298. https://www.academia.edu/8224471/C_T_Loo_and_Eli_Lilly_Neuropsychological_Insights
Mueller, S.M. (2019) “Using Neuroscience and Behavioral Economics to Interpret Historic Archives, The Eli Lilly-C.T. Loo Story” pgs. 113-125 in Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play. Lucia/Marquand, Seattle. https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Head-Collector-Neuropsychological-Forces/dp/0999652273/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2LJMC35LPH6M5&keywords=shirley+mueller+book&qid=1667149918&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIwLjAwIiwicXNhIjoiMC4wMCIsInFzcCI6IjAuMDAifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=%2Caps%2C76&sr=8-1
Codignola, F., Mariani, P. (2022) Investigating preferences in art collecting: the case of the François Pinault Collection. Ital. J. Mark. 107–133 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43039-021-00040-x
Wilson, G. D., Ausman, J., & Mathews, T. R. (1973). Conservatism and art preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25(2), 286–288. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033972
Shirley M. Mueller, M.D., is a neuroscientist board certified in neurology and psychiatry. She is also an avid collector. Combining these two disciplines, she wrote Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play.
Get the help you need from a therapist near you–a FREE service from Psychology Today.
Psychology Today © 2023 Sussex Publishers, LLC
Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.


Leave a Comment