The Frieze art fair in Regent's Park
London’s annual Frieze art fair © Charlie Bibby

Years ago, Ben Ensminger-Law was wandering round New York’s galleries one Saturday when he stopped inside Luhring Augustine to admire a set of photographs by Gregory Crewdson.

The pictures — each named “Untitled” with a parenthetical description such as “Dylan on the floor”, “car and spooky garage” or “boy with hand in drain” — depicted household scenes, but with a creepy, sinister undertone. Ensminger-Law found them haunting.

Then an employee at insurance company Marsh, he was only a few years out of college and the photographs were well beyond what he could afford. But he set up alerts for Crewdson and the prices for his work with auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and Artnet, the online art market. And waited.

Some years later, he was living in Hong Kong and working for Citigroup, the bank, when one of those alerts pinged: some of Crewdson’s work was up for auction on Artnet.

He won the piece and arranged with the seller in Paris to have it sent to his new home in Chicago. When he received it, he discovered a sticker on it — from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Apparently it had once been in the museum’s collection.

“So years after first seeing this artist that I loved, I ended up in Chicago with this art work that I bought, effectively on the internet, while I was in Asia, from a person in Europe, that was returning home to Chicago,” he says.

Ensminger-Law’s path is the direction young art collectors increasingly are taking: they want something unique and special that comes with a story; they’re globally minded and nomadic; they expect constant access to information; and they’re unafraid to buy work that they’ve never seen in real life.

The millennial generation — those aged between 18 and 35 — may be well educated, but they graduated into a recession, and the sluggish recovery has not helped them recoup the wages lost during those years.

So they have delayed big-ticket purchases and commitments such as homes, cars and steady jobs with benefits, instead embracing the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”, which offer more flexibility but less reliable cash flows.

“Younger collectors are looking for value,” says Saara Pritchard, the head of day sales in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. “They are doing a great deal of research and really sticking to the mantra of buying the best that they can afford.”

Like Ensminger-Law, they are seeking out undervalued artists and mediums, rather than “trophy” works. They search among second-generation abstract expressionist painters and younger figurative painters, or those who have been overlooked, such as female and African-American artists, and the “lesser-known corners of blue-chip artists’ bodies of work”, such as Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, Pritchard says.

“The younger generation, there’s more opportunity for them; there are more choices, more artists, more places to go and see,” says Matt Carey-Williams, deputy chairman for Europe at Phillips. Compared with their predecessors, collectors starting out now have a “much busier, frenetic lifestyle”, he says.

The Frieze art fair in Regent's Park. Hans-Peter Feldman artwork in the background
Hans-Peter Feldman artwork in the background © Charlie Bibby

The ease of apps satisfies the younger set’s need for convenience. They want “the ability to browse the market from wherever they are, whenever they’d like from their mobile phones”, says Michelle Finocchi, head of communications for Artsy, the art-buying website and app. Last year, Artsy says, its three biggest sales were connected through its mobile app, including a $1.4m deal done via an iPad between a London gallery and a US collector.

This all confirms a different generation of collectors is emerging, and their ranks are growing: new interest from design-oriented young professionals and interior designers has focused on works that cost between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars, says Wright Harvey, chief executive of online art gallery Sugarlift, based in Bushwick, New York. He estimates there are 3m potential buyers of this kind in the US alone.

“They are looking for artwork that they not only connect with emotionally but that also fits a certain design aesthetic for their home,” he says. “The options for finding art have proliferated, creating a market of hundreds of online galleries and tens of thousands of artists of varying quality and value. It’s difficult for young collectors to navigate.”

There are a few ways to solve the information overload problem: learn everything, lean on someone else’s expertise or start small and build.

Digital platforms and databases have sprung up to help with the first approach. Those that have already carved out a place include Artsy, which describes its mission as making “all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an internet connection”, as well as the online auction houses and databases, including Artnet, Auctionata, 1stdibs and Paddle8.

“While our parents would go to museums or art fairs to discover new art, today’s generation is turning to Instagram and Pinterest — and purchases are more often happening via iPhone or iPad than they are in person,” says Rob Weisberg, chief executive of Invaluable, an online marketplace for fine art, antiques and collectibles.

Yet where older collectors might focus on a time period, medium or genre, the younger generation is less interested in classifications and more interested in the story.

“Our [younger] generation, for the most part, will not settle for something that other people have,” says Kristina Lopez, a collector and co-founder of Art Zealous, a media platform dedicated to the art world. “So if a piece of artwork is, say, one in 10 editions, the chances of me buying it are highly unlikely. I want to buy art no one has — it is uniquely mine.”

To that end, younger buyers more willing to take risks: “We’re not the generation to buy the still life of an apple, but more likely to buy a piece depicting a naked girl eating a slice of pizza,” Lopez says.

“I do not think a 25-year-old in Silicon Valley who’s thinking about putting some work together for his home is necessarily going to be looking at buying Old Master prints or Dutch still-life paintings,” adds Carey-Williams of Phillips. “They’re young and modern, and want to buy something young and modern and fresh that signifies their own life in their very beautiful new and modern home. They start to create something that is of their time.”

Tapping into the tastemakers

Paddle8 targets prices between $1,000 and $100,000 — roughly the market between eBay and Christie’s — focused on the “21st-century collector: somebody who is nomadic, digitally savvy, who wants 24/7 access to his or her passions”, says Sarah Goulet, head of communications.

Yet the customer still wants some level of help. “These young collectors are really eager to be guided by tastemakers,” Goulet says. “They do not want to be told exactly what to collect, but they want some insight into how notable people would mix or match their collection.”

Paddle8 has added auctions curated by or drawn from the personal collections of leading fashion figures, Such as US Vogue magazine’s former creative director, Grace Coddington, and designer Tory Burch.

“Anything that really peels back the curtain on how people actually live with these works of art helps to remove the stigma of collecting, To make it feel much more accessible, much more liveable,” Goulet says.

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