Collect Art Like a Pro

How to Build a Collection

There's a big difference between buying art and collecting art. Buying art is more of a spontaneous activity based on likes, preferences, or attractions at any given moment, while collecting art is more of a purposeful focused directed longterm endeavor. In both cases, you buy what you like, but if your goal is to collect art and do it right, you have to master two additional skills. The first is being able to effectively research, evaluate and decide whether or not to buy individual works of art that attract you. The second is being able to choose each individual work in such a way as to form a meaningful grouping, aka a collection.

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 putting together a plan for making multiple acquisitions over time, or in other words, building a collection. You can find art you like just about anywhere you look and in a seemingly endless array of subject matters, mediums and price ranges, but sifting through it all in a systematic way can be overwhelming and even intimidating at times. So how do decide what art to focus on and which direction to go in? How do you relate one purchase to the next? How do you organize or group your art together in ways that make sense? How do you organize and 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 Eli Broad collection, the Barnes 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 artists do in creating it. In a great collection, every work of art commands premium attention (as well as a premium price if it ever comes up for sale) not only because it's good, but also because of the company it keeps.

What makes a great collector great is their ability to separate out specific works of art from the scrillions 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 history and evolution of art in general. In any mature collection, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, there's strength in numbers, the collector comes to be accepted as a respected authority and in exceptional cases, goes on to set the standards, determine tastes, trends and influence the future of collecting for all.

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, libraries, and institutions. The best of them spotted art world trends before of the rest of us and requested specific books, catalogues, and other printed materials about certain artists or art movements ahead of everyone else. In many cases, when I found what they were looking for, I'd study it before selling it to learn why they regarded that particular art as significant, educate myself, and then locate similar materials for anyone else who wanted to follow their leads. 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 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 tastes and preferences are 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 most likely never 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 at galleries you've never been to, places you've only heard about, and so on.

Explore the less conventional if that's what you're curious about. Look at art 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 reassessments of your tastes are always a good idea. What excites you today could easily bore you tomorrow (and vice versa). A quality collection is always evolving and never static. And of course, don't forget to hit the Internet; when it comes to art, it's a vast and fantastic place. Places like Instagram and Facebook in particular can be great places to search for pretty much every kind of art imaginable.

While we're on the subject of beating the bushes for art online, perhaps the most revolutionary change between collecting today and yesterday is the level and ease of access that everyone now has to artists. Way back when, collectors were pretty much limited to acquiring art through dealers and galleries but today they can buy from just about anyone anywhere, especially directly from artists themselves. Getting a basic art education from professionals like gallery owners is still generally recommended before heading out into the online wilds to explore other options. There are also numerous blogs, websites and platforms devoted to specific types of art and artists where you can really get up to speed on the art and artists you like the most, and focus in on happenings and trends in those areas. But get that education first, before you start buying, because the Internet can be a pretty risky place if you don't know what you're doing.

Regardless of how much you know about what you collect already, always remember that the educational process is an ongoing 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, artists, 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 and act on 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's available in the marketplace or whatever they get offered 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 dealers, galleries, artists or online resources and rarely if ever stray. This may be a good strategy at the start, especially in terms of getting a basic education, but the danger in continuing this over the long haul is that your overview of the market suffers. If inadvertently subjugate yourself to the tastes of a very select few, over time your collection becomes less of what you originally intended it to be and more of what a handful of others tell you it should be.

Knowing the marketplace and how to comparison shop both at galleries and online also prevents you from overpaying. Simply put, Gallery X may offer you a painting for $10,000; you might find a comparable piece online priced at $7500; and gallery Y might have one for $6500. If you only shop Gallery X and you don't know Gallery Y exists or ignore online options, you waste dollars. It's also not that unusual to find the same or very similar works of art available from multiple sources at different prices. Due diligence pays dividends when it comes to making sure you know who's selling what before going ahead and buying.

Regarding the art that does make it into your collection, most novice collectors will tell you 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, detailed, 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 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 or out of place. A less experienced collector, on the other hand, may know plenty about each individual piece of art they own, but lack an overall understanding how they relate to one another or even whether they relate to one another at all. You don't want to look around the house one day and wonder, "What have I been buying all these years? I'm not quite sure. I never really thought about it."

What an experienced collector essentially 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 abstract painting in Southern California? The solution is an art collection consisting of abstract paintings by Southern California artists that date from the early days right on up to the present (or from whatever time period the collector is focusing on).

Pose your problem as soon as you can, as soon as you begin to get a decent feel for where your passions and interests lie. Take the randomness out of your buying. Look at what you've got so far in your collection; reflect on 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 I'm buying?

* What about it satisfies me?

* Do I like it for the subject matters, what it represents, what it communicates, its originality, the techniques, the colors, the historical aspects, the regions where it's made, the lives of the artists?

* Does it make me think about things I've never thought about before?

* Does it make me feel a certain way or see things in a different way?

* Do I admire its technical qualities the most?

* Do I like it for the concepts, ideas, themes or philosophies it embodies, communicates or stands for?

* Does it alter or inform my perspective on some aspect of life?

* Does it portray or present things in ways they've never been presented before?

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

Once you begin to identify the common threads, you can refine your buying to zero in on additional pieces that share those characteristics. 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 essential aspect of good collecting is documenting your art, not only for authentication and ownership purposes, but also in terms of value. 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 sale at the same time. They're virtually identical in size, quality, condition, subject matter, date painted and other details. The first is described as a "Rural Landscape," and that's it. The second is documented as being titled "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, 1879. 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 be priced higher and end up selling for more money? The second one, of course. It's like choosing between a mutt and a pedigree. So keep good records on every single work of art you own; good documentation adds value, sometimes lots of value.

An interesting aspect of the art business is that when art with little or no documentation comes up for sale, experienced sellers at least do their best to make up interesting titles for it. They know that even when little or nothing is known about art, good titles sell better 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 appreciate far more deeply, and 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 assemble or record that information, think again. At some point, your collection will become so large, there'll be 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 you can begin documenting at any time and even from a standing stop. Write down everything you can about the art you own, either from memory or by contacting the original sellers. Include information like the following:

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

* Details about the purchases including any memorable moments about making them.

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

* Biographical and career information about the artists.

* How or why or any other information about how the art was made.

* When the art dates from.

* Whether any pieces have ever been exhibited in public, at galleries, written about or featured or discussed in any other way.

Don't think you have to hide anything. Far too often, collectors throw away their original 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 in both tangible and intangible ways, but the documents themselves can have 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 1900s, or a signed and inscribed photo of Picasso handing a collector a newly purchased painting. I'm in this end of the business and can tell you that either of these items would have significant value, likely well into the thousands of dollars. So here's what you do:

* Save all receipts, certificates of authenticity and other relevant written or printed materials you receive with the art. Ask for as much of it as you can at the time of purchase.

* Whenever possible, get descriptive written statements from artists, galleries or sellers 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 or video them telling it to you.

* Save and file all related books, exhibit catalogues, gallery brochures, reviews, web pages and so on.

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

This information is easy to get, fun to get, it brings you closer to your art, and it often 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-- just like any good museum exhibition. 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 abstract painting in Southern California." This collection can be organized in many ways including by date, by artist, by style, or by location. Or you can get even more specific. Within a topic as narrow as this, there are all kinds of subtopics:

* Abstract painting in Los Angeles organized by date.

* Abstract painting in Southern California between 1950 and 1970.

* Geometric abstract painting in Southern California.

* Abstract painting in Southern California by immigrant artists.

* Abstract paintings in Southern California that are no larger than 12 by 16 inches.

Or you can narrow it further yet. How about a collection of abstracts painted by Southern California artists that have titles relating to the ocean or coast? 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 type and grouping of art. Depending on the museum or the show, you have printed, oral or recorded guided tours that explain the way each 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 kids putting together all the baseball cards of their favorite teams to complete their collections.

The final step in good collecting is not the most delightful one 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 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 works of art have been resold for pennies on the dollar, given away, or even thrown in the trash because the owners kept little or no records and left no instructions on what to do with it.

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, rescued 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. For example, appraisals done for insurance or replacement purposes often state dollar values that are more than the art is reasonably worth in a selling situation. The inheritors fixate on these values, have no idea what they mean, assume that's what they can sell the art for, and end up spending months or years beating their heads against the wall trying to sell it, getting nowhere, and deciding that all buyers are out to take advantage.

So cover all bases by providing insurance or replacement appraisals should your descendants decide to keep the art. Also include realistic wholesale or "fair market value" appraisals 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 names they randomly Google up on 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 those close to you are aware of your art's value and significance. Make sure 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 you've done your best to collect like a pro.


(art by Donald Martiny)


Note: This article is a substantially revised, updated, and enlarged version of a talk originally given to the Friends of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Have questions about buying or collecting art? I'm always available to advise on any aspect of building a quality collection. If interested, email or call 415.931.7875.

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