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How to Collect Art Like a Pro - Building a Collection



The following is a revised version of a speech originally given to the Friends of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina:

In order to collect art intelligently, you have to master two basic skills. The first is being able to effectively research, evaluate and buy any single work of art that attracts you. The second is being able to choose each individual work in such a way as to form a meaningful grouping, a practice more commonly known as collecting.

If you're like most people, you know how to buy art on a piece-by-piece basis, but may not be all that accomplished at formulating a plan for making multiple acquisitions over the long haul, or in other words, building a collection. You can find art you like just about anywhere you look and in an incredible variety of subject matters, mediums and price ranges, but that can be confusing as well as intimidating. So how do you wade through it all and decide what direction to go in? How do you relate one purchase to the next? How do you organize or group your art together? How do you present it? And most importantly, how do you do all these things well? This is what collecting is all about; it's the ultimate case of controlled purposeful buying.

Great collectors are often as well known and widely respected as the art they collect. Take the Rockefeller collection, the Phillips collection or the Chrysler collection, just to name a few. Collectors like these are famous because they demonstrate just as much talent in selecting and grouping their art as the artists show in creating it. Likewise, each work of art in a great collection commands premium attention as well as a premium price not only because it's good, but also because of the company it keeps.

What makes a great collector great is his or her ability to separate out specific works of art from the millions of pieces already in existence and assemble them in such a way as to increase or advance our understanding of that art in particular or of the evolution of art in general. In any mature collection, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, the collector comes to be accepted as a respected authority and in exceptional cases, goes on to set the standards, determine the trends and influence the future of collecting for everyone.

I'll give you an example of how this works on a small scale. For years, I was a specialist dealer in rare and out-of-print art books. Many of my customers were art collectors, dealers, curators and librarians. The best of them spotted art world trends before of the rest of us and requested certain books or catalogues so that they could learn more about that art. In many cases, when I found what they were looking for, I would study it before I sold it, see why they regarded it as significant, advise customers with similar tastes, and locate additional copies for anyone who wanted to follow the lead. So in this instance, those who made the initial requests influenced the makeup of my stock and the direction of my buying as well as that of other collectors.

Regardless of how you view your collecting, whether serious or recreational, there are techniques that you can use to maximize not only the quality and value of your art, but also your own personal enjoyment, appreciation and understanding of that art. Step one is being true to your tastes. This means acknowledging that you like certain types of art regardless of what you think you're supposed to like or what seems to be the current rage. All great collectors share this trait; that's one thing makes their collections stand out. When personal preference is ignored in favor of the status quo, one collection begins to look just like the next. A few people dictate, the masses follow, everyone walks in lock-step, and the art you see from collection to collection becomes boring and repetitive.

Collectors who aren't afraid to express themselves yield exactly the opposite results. Take, for example, the artist who put together a collection of paintings bought exclusively at second hand stores and garage sales, often for little more than a few dollars each. His collection ultimately toured the country and was published as a book. Many of us were not only entertained by it, but it also helped to broaden our definition of what could reasonably be considered art. He taught us that interesting looking art can be found just about anywhere, not only at the major museums or in the best galleries. Now he would never, most likely, have put this collection together if he had chosen to mimic the tastes of others rather than be true to his own.

You may or may not be well along in your collecting, but if you have any nagging doubts about what you've been buying, what you've deliberately avoided, whether you're totally satisfied or you just want to take a moment to see what's new, suspend your buying for a bit and take a look around. Don't confine yourself to the same old museums or galleries or wherever you've been looking at art. Get out there and see what else is going on.

Explore the less conventional if that's what you're curious about. Look at art that you think might attract you, but that you've always steered clear of. Don't be afraid to experiment. You may end up right back where you started, reinforcing your chosen path, but then again, something new and truly unique may thrill you at some point along the way. Periodic reappraisals of your tastes are always a good idea. What excites you today could easily bore you tomorrow. A quality collection is always evolving and never static.

The next step is educating yourself. Once again, you probably know a good deal about what you collect already, but the educational process is a continuing one. Be an informed buyer. Learn from the pros. Take every opportunity to discuss the fine points of what you're looking at with as many different experts, curators, collectors, gallery personnel and other informed art people as possible. Not only does this improve your abilities to separate out the great art from the good from the not so good, but you also learn how to protect yourself against being taken advantage of in the marketplace-- which brings us to this next point.

Hand in hand with knowing the art goes knowing the marketplace-- and this is where many collectors fall short. The great collectors know just about everyone who sells what they collect; they're on top of the market and the market knows them. They're tuned in to the late breaking news and when something exciting is about to happen, they're usually among the first to find out about it. The top collectors go to great lengths to scoop the competition when the best art comes up for sale because it doesn't come up all that often. They also know how to compare and contrast what dealers offer them in order to assure that something is as good as they're led to believe it is.

What amazes me about art collecting in general is the lack of comparison shopping and market savvy that a significant percentage of art buyers often show. Far too many establish relationships with only one or two galleries and rarely if ever stray. The danger in doing this is that your overview of the market suffers. You can inadvertently subjugate yourself to the tastes of one or two dealers and, over time, your collection becomes less of what you originally intended it to be and more of what the galleries tell you it should be.

Knowing the marketplace also prevents you from overpaying. Simply put, Gallery X may offer you a painting for $10,000; Gallery Y may have a comparable piece priced at $7500. If you only shop Gallery X and you don't know that Gallery Y exists, you waste $2500. Or Gallery X may borrow that $7500 painting from Gallery Y and offer it to you for $10,000. Same outcome.

Regarding the art that does make it into your collection, most novice collectors will tell you that they buy what they like. That's definitely the best way to buy, but as you gain experience, the reasons why you buy what you like should become increasingly more conscious, complex, sophisticated and purposeful. For example, you might hear an advanced collector say something like, "Not only do I love this sculpture, but it's also a prime example of the artist's best subject matter dating from his most productive time period and it fills a major gap in my collection."

The best collectors show this sense of sureness and direction in their overall plans. And here's where we get into the essence of collecting, of what distinguishes a superior collection from an inferior one. In a superior collection, every piece belongs; nothing is random or arbitrary. A less experienced collector, on the other hand, may know plenty about each individual piece of art, but lack an overall understanding how they work together or even if they work together. "What's all this art doing in my house at the same time? I really don't know. I'm not quite sure."

In a sense, what the experienced collector does is pose a problem and then illustrate the solution to that problem by piecing together a collection. That way, everything fits and it all makes sense according to the master plan. Take this problem for instance:

What is the history of still life painting in Indiana? The solution is an art collection consisting of still life paintings by Indiana artists that date from pioneer days right up to the present.

Pose your problem as soon as you can. Take the randomness out of your buying. See what's going on in your collection; find out what all those individual pieces you like so much have in common and proceed from there. Ask questions like:

* Why do I like the kinds of art that I'm buying?

* What about it satisfies me?

* Do I like the subject matters, what it represents, the colors, the historical aspects, the lives of the artists?

* Does it take me to a special place?

* Does it make me feel a certain way?

* Do I admire its technical aspects the most?

* Does it make me see life differently?

* Is it that it's old, new, local, foreign, big, small, round, square, whatever?

Once you identify the common traits, you can refine your buying to zero in on additional pieces that share those traits. It's almost like putting together a mission statement or clearly and specifically defining your goals... and a collector with a specific mission or goals is always more effective at acquiring art than one who rarely questions why they buy what they do. By the way, if the answers to your questions sound like these-- "I buy what my friends buy; I buy for investment; I buy only the big names; I only buy bargains"-- consider returning to square one, determining what kinds of art you really really like, and then starting all over again.

Another aspect of good collecting is documenting your art. You can see best how documentation really pays off in the markets for older art. Suppose, for instance, that two 19th century landscape paintings by John Doe come up for auction at the same time. They're virtually identical in size, quality, condition, date painted and other details. The first is catalogued as "Rural Landscape"-- really exciting. The second is catalogued as "Looking North from Smith's Point, Maine, September 23d, 1876. Exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1877. Originally purchased for $100 by Robert Bob from ABC Gallery, New York City, 1877. Sold to Mary Miller in 1922 for $500, descended in the Miller family." Assuming you find both paintings equally appealing, which would you rather own? Which do you suppose will sell for more money? The second one, of course. It's like choosing between a mutt and a dog with a pedigree.

An interesting aspect of the art business is that when art dealers and auction houses take on art with poor documentation, they at least do their best to come up with exciting titles for it. They know that even when additional information is scant or nonexistent, good titles sell art faster than boring ones or no titles at all.

The point is that good documentation positively impacts not only dollar value, but also the ability to personally appreciate and understand a work of art. If you know nothing about painting, for instance, you can only guess why it was created, what it means, where it's been. If you know its entire history, you can relate to it on a multitude of levels in addition to the purely visual.

If you're one of those collectors who thinks you'll always remember everything significant about every work of art in your collection and don't need to physically sit down and record that information, think again. At some point, your collection will become so large that there's simply too much to remember. Either that or time will take its toll on your memory and as the years pass, you'll likely get worse and worse at recalling every single detail about works of art you acquired years or even decades ago.

The good news is that you can begin documenting at any time and even from a standing stop. If you own undocumented art, write down everything you can either from memory or by contacting the sellers. Include information like the following:

* Any stories the sellers tell you specifically relating to the art.

* Any memorable moments about making the purchases.

* What the art means or what its significance is, either according to the artist or to the gallery that sold it to you.

* Biographical and career information about the artists.

* How or why or any other information about the ways the artists made them.

* When they date from.

* Whether they've ever been exhibited in public, written about or featured in any other way.

Don't think you have to hide anything. Far too often, collectors throw away their original gallery receipts or refuse to tell what they paid for their art, where they bought it, or what it's previous ownership history was. Reasons usually sound like these-- "If people know what I paid, my art will be worth less" or "If they find out where it comes from, they'll try to buy some themselves." These things rarely happen. If you feel protective, don't tell everything to anyone who asks, but at least document and save this information for release at some later date. Don't lose it forever. Your descendants will thank you for saving it and passing it down, believe me.

Not only does good documentation tend to increase the value of art, but the documentation itself often has value and that value can increase as well. Imagine if you had an original receipt from the sale of a Van Gogh painting that changed hands in the early part of this century. Or perhaps your grandfather bought a Picasso and got an inscribed photo of Picasso handing him the painting. I'm in this end of the business and can tell you that either of these items would be worth well into the thousands of dollars today, at least. So here's what you do:

* Save all receipts, certificates of authenticity and other relevant written or printed materials.

* Whenever possible, get descriptive written statements from artists or dealers or both when you buy art. If they won't write something for you, have them tell you about the art and either write it down yourself or record them telling it to you.

* Save all related books, exhibit catalogues, gallery brochures, reviews and the like.

* Whenever possible, photograph the artists who you collect, have them sign or inscribe catalogues or gallery invitations for you.

This information is easy to get, fun to get, it brings you closer to your art, and it only takes a few moments at the point of purchase. Over time, however, those few moments pay big dividends.

Another distinguishing feature of a superior collection is that it's organized. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This goes back to posing the problem and then using the collection to map out the solution. Take the previous example of the "history of still life painting in Indiana." This collection can be organized in many ways including by date, by artist, by style, or by region. Or you can get even more specific. Within a topic as narrow as this, there are numerous subtopics:

* Still life painting in Indianapolis organized by date.

* Still life painting in Indiana since 1950.

* Still life painting in Southern Indiana showing native trees, plants and other forms of vegetation.

* Nineteenth century still life painting in Indiana by immigrant artists.

* Modernist still life painting in Indiana organized by degree of abstraction.

* Small format still life painting in Indiana organized by size.

Or you can narrow it further yet. How about a collection of still lifes painted by your favorite Indiana artist between 1980 and 2010 organized by date? The possibilities for formulating and presenting a collection are limited only by your own imagination.

The easiest way to get the hang of organizing is to go to museums. Here you see the work of professional organizers-- also known as curators. Museum shows always have starting points; they always have ending points. What happens in between the two is that viewers learn something about that particular grouping of art. Depending on the museum or the show, you have printed, oral or recorded guided tours that explain the way the show is organized.

Now you don't have to go so far as to physically re-arrange your house and print up a catalogue. Everything can still be displayed right where it looks its best. But organize it in your mind. Be able to walk someone through and tell them the story of how and why you've come to own all this wonderful art and how it works so well together.

This increases not only their enjoyment, but it also reinforces your chosen direction and your future buying. Additional benefits to organizing your collection are that you can see where you've been, where you're going, where you have duplication, where you're weak, what you're missing, what no longer makes the grade, and what you have to do to resolve any problems. It's not much different from your son putting together all the baseball cards of his favorite team to complete his collection.

The final step in good collecting is not the most delightful to talk about, but it is among the most necessary, and that is to plan for future owners-- whether they be museums, institutions, family members, friends or complete and total strangers. You'd be surprised how many collectors never say a word to anyone and just think that everyone automatically knows everything they've been doing all these years. This is never the case! Think about all the people you've met who own family heirlooms that they know little or nothing about because no one ever told them. "That's the painting that hung over the sofa while I was growing up and it belonged to my grandmother. That's all I know."

The worst possible outcome for a collection occurs when the owner passes away leaving no information about the art, how much it's worth, how to care for it, or how to sell or donate it. Countless collections have been resold for pennies on the dollar, given away, or even thrown in the trash because the collectors kept little or no records and left no instructions on what to do with their art.

I remember receiving a call one day from a hauler who said he had some art in a storage space and wanted me to come down and have a look. He mentioned the name of the artist who I immediately recognized as a well known San Francisco Bay Area painter. It turned out that the hauler had been asked to cart away 5 major paintings by this artist which, at that time, were worth between 30 and 50 thousand dollars in total. The owners had simply thrown them out. And these were only a few of the treasures that this hauler had accumulated over the years absolutely free of charge, directly out of people's trash. In fact, he'd been paid to take them away!

The lesson in all this is that collectors, no matter how large or small their collections, should provide a complete list of options and instructions for those who'll inherit their art. These include names, addresses, phone numbers, procedures, dollar values, and all other particulars for selling or donating as well as for dispersal within the family.

By the way, simple appraisals with no further instructions are never enough. In fact, they often create more trouble than good. These appraisals are usually for insurance or replacement purposes which means that they're at or beyond retail. The inheritors get stuck with these values, have no idea what they mean, and often assume that that's what the art should sell for. They spend months or years beating their heads against the wall, getting nowhere, and concluding that all buyers are out to take advantage.

Cover all bases by providing insurance or replacement appraisals should your descendants decide to keep or donate the art. Also include realistic wholesale or what's called "fair market values" should they decide to sell it. And don't forget those instructions-- who to call, where to go, what to do. You don't want them at the mercy of whatever dealer or gallery they happen to pull off the Internet.

If you expect to have any influence over the long term future of your collection, lay the groundwork beginning right now. Educate your family about what you own. Instill a love and respect for what you've accomplished and accumulated all these years. Make sure that those close to you are aware of your art's value and significance. Make sure that they understand how important it is to you. You can't control the ultimate outcome, but at least you can have your say and know that you've done your best to collect like a pro.

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