Buying art, the basics to think about Part 2 by Martin Beckley

In my last post: buying art Part 1 I discussed finding out about the Artist and how important is this? Today we discuss How important is the art?

This second question is answered by looking at as much art by the artist as possible, familiarizing yourself with the range of that art, and learning how to compare the art you’re interested in with other art by the artist.

Begin by having the artist or seller show you a selection of the artist’s art, either first hand, online, in print, or from photographs, and from all periods in the artist’s career. When that’s not possible, find out where you can go to see this art. Knowing the full range of an artist’s work helps you to better understand each individual piece in its proper context. This is why art galleries present solo shows and inventory multiple works of art by the artists they represent. The more pieces they have on hand to show you, the better they can inform you about the artist and his or her art.

Next, thoroughly inspect the art you’re interested in. In addition to the front, look at the back, sides, edges, signatures, dates, any writing that’s on them, any labels or stickers you find, frames, construction, everything. Have the artist or seller explain all these details. This exercise is not only fascinating and educational, but it also gives you greater insight into what the art is all about and, incidentally, how much the artist or seller knows (or cares) about whatever he or she is selling.

Ask the artist or seller whether the art is original or reproduced by mechanical means. This question is especially important with limited edition prints, giclees in particular. Many limited edition “works of art” are little more than digital or photo-reproduced copies of originals that are printed not by the artists who sign them, but by digital printers or commercial publishing companies. Believe it or not, many signed and numbered prints and digital images like giclees, fall into this category. The only thing original about these “copy prints” are the hand-applied signatures.

Some publishers take reproductions to the extreme. New Erte editions, for example, continued to be released even after the artist’s death. Now that’s the sign of a truly great artist– one who can continue to produce art even from the grave. Always remember that when you’re looking at a limited edition, ask whether it’s a reproduction or an original and get the answer in writing. If you happen to like the way an image looks and you don’t mind that it’s a reproduction copy of an original work of art, go ahead and buy it. But if you want to collect original works of art, collect ones that are entirely created and produced by the artists themselves. Reproductions of originals, by the way, no matter how limited or beautiful they are, are among the least important and collectible examples of an artist’s work.

Assuming the art you’re interested in is original, find out whether it’s “major” or “minor,” that is, whether it’s more or less significant when compared to other examples of the artist’s art that you’ve been looking at. Is it closer to the most complex, detailed, labour-intensive, high-end pieces that the artist is capable of creating, or is it more like a two-minute pencil sketch done on a three-by-five card? Keep in mind that major works tend to be more expensive, more valuable, more collectible, and fare better in the marketplace over time than minor ones.

Determine whether the art you like is “typical” or “atypical.” Ask the artist or seller (and other informed individuals) which subjects, mediums, sizes and styles the artist is best known for producing and that collectors prefer or tend to buy the most. These pieces are referred to as typical. The large majority of artists also experiment, go off on tangents, and create unusual or one-of-a-kind items that they’re not that well-known for. These pieces are referred to as atypical. Unless you’re a sophisticated collector who wants examples of everything that an artist has ever created or produced, stick with the typical and save the offbeat or unusual works for later.

Find out when in the artist’s career your art dates from. All artists go through periods or phases where their art is more or less inspired, competent, appealing to collectors, and important in relation to their overall output. Experienced collectors, of course, prefer the best art from the best time periods. Learn what that means for your favourite artists and how the art that you’re looking at stacks up in comparison.

On a bit more of a sophisticated level, determine whether the art you’re looking at has any unique original qualities or whether it’s a re-do of styles or subject matters that have been produced over and over again for years. Some artists specialize in versions or styles of art that have already been done because they’re good at it, people like how they look, and they sell well. One artist, for example, advertises himself as “a living artist who paints like a dead one.” In other words, he highlights the fact that he paints like artists painted decades ago (and that there’s little or nothing truly original about his art).

From a collecting standpoint, art with unique or original aspects tends to be more collectible over time than art that imitates or borrows heavily from other artists or styles of art. Experienced collectors prefer buying works of art that reflect superior creative abilities as well as mastery of medium. They patronize artists who continually evolve in their careers and galleries who represent those types of artists. If, however, you prefer art that copies famous styles of the past, then by all means collect it. Remember that there is no right or wrong art.
Lastly, make sure the art you’re looking at is in good condition and built to last, even if it’s brand new. I was once in a gallery that was showing an artist who made reverse paintings on glass. The paintings were beautiful, but would they last? I had the dealer show me several pieces from the back so that I could see whether the frames and backings were adequately shock resistant and protective of the paint. I wouldn’t want to buy one of these $5,000 pictures, accidentally bump it, and have it chip or crack because it’s not well protected.

At the end of the day, bearing all of the above in mind, art is about what appeals to you the purchaser, collector! I personally buy art because I love the picture/art piece, I can look at everyday and I will discover something new in the picture, whether its a new stroke, shade or perspective. That’s why art can be so satisfying. 🙂

Martin Beckley

Martin Beckley | Urban Artist

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