title for Collectibles note
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Notions of good citizenship and the 'civilised workplace', corporate marketing, institutional one-upmanship or personal aggrandisement have led some commercial and administrative institutions to form corporate collections.

That collecting reflects private collecting by founding families and acquisition or commissioning by guilds and fraternities. Collecting has often been haphazard, restricted and of indifferent quality, centred on portraits of directors and key possessions (eg shipping companies often commissioned paintings of their steamships) or on the personal interest of the chairman - or chairman's partner.

Self-conscious 'corporate collecting' essentially dates from the mid-1960s, with major businesses emulating each other in acquiring contemporary art to decorate their offices and institutions such as universities using that to legitimate an extension of their traditional small-scale acquisition activity. Some inventories are large - Deutsche Bank for example reportedly boasts the largest corporate collection with over 50,000 works, Microsoft has 2,900 works, Pfizer some 5,000 - but typically feature small, inoffensive items such as lithographs of flowers and sailboats rather than major items. Few businesses have had much of a collecting strategy, with works being selected by committees or by consultants (discussed in the following page of this note) and often determined by whether they would frighten the men in suits.

Corporate art collections have largely been a creature of fashion, with business playing follow-the-leader in acquisition (and display) and periodic shifts towards sponsorship of football or other sports rather than collecting lithographs for the 20th floor offices or patronage of the opera or ballet. Some businesses have decided that it is easier to lease works from a body such as Artbank, in the same way that they lease potplants or personal computers.

The half life of most corporate collections is short, whether because the organisation encounters financial difficulties and decides to cash in 'non core' assets, because the enterprise is acquired or dismembered, or because there is strong criticism by the media and shareholders of executive waste and indulgence. In an era of 'right sizing' it is difficult to shed staff while keeping masterpieces on the wall. Items may go onto the market or be donated (with accompanying publicity and tax benefits) to institutions, in a demonstration that "cultural capital" can be cashed in.

High profile deacquisitions have included Vivendi's sale of the Seagram collection, Disney donating its African art collection to the Smithsonian, Sara Lee selling and donating major oils, 7-Eleven and Refco selling their photographic collections, CUB and Shell in Australia selling and donating contemporary painting collections, Fosters selling antiquarian and contemporary works, Enron and BHP and IBM shedding diverse holdings.

Has corporate collecting had a major impact on the market? The answer is unclear. It has clearly fed a range of fine art advisers, dealers, publicists and conservators. Major commissions have received substantial publicity but arguably are not representative of overall corporate spending, much of which is essentially concerned with bric a brac. With the exception of a few outstanding collections - for example the Gilman photographic collection - which mixed bravery, money and a connoisseur's eye the true significance of much corporate art collecting may be that it provided a resting place for works en route to institutional custody.

For corporate collecting see Rosanne Martorella's Corporate Art (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 1990), Chin-tao Wu's Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s (London: Verso 2002 ), Roland Marchand's Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 2000), Sanford Jacoby's Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism Since The New Deal (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1997), Whitney Prendergast's thin 2003 Corporate Art Collecting dissertation, Julie Beth Korman's 1985 Corporate Art Collecting in Canada dissertation and Caroline Made's Contemporary Patronage: Corporate Art Investment dissertation (PDF).

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version of October 2008
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