Why Do People Buy Art?

Published on April 29th, 2020 | Posted in Essays

By Chloe Heins

John Marin (1870–1953), New York Series: From Weehawken Heights, 1950, oil on canvas, 22 1/16 x 28⅛ inches, signed and dated lower right: Marin 50; on verso: 28 x 22 / WEEHAWKEN

This question resurfaces again and again, even though I have an answer in mind. It is hard to fully understand, yet it is simultaneously intrinsic, intuitive, and relatable. For most, the decision to buy art is emotional. If there is a universal truth, it is that people buy art because they enjoy it. While some acquire art strictly as an investment, they are far outnumbered by collectors who are driven by a personal connection.

Though it may seem obvious, there is no formula to decode exactly what connects people to art. Fascinated by this, I have always believed that understanding these connections would help me to excel at my job. If I could pinpoint what actually motivates people and what they truly want, I could be better at helping them find it. While this discerning skill is an essential part of being an art dealer, the specific reasons why people buy art—and what they choose to live with—are as nuanced as the art itself.

In order to be more effective at selling, the for-profit sector of the art world routinely analyzes and debates the psychology of art acquisition; however, at Questroyal, we are perhaps more motivated by genuine curiosity than we are by the bottom line. In the American paintings market in particular, why and when paintings sell is often random. Unlike in postwar and contemporary art, where fierce competition is driven by time-sensitive events (marquee auctions, elite art fairs, etc.) the American paintings market is more subtle and idiosyncratic. There are some perceptible trends—the popularity of certain artists and subjects undulate with prices—but these shifts can feel inconsequential.

To delve further into why people buy art, I started with what I know best: myself. I am an admittedly nostalgic person and one who has strong reactions—especially when enthusiastic. When I visit an intoxicating place, it tends to consume me, and I want to forever live in that moment and mindset. I am easily transformed, yet I seek permanence. My husband and I traveled to Santa Fe and Taos this spring, and I was captivated by the scenery. We visited Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home and hiked the trails of Ghost Ranch. Immersed in the vast desert landscapes and intensely personal aesthetic of the artist’s former haunts, I felt a deep internal pull. Later, back to reality in New York, I stood among the well-heeled previewers of Christie’s Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sale, transfixed by O’Keeffe’s New Mexico—Near Taos, 1929, which ended up selling for $2,652,500. Even after finally pushing myself to look at the other monumental paintings and objects on display for the historic Rockefeller auctions, I still felt like there was only one piece of art in the building. While mine was an absurd fantasy “ownership” given the O’Keeffe’s price, experiencing that type of emotional link to an artwork is unforgettable.

I know the expression I had on my face that eveningI have seen it over and over again when talking to clients. Once that look appears (or sometimes it’s a tone of voice), before I know it, they are telling me to send them an invoice. So, what exactly happens between the moment when they see a painting and the moment when they are deciding how to pay for it? I knew, didn’t I? Emotion takes the wheel. Though, as I’ve witnessed, the triggers can be as varied as our memories and visual perceptiveness. A painting can remind you of your childhood or imbue a mood that permeates your consciousness. Yet, despite my years of falling in love with art—not to mention a career dedicated to selling it—I wanted to know more than my own experience.

Compelling research attests that aside from the slim minority who acquire art strictly as an investment, most collectors are predominantly driven by emotion. In a 2012 report titled “Profit or Pleasure? Exploring the Motivations Behind Treasure Trends,” Barclays examined why high net-worth individuals collect “treasure assets,” including fine art. Only 18 percent of the more than 2,000 people surveyed cited pure investment as the motivation for owning treasure assets, and 21 percent said that such assets provide financial security if conventional investments fail. However, an impressive 62 percent said that they “enjoy owning them,” and 37 percent wanted to safeguard them for their children and grandchildren.[1] The study also states that “the high degree of emotional value that investors attach to their treasure brings positive benefits. There may also be financial benefits from ownership, but for most wealthy individuals, this is not first and foremost why they own these objects.”[2]


[Ledbury Research, in Mitchell, “Profit or Pleasure?” 39, chart 15.]

[1] Rob Mitchell of Longitude Research, “Profit or Pleasure? Exploring the Motivations Behind Treasure Trends,” Barclays Wealth Insights 15 (2012): 39.

[2] Ibid., 38.