As an art dealer, I often hear this common misconception from aspiring collectors: building an art collection is a privilege reserved for a select few. Not true! Anyone can build a beautiful and rewarding selection of artwork (even with a tight budget), if that person takes the time to acquire the knowledge necessary to understand the intrinsic value of a work of art and make an educated decision. Collecting art is a labor of love, a passion that is exhilarating and that paves the way for a lifetime of pleasure and fulfillment. Here’s how to get started.
First, choose a field of interest that resonates with your tastes, and try to acquire as much knowledge about that area of collecting as possible. Museums are an excellent place to start because they often display the best examples of the works of a particular artist or school of art. Spend some time wandering through different exhibitions to discover what appeals to you, or take a tour with a docent or curator; both will have significant knowledge of a particular field and will be happy to answer your questions. Your local university likely offers classes, which you may audit for a small fee and which are indispensable for a collector hoping to acquire knowledge and develop a critical eye.
Established galleries are also a tremendous source of information, and dealers are obligated to answer questions about quality of workmanship, authenticity, condition, and provenance, if available, in a clear and honest manner. As an art dealer, I owe it to my clients to elucidate the story behind a work of art: We might discuss what distinguishes it from other works by the same artist, wherein lies its value, which artists had an impact on this artist, and where the work is situated in the output of the artist as well as in current trends of the period. This information is essential to understanding and appreciating a work of art, and allows the viewer to acknowledge what the artist was trying to convey.
And finally, visit auction houses, which don’t necessarily offer the best examples of an artist’s work, but do provide the discriminating buyer with a basis of comparison against which to measure a particular sample of an artist’s work. There are always experts on hand who can answer questions about particular works on display, and elaborate on which factors impacted the pre-sale estimate based on past auction house price history.
As you visit museums and galleries and spend time at auction houses, you are working to develop a discriminating eye in the selection of artwork—and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can distinguish a work that is truly exceptional from one that is ordinary. You’ll be able to recognize the very best from the rest by looking at many works and understanding relative quality.
My criteria is the same for all of my art purchases: I have the initial “wow” reaction, my first hint that I’m looking at something truly special, and then I check authenticity, condition, and provenance before making the decision to buy. And I always remember what philanthropist and art collector Paul Mellon said: “I never bought pictures as an investment, except as an investment in pleasure, as treasures to the eye.”
Catch the second half of dealer Carole Pinto’s advice for developing a critical art-buying eye later on this week!