So, you want to buy some 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 is necessary. All you need is a love and appreciation of 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 the following article contains recommendations and suggestions relating to particular works 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 reasons they decide to buy it, and for however much money they feel like spending on it. Consequently, these techniques are not for everyone, but they are primarily intended for people who like to spend their money wisely and who prefer to pay fair prices for quality works of art. If that happens to be you, then what you’re about to read will help you become a better collector.
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.
- Who is the artist?
- How significant is the art?
- What is the art’s provenance, history, and documentation (or more simply, where has the art been and who’s owned it)?
- Is the asking price fair?
Let’s take a more in-depth look at each one of these questions individually…
Who is the artist?
For the answer to this first question, 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.
Printed information comes in a variety of forms including artist websites, gallery websites, online artist database resources, gallery exhibition catalogues (either online or printed), artist career resumes, exhibition reviews (either online or in hard-copy publications), and art reference books, websites and databases including dictionaries of artists, art indexes, art or artist encyclopaedias, monographs on artists, and art surveys or histories. In the great majority of cases, this information is available from whoever is selling the art.
In all cases, you want to both hear and read about the artist you’re interested in. Do one without the other and you can easily come away with inaccurate or skewed ideas or information about how significant the art or artist really is. The types of information that you come across during the course of your readings and listening’s, no matter what artist you are learning about, include facts like the following:
- The artist’s birth date and death date (if applicable).
- Where the artist lives and works.
- 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 honours that the artist has received.
- Public, private or corporate collectors who own the artist’s art.
- Positions the artist has held (resident artist, professor, teacher, lecturer, writer, and so on)
- Publications that mention the artist such as online art sites, books, catalogues, art magazines and so on.
- Organizations the artist belongs to.
- Where, when and with whom the artist studied.
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.
Would you buy $35,000 car off of a show room floor, no questions asked? Would you buy a $700,000 house by standing in the front yard, simply by looking at it and deciding that it’s exactly what you want? You read about the car, ask people who own it how they like it, compare prices from dealer to dealer and so on. You tour the house, carefully inspect every room, find out what kind of neighbourhood it’s in and what comparable houses are selling for, and have the house inspected by a contractor and so on. In both cases, you want to know what you’re getting before you spend your money, and the same holds true for art. With a work of art, this process begins by evaluating basic facts about the artist like those mentioned above.
- The more extensive the artist’s profile, online and otherwise, the better. Yes, the artist’s website is important as are galleries that exclusively represent the artist, but equally important (or perhaps even more so) are third-party websites that review the artist’s work, feature the artist, and offer the art for sale and so on. These might include gallery websites, museum websites, arts publication websites and other sites with profiles or standings in the arts community.
- The more books, catalogues and online resources 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 listing in a major international artist dictionary or biographical database carries more weight than a similar length listing on a local artist website or directory. Likewise, a feature article, interview or blog on a website carries more weight than a one-sentence reference.
- The more mentions the artist has on a website or publication and the longer those mentions are the better. An illustrated feature or page or interview about an artist is better than a feature or page without illustrations is better than a paragraph is better than a sentence, and so on.
- The more people who recognize the 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.
Tomorrow we discuss…
How important is the art?
Martin Beckley | Urban Artist