Five of Our Favorite Celebrity Art Collectors
From the savvy seller to the swindled star
Wealthy patrons have been a part of art since, well, ancient Egypt. Egyptian artists were commissioned to draw images on the inside of tombs so the soul of the deceased could enjoy an earthly home in the afterlife. The trend never really stopped. Even the most iconic Renaissance artists depended on wealthy benefactors. Artists today may enjoy a wider range of vocational opportunities—grants, academia, more commercial work, and more—but the age-old model still stands: The most talented artists must rely on the rich.
There are a couple reasons the upper classes crave canvases. The first is perhaps the most obvious: Art can be a great way to exchange liquid capital for cultural capital. The price of an artist’s work has something to do with their talent and originality, but it has a lot to do with what’s in fashion. A given artist who has a major retrospective, for example, may become “hot,” though their work (or how it fits into the canon) hasn’t changed.
The second major reason to buy art, perhaps the more practical of the two, is to use it as an investment. The buying and selling of art can feel like its own “economy,” one that runs parallel (but not always alongside) the real economy. As the BBC explains, art “has no correlation to the stock market,” and so “paintings can go up in value even when the market crashes, making it a good diversification for an investment portfolio.”
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In the case of celebrities, the two reasons aren’t so distinct. Like anyone, cultural elites need to grow their bank accounts in healthy, sustainable ways. But they’re especially susceptible to keeping up appearances; by buying art, they gain street credibility, authenticity, and allure. And so when Oprah, for example, buys Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) for $87.9 million in 2006 and then sells it in 2015 for $150 million, we’re not sure what exactly to make of it. Is she a fan of the Austrian Symbolist and just happened to make a ton of money? Or is she simply a savvy businesswoman who put her money to work? Attaching Oprah’s name to the painting could have helped boost its price, as the fact she lent it out to the Museum of Modern Art could have. (Either way, it’s further proof that, as the saying goes, the rich just get richer.)
Below you’ll find five of our favorite celebrity collectors, either because of their impeccable taste or their knack for gaming the market.
1. Oprah Winfrey
The unparalleled media mogul gets our top spot even though a lot of her cache seems to come from the Klimt sale, mentioned above. Flipping a work of that magnitude turns heads for years and even helps draw attention to the artist himself. The fact is that a lot of Oprah’s collection is private. When she does hold public auctions, they tend to be for charity or to spotlight underrepresented artists.
Madonna has never really needed street cred. Even before she became a name to know, she dated the ’80s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat. (She also collected his work but probably doesn’t have any today.) She’s perhaps best known for buying the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but her collection is much more diverse than that. (Back in 2015, it was estimated that her walls are worth more than $100 million.) The singer and actress is also known to collect Tamara de Lempicka, Picasso, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and more.
3. Beyoncé and Jay-Z
No other celebrity (or celebrity couple) has done quite so much to bring mainstream attention to the world of art. (Their joint music video for Apesh#t, shot at the Louvre, has reportedly helped the museum reach record visitor numbers.) No other artist attracts celebrities quite like Basquiat—he’s been collected by John McEnroe, Mary-Kate Olsen, Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Swizz Beatz, Elton John, and more—but Beyoncé and Jay-Z may be his biggest fans. Jay-Z bought Basquiat’s Mecca (1982) for $4.5 million and even opens his song Most Kingz by name-dropping the artist: “Inspired by Basquiat, my chariot’s on fire.” The couple is also known to collect Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Tracey Emin, Picasso, George Condo, Kara Walker, and Ed Ruscha.
4. Elton John
Elton John is not only a great fan of Keith Haring, owning multiple works from the graffiti-style artist, but he also used Haring’s design for a 2003 vinyl rerelease of his single Are You Ready for Love? The singer is also known for his love of photography, collecting not just modern marvels (Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, David LaChapelle, Robert Mapplethorpe) but also the medium’s first experimenters, such as Man Ray.
5. Alec Baldwin
Though Baldwin’s art collection isn’t nearly as extensive (or valuable) as some of the other names on this list, he gets a spot for being a part of a very intriguing sale. For years, the actor was obsessed with Ross Bleckner’s Sea and Mirror (1996). Finally, in 2010, he convinced Bleckner’s representation, Mary Boone—a renowned gallery owner who was recently convicted of tax fraud—to organize a sale. Boone said the buyer was willing, but for a steep price: $190,000. Three months later, the painting was hanging in Baldwin’s apartment, except something wasn’t right. He was suspicious it wasn’t the real thing (it even smelled “fresh,” he said) and he was right. Eventually, Boone agreed to pay Baldwin what he paid and then some (the amount is unknown, but it is reportedly seven figures). She also had Bleckner produce a commission just for the actor.