That old expression, "I don't know art but I know what I like" can be counter-productive. The more you know, the better collection you will have.
"Art,” someone once said, is never an extravagance.” This is not the common perception. Last month alone, Juan Gris’ 1915 painting, “Nature morte a la nappe a carreaux” fetched $25 million pounds at a Christie’s impressionist, modern and surrealist art auction on London. This set a new world record for the artist of any Cubist work, Reuters reported.
The sometimes staggering prices fetched at auction make news, and feed the stereotype of art collecting as an elitist pursuit. But thoughtfully and deliberately considered, art collecting is accessible to art lovers without deep pockets.
"There is no question that people collect art because it is a status thing and they feel it puts them in a certain milieu,” Lela Hersh, a Chicago-based art advisor and owner of Museum and Fine Arts Consulting, observed to Millionaire Corner. “But some people collect art (because they genuinely love it). It’s like having poetry around you all the time and makes them feel centered in their lives.”
Where, then, to begin, when considering entering into the art world as an aspiring collector? Hersh offers several dos and don’ts; first and foremost, do your homework. That old expression, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” can be counter-productive. “The more you know, the better collection you will have,” she said.
Working with a professional is the surest way to gain access to invaluable knowledge, expertise and insights into a particular piece or artist. “It depends on why you are collecting,” Hersh said. “Professionals have studied art history and are current on market trends (and which artists are generating buzz). They can spot innovation earlier than someone who is just going out and buying something they love. But if the latter is the case, they should just do whatever they want. You might overpay, but if it’s something you love, then it doesn’t matter.”
But, Hersh recommends, a potential buyer should look at more than just one piece by an artist. “If I like one piece by an artist, I won’t want to buy it unless I have a sense of the rest of their work. It may be that there is this one really good work and that his other pieces aren’t as strong. That’s why it’s recommended to see a retrospective of the artist.”
For self-directed budding collectors, dealers can help educate them about an artist or artwork. “You can’t necessarily rely on them when it comes to price,” Hersh said, “but the art dealer (who works directly with the artist) can educate you about them and why he or she is doing what they are doing. If you are working on your own, read as much as you can and ask questions. Look at (the artwork’s) condition. Is it framed poorly? Is there a crack in the paint? If it’s a resale piece, you want as much information on the provenance (the piece’s history) as possible.”
When it comes to price, Hersh emphasized, the bottom line, again, is to be knowledgeable. “For example, I look at an artist’s resume,” she said. “If this person has just gotten out of school, the piece should be a lower price, unless that person has buzz. If an artist hasn’t had any museum collections, it should be a lower price.”
But can anyone with comparatively and considerably less funds amass a worthwhile collection? Absolutely, Hersh said. One entry for people who have a few thousand dollars is limited edition photograph prints. One could get, say, a small Ansel Adams print at this price range. But there is a trade-off. An Adams print at this price may not be an iconic work or bear his signature. “For photographs,” Hersh explained, “ a lot of the value is on whether or not it is vintage, meaning it is a print made close to when the negative was produced. In cases this could mean a difference in hundreds of thousands of dollars with the same print.”
Bottom line: Anyone can become a collector “just by looking and looking and looking,” Hersh reassured. “It’s just like anything else. You won’t understand dance unless you go see a lot of dances. You have to go to gallery openings and read about which artists are being talked about.”
Hersh does not recommend buying art for the expressed purpose of turning it over, or flipping it. “That’s not always lucrative,” she cautioned. “Some think collecting art is liquid because they think they can turn it over very fast, but it is not necessarily the case they will see a high net growth. You’re taking a big chance. There is also a lot of cost in taking care of artwork. You have to have it appraised. It should be insured. It has to be stored under proper environmental conditions.”
Collecting art is an area where, sometimes, normal rules of investment do not apply. Not spending more on artwork than you can afford sounds like obvious advice, but Hersh laughed. “I can’t say that,” she said. “I know a lot of collectors who did and they are glad they did.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.