How to Start Buying & Collecting Art

Common Questions Answered, Part II

Here's the second installment of common questions that beginning art collectors and buyers often ask about art... and their answers. Having some sense of what you're doing before you start buying is far better than taking your chances and hoping for the best. If you haven't read Part I, you can read it here.

Q: How do I tell the difference between good and bad art? Are there ways to recognize quality artworks?
A: You learn how to evaluate quality in art by educating yourself about the artists you want to collect, reading about it, and speaking with dealers or galleries or professionals who buy, sell, collect or specialize in it. Take every possible opportunity to speak with knowledgeable individuals who have experience looking at and evaluating the art you like the most. Whenever you get a chance to critique actual works of art with a pro, take it. Learning how to see and analyze art through trained eyes is an invaluable experience. Ask plenty of questions and have them talk about and point out the differences between good, better and best, and have as many conversations with people in the know as you can.

Q: If I like a particular artist, how do I decide which piece of art to buy?
A: Assuming you can afford it, you want to buy towards the high end of an artist's output rather average or lower priced works. If you can only afford so-so works by a famous artist, then perhaps you might consider buying a lesser but still reasonably well-known artist where you can buy closer to the top. The best art will always be the most sought after and have the most value to collectors of that artist, no matter what level you're buying at. It's also the easiest to sell if you ever decide to do so.

Q: Is it a good idea to invest in artists who are unknown or lesser known?
A: Buying art by younger or emerging artists is kind of like investing in startups. The risk is high, but so is the potential for profit with that small percentage of artists who ultimately succeed. Know going in, though, that most young artists who have promising starts to their careers eventually cool down and may even fade away completely. No matter how good those first several shows may be, it's a long game and success after success is necessary in order for any artist to advance in their career. As for "investment" as you put it, whatever art you decide to collect or buy, make sure you're buying it for art reasons, not money reasons. That way, you'll always enjoy it and never be disappointed.

Q: What about an artist who's getting a lot of attention, coverage and hype?
A: Be careful here. More often than not fashions, trends and whatever else is hot today can just as easily return to obscurity within weeks, months or maybe several years at the most. Prices can spike because of all the attention, but as soon as the hubbub dies down, more often than not they fall back to reality. You don't want to get caught buying on a market spike. As you gain experience, you'll learn how to tell the difference between the flavor of the day, an overheated market, and those artists on track to becoming well-known or even famous over the long haul. Making it as an artist is all about longevity. Let the hype play itself out and die down before you buy. That way, you can more objectively evaluate the situation and focus on art that looks like it's going to last.

Q: How do I know whether an asking price is fair?
A: First off, ask the seller. Ask how they set the price and what it's based on. Just like with any other product, you deserve to know how and why it's priced at the level it is. You want facts, not generalities, not art jargon mumbo jumbo or emotion-based presentations that have nothing to do with money. If a seller gets offended at price questions or is reluctant to provide information, perhaps it's best to move on.

Also research the Internet. See how much similar art is selling for or has sold for already at places like galleries, secondary market websites, directly from the artists, and at auction. If prices aren't posted on art that's for sale, contact the sellers and find out how much it's selling for. Doing price comparisons and research is easier now than it's ever been before.

Q: How can I protect myself from overpaying?
A: No matter what kind of art you want to buy, get the facts. Sellers should provide specific information about the artists, about the art itself, and especially about selling prices. Anytime sellers are evasive or reluctant to provide concrete market data, watch out. Find out how much similar pieces have sold for not and under what circumstances they sold -- whether at the gallery that has the art, at other galleries, at art fairs, online or under any other circumstances. Generally, the broader the market for an artist's art and the more places that sell it, the better. Not only should you be looking at how much comparable works by that artist sell for, but also how much similar art by other artists with similar accomplishments and credentials sells for.

Studying artist resumes is also important. An artist resume is similar to a company's annual report. Among other things, you can see how regularly the artist shows, what kinds of awards or distinctions they've received, what collections own their art, what types of articles or interviews or publications include their art, whether any museums own their art, and so on. Again, you want specifics-- names, dates, places, etc.-- and not vague statements like "the artist has exhibited internationally" or "the artist has works in collections around the world." The more consistent and active an artist is, the better. Also look for indications that the artist's career is on an upward trajectory with increasingly more significant shows, recognition, sales, and so on.

Q: Is buying art at auction a good idea?
A: Auction is a buyer beware arena; once you buy it, it's yours. No returns allowed. If you intend to bid and buy at auction, not only do you have to know plenty about any art and artists you bid on, but you also have to know how to read and understand item descriptions, how to determine your maximum bid, what questions to ask sellers before bidding, when to request additional images or information, how to evaluate condition, how to evaluate any documentation or certificates that accompany the art, and more. Many of the established regional, national and international auction houses have specialist art departments and are very good at vetting the art they put up for sale, but many smaller auction houses don't have fine art departments or specialists on staff and lack the abilities to fully inspect and evaluate every work of art they sell. That part is entirely up to you. Save buying at auctions until you know what you're doing.

Q: Is it OK to say, "I'd like to think about it," do some research and then decide?
A: Absolutely. In fact that's the preferred way to buy art. Put it on hold for a few days, think about it, research the artist, go online and compare prices, and so on. If you're serious about buying, ask the seller whether you can take it on approval for a short period of time to see how it looks in your home or office and decide whether it's really right for you. Don't ever let anyone pressure you to buy; buy only when you're sure.

Q: Is the art I buy going to be worth the same as it is in a gallery? Does it go up in value when galleries raise their prices?
A: Not necessarily. Gallery prices are retail. As a private art owner, you can't expect to sell at the same prices galleries sell for. For one thing, galleries provide all kinds of services and amenities that private sellers can't. For another, a gallery might sell a significant percentage of their art at prices lower than what it's marked. If at any point you decide to sell your art, no matter whether you sell through a gallery, an auction house or a secondary market website, you'll have to pay a commission on the sale. How much that commission is depends on who's doing the selling. Just like a car is worth more at the dealership than it is in your garage, art is worth more at a gallery than it is hanging on your walls.

Q: How about caring for art? Is there anything I should be aware of?
A: In general, avoid temperature and humidity extremes, and keep all art out of direct sunlight. As for specifics, ask the gallery or artist selling the art for any additional instructions on how to care for and maintain it. Lightly clean or dust art with nothing more than a feather or microfiber duster or soft dry cloth. Never clean art with solvents or cleaning agents or attempt to fix or repair damage on your own. If the art gets damaged or problems develop, contact professional fine art conservators to restore it for you.

Q: How about insuring art? What should I know?
A: Check with your insurance company on this. Procedures for insuring art vary from company to company. More valuable works of art should generally be itemized individually. Appraisals on more expensive art are often required before certain companies will insure them. Make sure your insurance company has experience and knowledge about insuring art, and get an idea of their claims process. Some companies can be very difficult about settling and paying art-related claims.


Are you a beginning art buyer or collector with questions about how or what to buy? I can help. I regularly consult and advise art buyers on purchasing specific works of art, as well as on how to successfully navigate the art world, find the art you're looking for, and make sure you're paying fairly for it. Want to make an appointment? Call me at 415.931.7875 or email

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(art by Tom McKinley)

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