A Beginner's Guide to Starting an Art Collection

The Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels by David Teniers the Younger. Courtesy of WikiCommons
'The Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels' by David Teniers the Younger. Courtesy of WikiCommons
Rachel Gould

Art & Design Editor

Wealth is not essential to building a valuable art collection. Regardless of your age or budget, you can develop a keen eye for talent and accrue a collection of works that you love with these 10 essential tips.

Start With The Basics

In his acclaimed book The Value of Art, Michael Findlay urges the consideration of three crucial conditions: an artwork’s physical state, authenticity, and ‘quality’ (defined as “mastery of the medium, clarity of execution, and authority of expression”). Think of these attributes as the ‘Holy Trinity’ of must-tick boxes; if an artwork shows significant decay, if it’s unsigned or appears to be one of countless replicas, or if it’s simply unappealing to look at, it’s probably best to cut your losses and walk away.

Roy Lichtenstein. Courtesy of Raphaël Labbé/Flickr

Develop Your Own Personal Taste

“What I suggest to people who are interested in…starting a collection is to visit galleries,” a seasoned collector and industry insider tells Culture Trip. She advises aspiring collectors to be bold and to ask questions, as “galleries are more than happy to explain the work in their exhibitions.” Better yet, ask an art-loving friend to tag along for support. “I really don’t think it’s necessary to use a consultant unless [you] feel intimidated,” she notes.

Courtesy of EHildrew/WikiCommons

Explore exhibitions, peruse art fairs, pick up a couple of art books, familiarize yourself with art publications, and ask direct questions to learn more about potential purchases. Over time, ask yourself: what styles do you like best? Which artists do you return to? Do you find yourself most drawn to paintings? Photographs? Sculptures? By no means does your collection have to be one-dimensional, but developing an awareness of your own personal taste is essential.

Love Is The Only Sure Return

Erling Kagge, author of A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art, advises that buying a work of art with the sole intention of turning a profit is a common mistake to avoid. Rather, he suggests choosing purchases wisely by exclusively investing in artworks that you feel passionate about. In most cases, it’s best to assume that the only value of the piece you’re eyeing is personal – but owning a piece of art that makes you happy is priceless.

Buy Within Your Budget

If you’re working with a smaller sum, consider an edition. Editions are limited productions of an artwork. They’re still valuable, but much less expensive than a one-off original – especially if they’re produced by a well-known artist. An edition can set you back four figures, but that’s considerably less than the six to seven figures you could spend on an original artwork by that same artist. To ensure that an edition is authentic, pay a visit to a museum or gallery shop.

‘Mick Jagger’ silk screen print, signed in pen by Andy Warhol. Sold as limited editions to private collectors. Courtesy of Ian Burt/Flickr

Mind The Law Of Supply & Demand

The law of supply and demand states that an object’s value is dependent upon its availability. Printed artworks like lithographs and etchings are one of several, so they may bear a fraction indicating how many of their kind were produced and where they fell in the line of production. Ideally, you want to secure one of the first productions of very few more. Think 1/10 rather than 100/1,000.

Marc Chagall, Etching from ‘Celui Que Dit Les Choses SansRien Dire’ Album – IV

While the occasion is rare, it’s not impossible to stumble upon an authentic print by a well-known artist at a flea market or tag sale if the seller doesn’t know what they have (though remember, we live in the Information Age). It helps to do research and learn to identify which artists were most prolific. Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall, for example, had incredibly productive careers. As a result, authentic editions of their work can circulate for surprisingly affordable prices.

If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is

Don’t let the Antiques Roadshow give you too much hope. If you stumble across a signed painting by a well-known artist for a steal, the chances that it’s original are poor. If you enjoy the thrill of the hunt and prefer looking for art at estate sales and flea markets, it’s best to bring someone who really knows what they’re looking at to help you navigate the heaps of junk. That said, there’s no harm in buying the odd $5 poster simply because you like it.

Courtesy of eddiedangerous/Flickr

Go Retro

Unless you’re an industry insider, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to predict a new trend in art. Therefore, aim to focus on well-established, time-tested styles that you like. If your tastes lean towards the avant-garde, opt for a 20th century modern piece rather than taking a risk on something ultra-contemporary or conceptual.

Courtesy of WikiCommons

Keep Your Ear To The Ground

Insider information is fair game in the art world. If there’s down-low buzz about a promising artist (and it’s coming from multiple credible sources), don’t ignore it – consider investing in the artist’s work before they become well-known. In short order it may be well out of your price range, and could turn out to be money well-spent in the future. Art fairs that are open to the public like Art Basel and Frieze are a great way of getting yourself in the same room as gallerists, sales directors, and established collectors; and as always, it helps to make friends in high places.

Michel Garnier, ‘Young Girl Listening to a Conversation Between Two Lovers,’ 1789. Courtesy of WikiCommons

Don’t Be Afraid To Negotiate

You’ve made your decision: you must own this piece. While some art dealers simply won’t budge, you may be able to shave a small percentage off the asking price. If you’re going the traditional buying route, it helps to understand how galleries make money. Typically (though of course, with exception) galleries keep half of the profit, while the other half goes to the artist. The gallery’s cut is allotted to paying bills and salaries, so they always aim for a surplus. With that in mind, be smart about your negotiations and don’t expect a wholesale price; consider a discount in the five to 10% range a success.

Courtesy of Neil Cummings/Flickr

Value Quality Above All Else

Stay smart about your purchases, and focus on buying few, high-quality pieces of genuine significance to you. Don’t spend all of your money on cheap art that doesn’t make you happy to own long-term. If you buy carefully, over time you’ll accrue a collection of special pieces that you genuinely love. As Findlay explains, “…A work of art you can engage with on a purely personal level is a life-enhancing treasure.”

Johan Zoffany, ‘Tribuna of the Uffizi’

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