Special Report

Car collectors need to study art history (really)

by David Zenlea
2 March 2023 9 min read
The 300 SL as depicted by Andy Warhol in a work commissioned by Daimler in 1986. The subject car was recently sold by Sotheby's for an undisclosed sum. Photo by Mercedes-Benz Art Collection

Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked more than five hundred years ago, but he became da Vinci—arguably the most famous and most valuable artist of all time—thanks to an early 20th-century robbery. 

“The Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. It was the first art theft that really resonated in the mainstream press worldwide, and became the first truly global art market news,” explained Darius Spieth, a professor of art history and art market specialist at Louisiana State University. “Before that, Leonardo was obviously well known and important, but he was one amongst others.” 

Some of us at Insider are art enthusiasts; others can’t tell the difference between a Renaissance masterpiece and the stuff hanging in the hallways of the Hilton Garden Inn. But all of us love big datasets. The bigger the sample size, the better we are able to tell you what a car is worth and why. That’s why we constantly dig into Hagerty’s trove of insurance data and why we inspect hundreds of thousands of cars at auction.  

The market for fine art is roughly the same size as that for cars in terms of dollars, but it utterly dwarfs us by another metric: time. The automobile is only about 150 years old, and although enthusiasts have been collecting them in some form or another since practically the beginning, the collector car market, as we know it, coalesced only toward the end of the 20th century. In contrast, art has been bought and sold at auction since at least the time of the Roman Empire, and some of companies we recognize today—Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Christie’s—were doing business some 250 years ago. 

Spieth focuses on the history of art markets and how technological changes, among other things, have impacted it. We chatted with him about how art markets have (and haven’t) changed over the centuries and, maybe, caught a glimpse at what’s in store for cars over the long run.  

We sometimes wonder what will happen to values of older cars as those who remember them new leave the market. What can art history teach us here? Obviously, no one alive today remembers when the Mona Lisa was brand new, and yet it’s still universally viewed as a great work of art. 

If you go back in time, to the 18th or 19th centuries, Raphael was king, and Leonardo was a distant second. Today, we put Leonardo first because we’re living in a very technology-driven society. Leonardo did all of these drawings with flying machines, military equipment, and natural sciences, so he resonates much more with our own mentalities. Raphael painted lots of Madonnas and whatnot, and they’re amazing—they’re great—but who gets still excited about that? Taste is an interesting thing.  

The list of who is considered famous and great is being reshuffled with time. I’d like to tell a story: There’s a small painting in the Louvre, by an artist called Gerrit Dou, who lived four hundred years ago. The painting is called “The Dropsical Woman.” Napoleon Bonaparte thought this was the greatest painting on the face of the earth. He moved heaven and earth to basically extort it from an Italian nobleman, succeeded, and it’s still in the Louvre. But it’s in the Netherlandish section, and hardly anyone knows the artist any longer. It doesn’t draw the crowds. If this were around 1800, it would be in a bullet-proof glass case and would attract millions of paying visitors every year. 

I think every generation renegotiates these things. What constitutes greatness? Consider the change to electric cars. What will that mean if you can no longer have a gas station at every corner? Will that damper the passion for historical cars? I don’t know. Personally, I think it will be the unique craftsmanship that went into classic cars that will be the decisive factor; it will be what defines their endurance as aesthetic objects as well as their role as a storage of value. 

That’s interesting. We often talk about how the electrification of the automobile will impact the classic car market from a practical sense—regulationshow we’ll get parts for them, etc. But you’re talking about something different—how electrification will impact desire for classic gas-powered cars.  

My thoughts in this discussion always seem to be circling back to issues of psychology. Economists will tell you that humans make rational decisions. I’m not so sure that’s always true. There’s a branch of finance called behavioral finance, which says we need to get away from mechanical models of how markets react to information and keep in mind that we’re dealing with human beings making decisions. Classic cars are a prime example because there are so many psychological—and ultimately irrational—circumstances that define their appreciation; this is what links their market to that of art. 

Speaking of finance: To what extent do you think today’s art buyers are actually collectors driven by passion as opposed to investors, looking for financial gain?  

That’s a difficult question for me because, to some extent, my gut reaction is to reply from the vantage point of the collector who I am, which makes me biased. On multiple occasions, I’ve paid more than the rational market price for an object. I wanted to have it and I knew this would be the only opportunity in my lifetime. And the segments where I am active is not big-name art. I deliberately buy things that I find interesting, top quality, high craftsmanship, but that are obscure by today’s standards. I could take the same amount of money and invest it in, say, Andy Warhol (or at least prints by Andy Warhol). So, what I’m doing as a private citizen defies the purely rational investment perspective. If you’re really interested in very niche, little-knowns artists, it takes a lot of time to learn about these people—and courage to follow your own convictions. It’s also a major time investment to go down that road, which the busy lives of most people will not permit. So, they go with what the algorithms of a Google search delivers to them—they go for the big names. Real collectors are driven by passion. If you are looking to maximize return on investment, go to the stock markets. Don’t buy art or classic cars. 

How important is craftsmanship? Even to a layperson like myself, it’s pretty obvious that certain Renaissance paintings require a tremendous amount of skill, in the same way that someone ignorant of cars probably understands that building a Delahaye or Bugatti required a lot of craftsmanship. But shift to some modern art or, say, a million-dollar muscle car that came off an assembly line and the craftsmanship is harder to see. Does that matter?  

Darius Spieth

If you look at the art world today, “craftsmanship” is almost like an evil word—but not for everyone and not for me; I relish it. But ever since contemporary art came about in the 60s and 70s, the prevailing attitude towards craftsmanship has been, “No, no, no, it’s just about the ideas you have and that’s it. Never mind the execution or whether you know how to draw or paint a human figure.” But in the longer term what matters will be endurance—what people still want to look at, read, or want to own in 30, 50 or 200 years from now. 

Interestingly enough, with the advent of computers and the digital age, even our definitions of craftsmanship have changed—especially so in the context of cars. For a long period of time, cars were not seen as “craft objects.” None of them were. But older cars are appreciated from this vantage point today, especially in relation to newer ones. All of the sudden, there’s this awareness that cars, especially from the middle years of the twentieth century, are really these handcrafted objects, they are part of the lure of modernism and the machine age and we need to preserve them because we no longer make them this way. Leonardo made a living as an engineer and many of his drawings are really engineering drawings, so why not look at some of the finest pieces of twentieth-century machinery as art? 

What I’m hearing from you is: a lot of what we love and value may be ephemeral. But are there things in the art world that you can point to as more or less permanent? 

A while back, I published this book about the art market during the French Revolution of 1789. And one thing that I found quite amazing is that, yes, there are changes over time but not that many after all. There are just some artists who are less known today. But nevertheless, if you look at it over a long period of time, it does not change that much. Auctions, for instance, the quintessential marketplaces for classic cars and art, work in the same way as they worked in the eighteenth century.  

If you look at auction catalogs from about 1800, you read long lot descriptions, and wonder, where is this artwork now? What happened to it? And, unfortunately, probably a lot of it got destroyed over time. But then again, it is always surprising just how much is still here. 

This whole time we’ve been circling around a very big question: What makes something valuable? And why do we like what we like?  

I believe it was Carl Laszlo, a great collector and Holocaust survivor, who said collecting is something that you do in order to overcome your mortality. You want to do something in your life that has a lasting impact. That is what gives purpose. And that has a lot to do with value. And of course, what is value? Ultimately, it is what endures. Even money may lose its value, but assets like land, gold, and art endure. But art still comes out ahead within this group because it has intellectual content. Intellectual content is socially constructed; it is what moves people emotionally. By this point in time, through literature, movies, popular culture, and the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, this intellectual dimension is something that unites the market for historical automobiles and the art market. The quest for value, and the passion that goes into it, I think you need to have these two things come together.  

Let’s talk briefly about NFTs. They’ve taken the art world by storm, and they’ve begun to creep into the car market. What’s your take on them, from the point of view of an art historian? Will they last? 

Artworks are basically analog objects, many of them with long histories, because, you know, they have this tactile quality. Look at a painting: It’s a physical thing, you turn it around, and it’s a piece of canvas or a wooden panel with oil paint on it, and you feel connected to the person who did that. It may be crumbling or damaged. No matter how expensive it is, even if you have a $100 million Picasso or whatever, it’s still a piece of cloth with color squeezed out of a tube. The same is true for a $10 painting from the flea market. Right? With NFTs, I think their promoters try to cater to a different, immaterial world, to people with very different mentalities, who consider, like Plato or Kandinsky, the material world a burden. 

The NFT marketing machine is piggybacking on the idea of art—they give people the illusion of the prestige that comes with owning original artworks, even cloning the idea of originality. They say, “Oh, here’s your file, but in order to ‘own’ it as something original, you need to pay a huge premium.” The truth of the matter is that the visual image that you get is the same as a JPEG. It’s intangible and infinitely reproducible and exists only on a screen reliant on electricity and software, etc. There are very basic technological constrains on accessibility and the aesthetic nature of the image, which in any case will always be electronically generated (and it shows). So, it’s very much a psychological mind game full of manipulation and self-deceptions. But if that’s what you enjoy, go for it. I doubt that it really appeals to the same people who populate the traditional art, antiques, and classic car worlds. Admittedly, by this point in time, way too much money has been poured into this enterprise, and the hype surrounding it, to pull the plug and say, “Never mind.” It’s going to be around for a while for that reason alone. 

Before I let you go, I have to put you on the spot: Do you consider classic cars to be art? If so, where do they fit in the broader art world? 

I think there’s a parallel to be drawn between art and classic cars. Believe it or not, I don’t even drive. I don’t own a car. But I love cars, and I appreciate them as both static and moving aesthetic objects. 

I’m friends with painter Robert Williams in Los Angeles, who did the original cover art for Guns N’ Roses. He and his wife Suzanne have been part of the hot rod scene for decades, own vintage Ford Model Ts, and turn them into artwork. Of course, they invested a tremendous amount of effort into getting spare parts and going to the meets with other enthusiasts. So, like in the art world, you have the benefit of going to all of these social activities, and then, of course, they go out on the road and drive their cars, getting a lot of attention wherever they show up. So, there’s huge component of social interaction involved in all of that. That’s a much-underrated, added value. 

I attended the Venice Biennale in 2022. And if you go to contemporary art events today, you see so many things that are interactive. People want to be engaged in some kind of activity. And that’s also another place where the collector car market overlaps with the art world. 


  • studenorton says:

    Well right here’s the fine line between Insider and the Kar Klub. I own a couple of ‘curated’ pieces, because my late uncle was a noted painter and they came to me through the family. Perhaps the less said about “my” 66 El Camino the better, but hey, it’s never been out of the family.

    • Dr. Who says:

      In both the Art and Auto collecting worlds gravitating to your tastes (and wallet) govern. There are so many ways to participate and interact. It is a very enjoyable experience, or can be. I have a collection of 1/43 scale diecast vehicles. The design sensibility is the attraction, and they can easily be photographed and put into various scenes. Lately I’ve been engaged with faux auto shows and museum exhibits. Silly perhaps, but very pleasurable, for me at least…..and that is the point perhaps.

  • paul s murray says:

    Studying art history isn’t really going to help much when it comes to using it as bell weather for the classic car market. You’ll learn about the progression, the artists, the different movements etc. When it comes to investing, estimated values and all that jazz you’d better be prepared to get your masters and find a job at a gallery for starters. That seems to go without saying . Corporate collections are another subject so I’ll just leave that there. Let’s be honest a majority of people who collect art and autos are probably pretty well set and while they may consider them in terms of an investment I doubt many will be clipping coupons because their de Kooning has depreciated. ( While we’re on the ‘de’ historically most people would put Michelangelo ahead of de Vinci when you’re thinking strictly in terms of the pure artist alone. and he was a much better sculptor ) That leads to the both artist and architect which had been common. Using that as a segue jumping ahead to today, are cars art? No not really, they’re industrial design. A friend and I were at a party and when this girl found out I was a painter and he a photographer she said -” So you’re both artists!” He replied – ” No, I’m a photographer.” a distinction he found important. People are too willing to call just about anything art as though the term can be applied to whatever you may choose, just because it isn’t art doesn’t make it more or less valid. A well crafted piece of furniture is better than a poorly conceived and executed painting. And craft does matter in regard to both, period. I can’t agree with “collecting to overcome your mortality.” It’s too much like those people who think their gift is having good taste, and who doesn’t. When inspiring artists would seek out Turner for advice he’d ask to see their hands and look for paint under their fingernails. People who collect cars should have at a least a little grease under theirs.

  • arno schmidt says:

    I completely agree with paul s murray. My car collection is not just a simple investment, I have gotten much grease under my nails and bumps on my head working on every one of them. Frankly the research and learning and doing is what gives me greater enjoyment than driving them by 3 to 1. and conceptually the thought that someone had the skills to take a wooden mallet and a sandbag and form a body panel still intrigues me.

  • Michele B. says:

    As someone who studied art history and then took a very meandering path to freelance automotive writing, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this interview. In addition to simply loving when my interests overlap out in the wild, I have been noodling over this very concept of ‘cars as art’ for years now. Regardless of my own opinion that art is subjective and you should collect whatever brings you joy, in whatever way suits you — what I’m curious to know is how Mr. Spieth and Mr. Zenlea (and other commenters!) feel about the rise in fractional investing, whereby everyday people can buy & sell shares in iconic works of art. I’ve noticed some of these platforms now offer more than just traditional art and allow folks to invest in rare wines, baseball cards, and watches, among other things. I have yet to see a collector car enter one of these portfolios, though, and I have to imagine it’s only a matter of time (or that I’ve missed it). What does this stand to do to collector car values? Is a multi-million-dollar Ferrari worth “less” to top-tier collectors if the everyday enthusiast (or casual investor) is allowed to own a piece of it? Unlike NFTs, this doesn’t “clone the idea of originality” and I’m not even sure it gives the “illusion of prestige” since the buy-in threshold is cheaper than a tank of gas, but it does seem to be democratizing art ownership (or trying to?) all in service of ROI, which feels both a little rebellious and a lotta disingenuous at the same time. Anyway, I’m eager to know if other enthusiasts have noticed this, and what they think of the concept.

  • paul s murray says:

    Since nobody is replying to Michele B I might as well throw my half pence back into the conversation while I’m waiting for the paint to dry, literally. The idea of art and being traded like pork bellies doesn’t bother me. At a certain point we all ask ‘ is nothing sacred?! ‘ When guys are swapping LS motors into AAR Cudas? Nothing surprises me anymore. So go ahead get out the calculator and figure out the potential return. What bothers me more ,or what I can’t understand for the life of me, are those watch of the month clubs and other ‘you’ll receives ‘. I could buy right now online at least a dozen watches for far less than their offerings. Why would you let some group of knuckleheads choose for you? Yea my tastes are somewhat eclectic.’ I’ll wear a chronograph on one wrist and my Hot Wheels watch on the other but when you’re relying on other people to dictate your tastes ? Speaking to art history and other “overlap(s) in the wild”. I picked up a set of factory rims for my 07 Mustang for a song. They were filthy, had started to corrode at the centers and the clear coat had crazed. I could have gotten away with murdering them out but me thinks that’s just okay at best and most certainly overdone. I suddenly thought of Desmuths ‘ I Saw The Number Five ‘ and that fire engine (emergency) red and then D Hobbs auto. ‘Hobbo’. It has a GT 40 on the cover with bright red and argent rims. So I did a variation of that and I get quite a few compliments. I can’t ever imagine wanting to change them but I wonder how many people will be looking to ‘upgrade’ their black rolling stock in the future. That’s the thing about investing in art, antiques and what have you, Styles change and people are fickle and as such in many cases it seems too much like two guys betting on what rain drop will roll down the window first. (ps) You guys at Hagerty in Ann Arbor can thank the late Edsel Ford for the Model A, the Lincoln Zepher and Riveras ‘ Detroit Industry ‘ mural ,which if any of you haven’t, especially the mentioned motel lobby art crowd, it’d be a good place to start.

    • Michele B. says:

      Thanks for your input, Paul. I think perhaps my own gut reaction was, in fact, a little bit “is nothing sacred anymore?!” But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by these platforms and willing to throw a little money at one to see how it all panned out in a couple years. As to your other observation, I wasn’t even aware that there *were* “Watch of the Month” clubs, but I guess I’m not really surprised since (1) everything is becoming a subscription model now and (2) there will always be people who seem to enjoy being told what to like and/or consume. I’m with you, though, and think the idea of someone dictating/curating your personal taste in such a direct way is bizarre. Although, if we accept that ‘money can’t buy taste’ I guess we also need to accept that money can always buy the taste of someone else lol.

    • Michele B. says:

      Also, I love that ‘I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold’ inspired your rims! I guess that’s where I fall in the collecting/curating camp — if *you* find it inspiring or moving, then it has value *to you.* And while that may not guarantee it will ever have value to someone else (monetarily or otherwise), I certainly think it improves the chances — if for nothing else than because it will stand out from the sea of black rolling stock. It will be unique and reflect individual choices. To me, that’s what’s always so compelling about collecting in general – whether it’s a single classic car or the 4 plastic totes sitting in my attic that my husband has filled with baseball hats from our local defunct minor league team lol. There is passion and curation involved in the way they’re collected, it offers a little peek at the person behind it; I think that makes them interesting.

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