Who buys contemporary art?

By Jack Flanagan

Some people say that the “art” behind contemporary art is swindling people. You might say of Tracey Emin or Gary Hume “well, at least they were smart about it”, the same way you could offer curt praise to a bankrobber. If that’s true, it’s been “clean job” spanning several decades, robbing people of millions of dollars.

Damien Hirst, far and away the most successful contemporary artist, has the history (and appearance) to match a con artist. His early career was as an artist hustler who fell into the arms of Saatchi. He said of his own work “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.” Whether or not he does is the subject of his many detractors and fans.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst 1991

But what about the people buying all this art? How do they divide up? Are contemporary art patrons academics, critics, amateurs, mired in their pretensions? And what do they like: a rotting cow’s head, a glass of water; revived classicism? The little I knew about the market came from the offhand remark of a gallery’s PR person – “Pieces can go from £50 to £30 million”. What other market exists with that kind of price margin?

Seeking out a buyer, I found Stephen Crathern, owner of an estate agent company in Sussex. Thanks to a higher income, he has taken a closer look at the art world over the last decade. He isn’t what you’d expect of an art lover.

Could you brief me on your businesses?

I’m effectively an estate agent. I have two separates businesses: one’s sales and the other is lettings, or managing property for various landlords.

How did you get into contemporary art, were you always interested in it?

Not really, go to a few art fairs, read a few magazines and websites and you’ll gradually get interested; go to exhibits, the Tate Modern – that sort of thing. No one was interested in my family, they think it’s a waste of time, and maybe they were right. But I find it interesting.

Were you drawn to pieces, genres, or just art as escapism?

At the time I knew absolutely nothing about it, but then I gradually got more interested. And what with the whole urban art thing sprung up and I live close to Brighton, that was quite interesting.

I’m more interested in Pop Art from the sixties, like David Hockney and I’ve been to a few of his shows and exhibitions and I try to get a few pieces from Blake, so I suppose I’m most interested in that period.

Can you talk about why?

I suppose because it was all starting when I was very young so to look back at it and see what they were doing and how things changed. Nowadays pop culture is everywhere: we’re overrun with it, at the time it was all very fresh and new. I was a big admirer of David Hockney, what he did coming from the backend of Yorkshire and going down to Los Angeles, and the coming back to Yorkshire recently… I think it’s easy to be different today isn’t it? But back then it wasn’t.

How about modern artists in the last decade?

But I can’t throw money away: Art isn’t that important

Like Tracey Emin? I mean, she’s interesting, isn’t she? Her and her friend, Michael Landy… he did an exhibition once where he took all his possessions and put them through a mixing machine and all that was left was chopped up stuff [laughs]. Which is ridiculous really, but I thought that was really clever, including his car which was completely dismantled. And of course, Damien Hirst gets a lot of stick from a lot of different people, I think it’s interesting and I find him interesting and he’s made a huge amount of money. Like, you know all those spot paintings? And people say “oh, why are they so special?” But now you’ve got kids in schools with that design on it, you’ve got tea mugs with that design in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose with that image which, although very simple, has spread worldwide. I do find it interesting. Kid’s pencil cases have spots all over them now.

Do you do any kind of personal drawing or painting?

No, I’m absolutely hopeless. So, you know, I admire people that can put things together. It’s interesting at all sorts of levels, the creative side, the business side, for society, art collecting and even how it’s advertised. That’s what people are known for now, it’s just a big part of modern life.

And what about anything which isn’t contemporary art?

Oh, right. I like Chagall a lot, especially his early stuff. There’s a lot of things I like and a lot of things I can’t afford to buy. I’d buy a Chagall print. But I can’t throw money away: Art isn’t that important. Although I can’t respect the person that says it doesn’t matter. [pauses] If people explain Picasso to me I can kind of understand. There are good documentaries on the Sky Arts channel to explain art to simpletons, so I watch those. And I think it’s evident but there’s so much rubbish funnelled into people now isn’t there…

There’s a Spanish lad in his early twenties: he’s got Picasso’s Guernica – but all over his body! Tattooed I mean. That’s clearly influenced him, I guess. Makes a change from a bulldog!

A man with Pablo Picasso's Guernica tattooed on his back

A man with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica tattooed on his back


You often see collectors of modern art nosing around the Tate Modern or Saatchi gallery in their brown-overcoats and lime cords, but who knows how candid they’d be when interviewed?

Stephen is a humble and cautious man sharing his opinion on art. And he’s right: anyway you look at it, contemporary art is “interesting”. And while no two people are going to agree on how “interesting” it is, at one level or another: it is.