How to start an art collection

Firstly, figure out your own motives

Do you want something to brighten up your room, or match the curtains? Or are you hoping to make money from the recovering art market? Or are you attracted to art as a fascinating long-term commitment?

Each of the above motivations are relevant - and each requires a different game plan. If you are looking for something you like, then it's easy: go with your gut feelings.

But if you are investing, then you must do your homework and build contacts in the art world, that you can trust.

In other words, you can buy art from a West London heavyweight dealer and be assured of its quality, but end up spending more money. Or you can go to an East London gallery that showcases young artists, and spend less money but with more risk.

Whichever you choose, you must be prepared.

Rarity equals value well as quality. So, one-off originals are more valuable than multiple prints. Paintings, drawings and collages are normally one-offs, but sculptures are often produced in editions of nine.

The smaller the edition, the higher the price. One way to make sure of this is that the artwork you like is signed and numbered.

This is also true of photographs. Of course, photos can be reproduced very easily, so seek verification.

Is the artist dead? Then make sure that the photo is vintage, ie, authorised by him or her. If the photo is modern, then does it come with the original negative to ensure that it isn't a copy?

Also, in today's age of digital photography, some studios make a point of producing hand-printed, signed originals.

Educate yourself

Art, they say, is an intellectual pursuit. Your collection should be embraced as an educational process.

Develop your art taste buds by looking at lots of art, and hone your appreciation for the aesthetics. Learn about the different artists (how they have progressed over time, for instance) and feel your passion grow.

Also develop an understanding of the artists. A good way to do this is to start with drawings. Buy posters and postcards and put them on the walls of your home or desk. This will train your eye, and help you realise the aspects of art you love, and those you find forgettable.

Choose the art that's right for you

Collectors have many different methods for choosing the works they wish to buy. A prolific and globally-renowned collector like David Geffen, the very wealthy record label executive, often cites the "wow" factor (in other words, he buys art which makes him think "wow!").

The "wow" factor may also be relevant to you - or then it may not, especially if you're not a very wealthy record label executive.

Getting to know what you are like as a collector requires that you go out and view lots of artworks. Also, museums, galleries and auctioneers are making themselves increasingly accessible to collectors, so join their mailing lists.

Talk your own language

Always remember: there is no "right way to discuss art," so don't be shy when you meet connoisseurs. Also, don't worry that you "know nothing about art". You know what you know, and must feel free and confident to talk about it in your own language.  

At the same time, as you learn more about art - its history, continuity and meaning - your "own art voice" will develop, and you will evolve into a confident collector. A knowledgeable collector is one who takes a non-stop interest in their subject.

You don't need to spend loads

In terms of money, remember that collecting is an evolutionary process.

Look at some of the greatest collections in the world: they started with initial purchases or just a few thousand dollars, and were then built upwards.

Good art dealers appreciate this, and will work with you to build your collection up. It is also is vital that you take your time. Above all, don't rush.

Find an art dealer that you can trust

Developing your own "art voice" is key to becoming a confident new collector-investor in the art market.

Find a dealer that you can trust. This will generally be a dealer who makes themselves available, and will work with you to learn and slowly build up your significant collection.

A good dealer will point you to the right pieces and understands that most collectors are driven by emotion. They should direct you to pieces that will resonate with you each time you gaze at them in the future.

The best dealers are like counsellors, and should be worthy of your trust.

Avoid salespeople

...especially those who sell art as a commodity. Art collecting revolves around passion and belief. Relying on saleability as your ultimate goal simply won't work.

Also remember that a dealer who trusts their own choices won't refer to an artwork's price history as their primary justification.

An artwork's price history on its own is no guarantee of anything, and will only give you other people's (possibly inaccurate) predictions.

Get the price right

While price should never be your main driving factor, look at the amounts works have been selling for at auctions or at past shows.

Also, ask your dealer if you can exchange the work in the future. Or, can they can resell it if you later want to buy something else, or something better, by an artist?

Build a relationship with the auction house

Again, it helps to have contacts. Introduce yourself to the representatives in your field of interest. Ideally, you should know the people at the auction house as well as you know your favorite dealer.

Auction houses are one of the best ways for new collectors to enter the art market. You get to meet people, view hundreds of artworks, assess other collectors' attitudes to them and get better at sorting the wheat from the chaff.

A vital piece of advice for a new collector at auction is: observe, listen, learn and ask question - especially if you are there mainly for investment reasons.

Talking to people can be key: be prepared to question the artist's dealer, or even the artist, about the work itself.

For example, what ground was it painted on? Gesso is generally the best primer for a paint canvass. In other words, take an interest in the artwork from inception to completion, and don't just go on face value.

Here, a dictionary of art terms can be of help. Remember, a collector should be as passionate about the work as the artist; which can require you to be very passionate indeed.

Bear in mind the hidden costs

The costs of restoration and framing can be costly, and insurance is vital.

Works on paper should be kept away from sunlight. If the works are going to be on a wall, it needs to be glazed according to museum standards with acid-free matting and ultraviolet light-resistance glass.

If the work is more than 10 years old, then you should have an art conservator look at it before it is framed.

Also remember that, with art, you are buying objects that have a life of their own. If you maintain and look after your art, you may one day be asked to loan them to an artist or museum.

Over the art's lifetime, you may find yourself dealing with museums and other institutions as a custodian of the historic artwork, rather than simply as an owner.

The biggest mistake a collector can make...

Is not being informed enough!

Otherwise you may buy something that doesn't possess the depth a work of art should evoke. Or pass on something and later you realise that you should have bought it.

It is better to take chances - but ensure that those chances are born of a genuine passion.

If you treat art like a commodity, you will end up with stocks or certificates on your wall. In other words, you will potentially be surrounded by things that you don't like and don't want to live with.

Equip yourself with a knowledge of art history, the history of the markets, and the current art scene. It can also help to become a member of an art dealers' association.

Above all, ensure that you amass a collection that you will love and can live with (potentially) for the rest of your life.

Paul Fraser. 

PS. Sign up to my free weekly newsletter for all the latest from the art world.

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