Many folks think of art collecting as a luxury hobby, reserved only to the privileged classes. But why should surrounding yourself with beautiful art be the sole province of the wealthy? It certainly doesn’t have to be.
Starting a collection obviously begins with acquiring that first piece, and since you will be living with it for a while, let it be something you love. Art as an investment is speculative, like any other investment, and except for well-known artists who have established their market value, it is difficult to predict whether any particular artist or work will appreciate over time. So I caution against collecting art as an investment strategy – let the art that you own be works that you love, and if those pieces appreciate in value over time, then so much the better!
With this notion in mind, I advise buying only original works of art. Where to start? Determine your tastes in art and stick to them as they evolve. Don’t buy art based on trends or what others say, unless you truly love it. Set a budget to start (how about under $1000). Then start looking for emerging artists who are beginning to attract attention from the press, from other collectors, from their peers. Do your homework – read the arts section of your local papers, attend gallery openings (new galleries will often present emerging talent before they become more well-known), visit art fairs, check out the websites of artists you like. Often you can find beautiful pieces by emerging artists for very reasonable prices (in the $100s, rather than $1000s). Avoid the status quo. Educate yourself, not only about the particular artist and his work, but about the particular piece itself. Consider investing in smaller works by emerging talents or by established artists (they’re more affordable than larger works). Remember: Warhol was not always Warhol.
Like any collectible item, the value of a piece of art is determined by its scarcity and desirability, the old supply/demand paradigm. Keep this in mind if you are pondering buying a reproduction of a masterwork versus an original signed and numbered print by an established or emerging artist. A “print” is an original piece of art, and there may be multiple original copies. For example, Picasso often produced steel plate etchings, where he would engrave an image onto a metal printing plate that would serve as the master from which copies would be printed. Then, a master printer would take the etched plate and print a limited number of copies from the original plate, each of which Picasso would then sign and number. Each one of these copies is considered an original work by Picasso (whether or not he signed or numbered the print). Distinguish this concept from a “copy” or reproduction of an original, where the original piece of art is photographed and thereby reproduced. The copy of the masterwork may be beautiful, but a mass-produced copy has less collectible value than the price you will pay for it.
Emerging artists often present the best opportunity for reasonable pricing, but use your judgment in evaluating the prospects that the work will appreciate in value. Does the artist devote significant time to his art or is he a hobbyist (nothing wrong with this, he’s just not likely to have the drive and determination to break through critically or commercially)? Does he have an established body of work that indicates a commitment to his art and a clear artistic vision? Does he approach his work with intention and intellectual honesty? Does he have gallery representation? Are other people collecting his work? Younger artists who are represented may be a better bet than an older artist without gallery representation. Determine whether you can barter your own goods or services for a piece of art. Also, consider buying atypical works from an established artist. Works on paper and photography are often more affordable than works on canvas or sculpture.
Many collectors will advise you to focus your collection in a specific area of interest to you, like black-&-white photography featuring clowns, or still-life oil paintings of vodka bottles by Georgia artists, or works on paper by a particular artist. There is certainly merit to this advice, especially if you’re looking to become an authority around the subject matter, or if you’re trying to build a collection that you may look to sell or donate down the road. But there’s also merit in eclecticism, and a collection of varied media and technique may be a lot more fun to live with. Image your eyes scanning a wall hung with an exquisite oil portrait of an unknown Victorian maiden, a subtle charcoal seascape and a tableau of found objects by a regional folk artist. Nice.
As your collection grows and you become more discerning in your tastes, you may find you have accumulated pieces that have appreciated in value. This is good, right? Certainly, and along your way you should be making a conscientious effort to document the works, as this will increase the value of your collection.
One factor in determining a piece’s value is how well you can establish its provenance (a fancy art-world word, meaning its ‘pedigree’). If you are presented with two signed and numbered etchings by Matisse, and the seller offers proof of provenance for one of the pieces, tracking it from Matisse’s hand to its current owner, while the history of the other piece is unknown, which do you think will be the most valuable? With this in mind, keep all evidence of your purchases in an appropriate filing system, including the sale receipt, certificate of authenticity, if any, date of purchase, seller, price paid, and any other factors around the purchase. Save related books, the gallery brochure and catelogues. Has the piece been shown in other public exhibitions, or is it included in the collection of any museums? Are there contemporaneous reviews of the artist or the piece? Document the biography and career of the artist. Meet and get to know the artist (there are frequently opportunities at gallery openings or artist talks) – many artists are surprisingly approachable and love to talk about their work with people who appreciate it. If the work is not signed (and always strive to acquire signed pieces), get the artist to sign it. Get your picture made with the artist, holding the piece.
Get started! It’s fun, you will meet interesting people, and you can surround yourself with beautiful objects. And who knows, maybe you’ll pick up some gems along the way. Not a bad life, all in all.