Selling Collections and the Power of Narrative

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10/22/2020     News and Film, Trusts and Estates

Collectors are a passionate group, driven by a unique combination of personal interests and aesthetic preferences. At all levels, considerable time, thought and funds have been dedicated to amassing a comprehensive collection and often there is an inherent focus on acquisition rather than disposition. 


"What does it mean to be a collector and how can the stories that permeate collections be utilized as a tool for inspiring buyers and maximizing returns?"

At a certain level, it must be acknowledged that individuals purchase art or objects for the simple goal of furnishing the spaces they occupy. With this comes a variety of categorization possibilities, ranging from a “home sweet home” sign purchased to match the sofa cushions to important and rare artworks, such as a Cézanne painting that can stand alone based on its merits.

Assembling a rare Cézanne canvas, a Tiffany lamp and a Meissen teacup in a room, however, does not equate to a collection…yet! Without a doubt, these works independently carry their own intrinsic and monetary values, worthy of being enjoyed, appreciated and, in due course, sold for strong returns in the saleroom. But the lynchpin that distinguishes a collection from a grouping of objects is the presence of a narrative. Tangible assets do not magically transpose into a collection once a certain price point or quantity is achieved. It is defined by a thread of dialogue, weaving its way from object to object, uniting each into a comprehensive, curatorial story.

The Collection of Robert J. Morrison, sold at Freeman’s, October 2019, included a range of works by iconic 20th century Pop artists as well as an extensive art reference library. A passionate collector, Morrison also kept a vast assortment of art-related

What commences as an activity, driven by one-off personal preference, often evolves into an established pattern over time. The hunt for the next work is galvanized by purpose as the motivation to acquire works becomes centered on a unifying theme.

The collecting trail may declare passion for a concen-trated segment of a period (i.e. Wiener Werkstätte silver), or follow a broader understanding of a genre or prominent painter and his/her development over time (i.e. Dutch landscapes or Jacob van Ruisdael) in turn amassing early or esoteric drawings in addition to important canvases. Some collections speak to a spiritual aesthetic or the story of someone’s God (i.e. African and Oceanic masks). Lastly, some collections speak solely to the collector at hand – who they are, where they’ve traveled, or the thought behind each acquisition. In our quest to capture the essence of a collection coming to the auction block, it falls to that old adage colloquially attributed to Aristotle: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Narrative has the power to provide connection. It can entice and resonate with buyers for a variety of reasons, such as a shared passion for an artist or genre, the prospect of continued stewardship for a rare work, or admiration for the collector.

As America’s oldest auction house, Freeman’s has been entrusted with countless important collections throughout our 215-year history and The Collection of Robert J. Morrison sold last October provides a fitting example of narrative power. This highly personal collection was imbued with an amplified understanding of graphic design and the Pop era, as well as Mr. Morrison’s sincere passion for learning and sharing. These cohesive storylines were presented in a thoughtfully curated catalogue and further promoted through a robust set of marketing and press initiatives designed to reach the broadest range of potential buyers. In the end, the sale achieved nearly $1.5M, or 220% above the pre-sale low estimate, following intense bidding across the globe.

Works from A Bucks County Life: The Bonnie O’Boyle Collection, sold at Freeman’s, December 2018.

Freeman’s auction A Buck’s County Life: The Bonnie O’Boyle Collection in December 2018 presents a case study of an eclectic collection that was unified by themes of Pennsylvania art and craft interwoven with the collector’s artistic and intellectual curiosity. The story of this grouping centers both on the collector and the collected, with Lisa Tremper Hanover, retired Director/CEO of the James A Michener Art Museum asserting that the narrative was, “…vibrant, well-crafted, thought-provoking, evocative of an era, and reflective of a curious mind.”

In addition to attracting a diverse group of international bidders, the collection’s narrative resonated strongly with regional collectors. Additionally, this dedicated “single-owner” auction was strategically book-ended by the Pennsylvania Impressionist and Design auctions, further focusing collectors’ attentions. With energetic bidding on sale day, the O’Boyle collection successfully achieved nearly $800,000 and a 95% sold by lot rate.

These are just a couple of examples where illuminating a collection’s particular narrative helped bolster a connection with buyers. While each collection is unique, requiring careful consideration of the client’s wishes, Freeman’s prides itself on knowing when and how to leverage the holistic narrative through sale strategy and bespoke marketing initiatives – ultimately maximizing return for our clients.

Uncovering and appreciating the invisible driver behind a collector’s motivation(s) is what makes working specifically with collections so rewarding, and the personal attention provided by our senior leaders to eloquently articulate the underlining narrative that unites a collection is one of Freeman’s specialties.