How to Collect Art: The Basics

Note: This article is taken from a speech originally given to an audience of art collectors at the Indianapolis Art Center. It covers a number of topics that are treated at length and in detail in my book, THE ART OF BUYING ART.

Anyone can buy and collect art intelligently. That's right; I said anyone. No previous knowledge of the art business, experience collecting art, or degrees in art history are necessary. All you need is a love and appreciation of fine art, a desire to collect, and a willingness to familiarize yourself with a few simple techniques that will allow you to evaluate any work of art dating from any time period by any artist of any nationality.

Even though this article occasionally makes reference to particular types of art, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong art and there is no right or wrong way to buy or collect art. Anyone can collect whatever they feel like collecting and buy whatever art they feel like buying, wherever and whenever they feel like buying it, for whatever reason they decide to buy it, and for however much money they feel like spending on it. In other words, these techniques are not necessarily for everyone, but they are intended for people who like to spend their money wisely and who prefer to pay fair prices for quality art. If that happens to be you, then the following tips, pointers and recommendations will help you become a better collector. So let's get started...

Suppose you see a work of art for sale that you like-- a painting, a sculpture, a print-- it makes no difference. If you like it so much that you think you might want to own it, begin your decision-making process by asking and answering four basic questions.

(1) Who is the artist and what is their history and background?

(2) How significant or important is the art?

(3) What is its provenance, history, and documentation (or more simply, where has the art been and who's owned it)?

(4) Is the asking price fair?


For the answer to the first question-- "Who is the artist?"-- you rely on two basic sources of information-- spoken and written. The spoken part usually comes from the artist, dealer, or gallery who either represents or sells the art. Verbal information can also come from friends, collectors, and others who are familiar with the art or artist in question.

Written information comes in a variety of forms including artist websites, gallery websites, online artist database resources, gallery exhibit catalogues, artist career resumes, features or exhibition reviews on art websites or publications, and art reference books like dictionaries of artists, art indexes, art or artist encyclopedias, monographs on artists, and art surveys or histories. In the great majority of cases, this information is available from whomever is selling the art.

In all cases, you want to both hear and read about the artist you're interested in. Do one at the expense of the other and you can easily come away with inaccurate or skewed ideas of how significant the art or artist really is. The types of information you come across during the course of your readings and listenings, no matter what artist you are learning about include facts like these:

* The artist's birth date and death date (if applicable).

* Where the artist lives and works.

* Where, when and with whom the artist studied.

* Organizations the artist belongs to.

* Galleries, museums or institutions where the artist has exhibited art either in one-person shows or in group shows with other artists.

* Awards, prizes, grants and honors that the artist has received.

* Public, private or corporate collections that own the artist's art.

* Positions the artist has held (teacher, lecturer, writer, and so on)

* Publications that mention or include the artist such as websites, books, catalogues, newspapers, magazines, and so on.

You use this information to make basic conclusions about the artist-- nothing complicated, nothing overly scholarly or academic. You merely want to come away with a reasonable idea of who the artist is and how significant his or her accomplishments are. Knowing how to assess an artist's career information becomes increasingly important the more expensive the art you're thinking about buying. Basically, the more a work of art costs, the more respected, established and documented the artist should be.

The research and evaluation process for art is pretty much the same as it would be for any other significant purchase in life. For example, would you buy $55,000 car off of a show room floor, no questions asked? Would you buy an $800,000 house by standing in the yard, looking at it and concluding that it's exactly what you want? Of course not. You spend time learning about them first. In both cases, you want to know what you're getting before you spend your money, and the same should be true for art. With pretty much any work of art, this process begins by evaluating and making conclusions about whatever information you find. The following generally old true no matter what art or artist you're researching:

* The more extensive the artist's profile, online and otherwise, the better. Yes, the artist's website is important, but equally important (or perhaps even more so) are third-party websites that review the artist's work, feature the artist, offer the art for sale by the artist, and so on. These might include gallery websites, museum websites, arts publication websites, and other sites with standings in the arts community.

* The more books and catalogues that list, mention or discuss the artist, the better.

* The more significant the publications or online resources that include the artist, the more important the artist tends to be. For instance, a five-paragraph career summary on a major international art website carries more weight than a similar length summary on a local or regional art website. Likewise, feature article in a significant art periodical carries more weight than a one-sentence reference.

* The more mentions the artist has in a given publication or website and the longer those mentions are, the better. An illustrated chapter or page or full interview about an artist is better than a chapter or page without illustrations is better than a paragraph is better than a sentence.

* The longer the artist has been creating and exhibiting art, the better. A 55 year old artist with accomplishments dating back 30 years tends to be more established and respected than a 55 year old artist who's only been active for a year and had only one or two shows.

* The greater the number of exhibits, awards and other career accomplishments an artist has to his or her credit, the better. Keep in mind that lofty sounding writings about an artist's majestic brush strokes or mastery of color may sound great, but fancy language is pretty much meaningless unless it includes FACTS. Never confuse facts with fluff, and in the art business there's no shortage of fluff.

* The more significant the collections that own the artist's art, the more important the artist tends to be. When museums own the art, that's always a good sign; major corporate collections are generally good for an artist to be in; private collections only carry weight when the collectors are known and respected in the art community. A painting in the collection of the Countess Esmiralda of Stregovia, for example, may sound impressive, but that distinction is only significant if the Countess is recognized for the quality of her art collection.

* Artist listings in scholarly non-biased publications, either online or hard-copy, are preferred over those in commercial publications. Always be wary of books, catalogues or websites published or controlled by private parties or special interests, no matter how lavish they may be. For instance, if you are shown a glamorous ten-pound coffee table book about an artist that's published by the gallery selling the art, but you don't find that artist listed in other standard art reference books or online resources, this could mean the artist is considered famous and accomplished primarily at that gallery and hardly anywhere else.

* The more people who recognize an artist's name and have good things to say, the better. The more qualified these people are and the more respected they are in the arts community, the more you should value their opinions, especially when they have nothing to gain if you buy the art.


Question number two-- "How important is the art?"-- is answered by looking at as much art by the artist as possible, familiarizing yourself with the range art the artist has produced, and learning how to compare the art you're interested in with other art by the artist.

Begin by having the artist or seller show you a selection of the artist's art, either firsthand, online, in print or from photographs, and from all periods in the artist's career. When that's not possible, find out where you can go to see this art. Knowing the full range of an artist's work helps you to better understand any specific piece in its proper context. This is why art galleries present solo shows and inventory multiple works of art by the artists they represent. The more pieces they have on hand to show you, the more they'll be able teach you the artist and his or her art.

Next, thoroughly inspect the art you're interested in. In addition to the front, look at the back, sides, edges, signatures, dates, any writing that's on them, any labels or stickers you find, frames, construction, everything. Have the artist or seller explain all these details. This exercise is not only fascinating and educational, but it also gives you greater insight into what the art is all about and incidentally, how much the artist or seller knows (or cares) about whatever he or she is selling.

Ask the artist or seller whether the art is original or reproduced by digital or mechanical means. This question is especially important in determining whether you're looking at original art or limited edition prints, giclees in particular. Many limited edition "works of art" are little more than digital or photo-reproduced copies of originals, often not produced by the artists who sign them, but by digital printers or commercial publishing companies. Believe it or not, a surprising number of signed and numbered prints fall into this category. Often the only thing original about these "copy prints" are the hand-applied signatures.

Some publishers take reproductions to the extreme. New Erte editions, for example, continued to be released even after the artist's death. Now that's the sign of a truly great artist-- one who can continue to produce art even from the grave. So remember-- when you're looking at a limited edition, always ask whether it's a reproduction or an original and get the answer in writing. If you happen to like the way an image looks and you don't mind if it's a copy print, go ahead and buy it. But if you want to collect original works of art, collect ones that are entirely created and produced by the artists themselves. Reproductions of originals, by the way, no matter how limited or beautiful they are, are usually among the least significant and collectible examples of an artist's work.

Assuming the art you're interested in is original, find out whether it's "major" or "minor," that is, whether it's more or less significant when compared to other examples of the artist's art that you've been looking at. Is it closer to the most complex, detailed, labor-intensive, high-end pieces the artist has created, or is it more like a two-minute pencil sketch on a three-by-five card? Keep in mind that major works tend to be more valuable, more collectible, and fare better in the marketplace over time than minor ones.

Determine whether the art you like is "typical" or "atypical." Ask the artist or seller which subjects, mediums, sizes, and styles the artist is best known for producing and that collectors prefer or tend to buy the most. These pieces are referred to as typical. All artists also experiment, go off on tangents, and create unusual or one-of-a-kind items that they're not that well-known for. These pieces are referred to as atypical. Unless you're a sophisticated collector who wants examples of everything an artist has ever created or produced, stick with the typical and save the offbeat or unusual works for later.

Find out when in the artist's career the art dates from. All artists go through periods or phases where their art is more or less inspired, competent, appealing to collectors, and important in relation to their overall output. Experienced collectors, of course, prefer the best art from the best time periods. Learn what that means for your artist and how the art you're looking at stacks up in comparison.

On a bit more of a sophisticated level, determine whether the art you're looking at has any unique original qualities or whether it's a re-do of styles or subject matters that have been produced over and over again for years (commonly termed "derivative"). Some artists specialize in versions or styles of art that have already been done because they're good at it, people like how they look, and they sell well. Quite a number of artists produce art in the same or similar styles or techniques used by artists decades ago, and are true to art history. As accomplished as they may be, there's little or nothing truly original about this art.

From a collecting standpoint, art with unique or original qualities or characteristics tends to be more collectible over time than art that imitates or borrows heavily from past styles of art. Experienced collectors prefer buying works of art that reflect superior vision and creative abilities as well as mastery of medium. They patronize artists who continually evolve in their careers and dealers who represent those types of artists. If however, you prefer art that copies famous styles of the past, then by all means collect it. Remember that there is no right or wrong art.

Lastly, make sure the art you're looking at is in good condition and built to last-- even if it's brand new. I was once in a gallery that was showing an artist who made reverse paintings on glass. The paintings were beautiful, but would they last? I had the dealer show me several pieces from the back so that I could see whether the frames and backings were adequately shock resistant and protective of the paint. I wouldn't want to buy one of these $5000 pictures, accidentally bump it and have it chip or crack because it's not well protected.


The answer to the third question-- "What is the art's provenance, history and documentation?"-- is determined by assembling all incidental information about the art. This is like writing the biography of the art from the moment the artist completed it right up to the present day.

You do this because good documentation and provenance not only speaks to a work of art's authenticity, but also increases it's collectibility, desirability and market value. Good provenance in the art world is similar to a good pedigree in the pet world. A painting that was exhibited at an important art show, for example, is more collectible than a similar looking painting that wasn't; a sculpture that won a prize is more desirable than a similar sculpture that didn't; a watercolor that made the news because of its controversial subject matter is more interesting to collectors than a similar watercolor that didn't. If art you are considering possesses any such characteristics or histories, you should know about them.

Begin by asking the artist or seller to tell you everything he or she can about the art you like. Find out where it's been, what it represents, how it came into being, who's owned it, whether it's been exhibited, won awards, or been pictured or mentioned in any writings, either online or in hard-copy, and either by experts or by the artist himself. Does it commemorate special events either within or outside of the artist's life? Are any interesting stories associated with it? These are the types of questions you should ask. The answers are often interesting, enlightening and just plain fun.

Whenever the art is by a living artist, ask the artist to tell you about it. If the art is for sale at a gallery and the artist isn't available, ask the gallery owner whether you can have a brief conversation with the artist either in person or over the phone.

In addition to what people tell you, put together as much physical documentation as possible from online or printed sources such as those mentioned above. This includes printouts, copies or photocopies of entries in publications or online that mention the art, certificates or statements of authenticity, and whenever possible, signed statements or descriptions from the artist and/or dealer detailing whatever they tell you. It's kind of like the art is the visual component; the documentation is the cognitive.

At all times, keep truth separate from guesses or fiction. Gossip, third-party suppositions and hearsay do not qualify as provenance. Make sure everything you're told actually happened. When a story cannot be conclusively verified proven with concrete tangible evidence, don't take it seriously.

Suppose you're thinking about buying an antique painting with a mountain in it. The dealer says he heard Teddy Roosevelt's plumber's grandfather once owned it. He also says the mountain is Mount Shasta and proves it by showing you photographs of the mountain taken from the same angle as depicted in the painting. The first statement is conjecture and must be proved in order to be taken seriously; the second statement is fact.


And now for the biggie-- question number four-- "Is the asking price fair?" This is not so much a question of what the art might be worth at some point in the future or whether it's a good investment. Nobody has those answers, not even psychics. All you want to know is whether it's priced fairly and reasonably today. This is a question that must be asked and considered because like any other goods or services, art is sometimes overpriced.

For instance, an artist or gallery owner may tell you every piece of art is unique and that the price of the piece you're looking at is what it's worth, but that kind of logic doesn't wash with anyone who's been around collecting or the art business for any length of time. Art is like real estate in that an individual piece may indeed be unique, but plenty of other pieces are similar or comparable to it. Those comparables-- like similar houses in the same neighborhood, so to speak-- are one of the things you look at when evaluating the price of any art that you're thinking about buying.

Contrary to what many people believe, art prices are not mysteriously pulled out of thin air or divined by some incomprehensible sixth sense that only artists and art dealers possess. Once you learn the basics, pricing a work of art-- in most cases-- becomes no more complicated than pricing milk at the grocery store. All you have to do is a little comparing and contrasting between the art you're thinking about buying and records of public and private sales of similar works of art that have already sold.

Of course, in order to do that, you must first realize that such records exist-- many people have no idea they can actually research art prices from previous sales records. Not only do such price records exist, but they exist by the millions, are available in online databases (that generally charge for access) and on many gallery and artist websites. At auction alone, 300,000-plus new sales results per year are added to the major databases.

Begin your price research with the artist or seller. Ask to see or hear about recent sales results for art by whatever artist you're interested in. Make sure the artist has a track record of selling works of art similar to the piece you like for amounts comparable to what you're being asked to pay. Most galleries have this information on file and will talk about it with you (be careful when any dealer is reluctant to discuss previous sales).

The other part of evaluating prices is to find out what's happening outside of the gallery or artist selling the art. Where else does the art sell and how much does it sell for? These sales may take place at other galleries, at auctions, online at secondary art market websites, or at all of the above, and once again, you should look for consistency in selling prices that are comparable to what you're being asked to pay.

Checking auction records is easy; anybody can do it. All you have to do is look up the artist's name in online art price databases to see whether any of his or her art has sold. Most of the major databases are only available by subscription, some of which might show basic information about what's sold whether you subscribe or not, but you have to pay to see the actual selling prices. The good news is that as time progresses, more and more auction houses and online bulk auction sites are compiling their own archives, most of which can be accessed for free.

When an artist has auction records, that indicates the artist has achieved a certain level of recognition and respect within the art community, generally speaks well for that artist's market, and is somewhat of an indication that their art has "ascended" to the level of currency. Instead of collectors asking "Who's that?" when they see the artist's art, they say "I know who she is. Her art auctions for X amount of dollars, and I'd pay this much to own a similar piece of her art." Each sales record you locate gives you information like what type of art sold (painting, sculpture, etc.), it's size, title, when and where it sold, and how much it sold for.

The most significant auction records for your purposes are those for works of art similar in size, subject matter, medium, date executed, and other particulars to yours. Keep in mind that auction prices represent wholesale values more so than retail ones, so don't expect them to be as high as what you're being asked to pay at a gallery. Do however expect them to be at least 40% of gallery retail and preferably higher. If you find auction records that are 30% or less of what you're being asked to pay at retail, this may be cause for concern. Either the artist or gallery owner should have a good explanation as to why the discrepancy is so large. If not, perhaps consider shopping elsewhere.

Several additional tips for evaluating auction records are as follows.

* Check back through at least five years of sales records and look for indications that the artist's prices either hold steady or increase over time. Consistent strength in selling prices means demand for the art is solid and their collector base is strong. Fluctuating, erratic, or declining prices are not generally a good sign.

* Pay the most attention to where the majority of the price results fall, not the minority. For example, if you're thinking about paying $10,000 for a painting and you find one auction or price record of $6,000 and twenty for under $2000, that could be an indication the $10,000 painting is overpriced.

* The more auction results you find, the more accurately you can evaluate prices. One or two isolated sales are not enough to base any solid conclusions on; you need at least five to ten records to work from, and preferably more.

Retail sales at other galleries-- online or bricks-and-mortar-- are just as important as auction records, and even more so when little or no auction records exist. You can often learn about such sales by asking other dealers, collectors, and knowledgeable people in the arts community about the artist you are interested in. The more dealers who either handle the artist, recognize the name or are willing to handle him, the better. Of course, their asking prices and sales records should be comparable to what you're being asked to pay. When few galleries are familiar with an artist or are interested in handling his or her art, this may not be a good sign.

When you buy directly from an artist who does not exhibit regularly, you often find few if any galleries that recognize the name, and few if any auction records. In these cases, ask the artist for names of people or institutions that own his or her art and once again, do your best to find out whether that art has sold for prices comparable to what you're being asked to pay, and hopefully on a relatively regular basis. The more collectors who own the art and the more consistent the selling prices and frequency of sales, the more comfortable you can feel about buying the art. Note to artists: Be prepared for these types of questions.

If you have few or no auction or gallery prices to go on, you can sometimes make reasonable comparisons with auction records and retail prices of similar art by other artists from the same geographical region who have similar career accomplishments, similar market bases, produce art in similar styles or subject matters, and were or are active during similar time periods. Evaluating prices in this manner is another form of working from comparables. When you're buying from an artist for example, find out what other artists who produce similar work and live in the same area charge for their art. When you're buying older art like a landscape dating from the 1940's for example, compare the asking price to prices of similar 1940's landscapes by other artists who painted in the same region or area and have similar resumes or accomplishments to your artist.

Once you're comfortable with an asking price and ready to buy, make sure you get a detailed receipt describing the art and its condition and including guarantee or comparable assurance that you can return it if at any point in the future you find out it was not properly represented. This receipt should be in addition to all other documentation the seller provides about the art's history, provenance and authenticity.

A quick word about bargaining. Suppose for some reason you still want the art after all's said and done, but would rather pay a little less for it. Art prices are often flexible and making an offer is certainly an option, but don't bargain purely the sake of sport. Make sure you have a good reason for wanting a better price and can make a case for your request. Experienced collectors do this all the time. They know artists or dealers are much more likely to reduce prices based on good solid arguments than they are just because buyers want better deals. To repeat, do not bargain for sport or just to see how little you can pay. That strategy will only come back to bite you in the future.

All this effort to buy a single piece of art may seem a little tedious as you read about it here, but in fact, it's just the opposite. Buying art intelligently not only becomes second nature once you get good at it; it also becomes an adventure. Once you get the hang of how things work, your quest for knowledge turns into exciting detective work, and so much of what you discover turns out to be rewarding. Experienced collectors, one of whom you may one day become, can research and evaluate most works of art in as little as fifteen to thirty minutes. For them, the importance of knowing about a work of art, including that it's priced fairly, cannot be underestimated. Having this knowledge not only increases their enjoyment of that art, but also their appreciation and engagement with the art world in general.

Since you've read this far, kindly indulge me while I engage in one last bit of shameless self promotion and remind you that my book, THE ART OF BUYING ART, SECOND EDITION is available, you can read chapter summaries, and buy it if you like what you read. This article is only the beginning. The book goes into detail about everything you've just read and much much more. And it's written easy-to-understand everyday language for anyone who likes art, regardless of how little or much they know to begin with. All you need is a desire to own art and buy like experienced collectors and professionals buy all the time.


(art by Tony DeLap).

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