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Photo: ktylerconk

With the economy still in the toilet and the idea of disposable income just that—an idea—this may not seem like the best time to start investing.

That conventional wisdom may be true if you’re thinking about traditional stocks, but now is the perfect time to start thinking about building other assets: like an art collection.

For the most part, art prices are at an all-time low. After a boom period that gained momentum in the late 1990s, the art market went bust last year. Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s began to worry about their own assets as even artists who traditionally fetched high prices failed to seal deals with cautious buyers.

For high end collectors, the current art market may seem just as dismal as the financial markets. But for new entrants, it’s a really exciting time to start building an art collection.

Interested? Here’s how you get started.

1. Circumvent the conventional system.

During the art market boom, a whole industry sprang up around the appraisal and sale of art. This industry grew to include a new group of players: the art adviser, whose job was to charge as much as $200 USD per hour to acclimate clients to the world of high art.

While some new collectors with fat wallets found their services effective, the art adviser is totally unnecessary. There’s nothing you can’t learn about art by using your library card to check out books and read some history or doing some online research about contemporary artists, their training, their trajectory, and their typical price points. One indispensable resource to consult is artnet.

2. Forget about fads.

Jeff Koon’s “Balloon Puppy (Yellow)” Photo: TheGirlsNY

Just as you don’t need an art adviser to tell you how to choose a piece of art, you don’t need to know what’s hot right now. All you need is your own taste and a sense of what you can afford.

While Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” and “Balloon Dog” may be good investments, I personally could never live with them because I find them hideously ugly. Plus, there’s no way I could afford them. While I’m waiting for my investment to mature, I’d like to be able to live with the art I choose in the meantime.

3. Start small.

You’ve collected baseball cards since you were 10. Your archival folder of autographed celebrity photos has been 20 years in the making. Art is like any other collection: You learn what you like and want as you go along; you build the collection over time; and you trade or sell one piece for another you want or need more.

“Art is no different than building a stock portfolio: the key to both is diversifying your holdings and spreading out your risk. In art, though, what’s really fantastic is that you get to enjoy looking at all that diversity.”
4. Diversify, diversify.

In some ways, collecting art is no different than building a stock portfolio: the key to both is diversifying your holdings and spreading out your risk. In art, though, what’s really fantastic is that you get to enjoy looking at all that diversity as you’re building your collection. Among your choices? Photography, drawings, paintings, sculptures, textiles, ceramics, crafts, jewelry, textiles, posters, lithographs, and the list goes on.

4. Get outside the gallery.

Established collectors tend to stick to galleries, high-end art fairs, and direct transactions with artists or their representatives.

As a new collector, you have lots more options—and more interesting ones, too.

In the past couple years, several art dealers have established online outlets intended to make art more accessible to a wider audience. One of the most interesting online galleries is 20×200.

Each Tuesday and Wednesday, gallery owner Jen Bekman announces the sale of two new pieces of art: one photograph and one work on paper. The works are typically sold in a limited edition run of three sizes, with each size priced at a specific, consistent price point, some as low as $20 USD. The artists featured on 20×200 are diverse, as are the range and style of their work. This site offers an easy, reliable way for new collectors to get in the game.

“As a frequent traveler, you have a unique opportunity to build a collection that’s not only diverse in genre, but also in terms of price point and origin.”

Online galleries aren’t your only option, though. As a frequent traveler, you have a unique opportunity to build a collection that’s not only diverse in genre, but also in terms of price point and origin.

Most of my art collection has been built by collecting paintings and photographs in Cuba and textiles and ceramics in Mexico. Though it can be harder to establish a value for these pieces, establishing provenance is typically far easier. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

A recent photo by Matador editor Paul Sullivan

Finally, don’t overlook the option of buying from friends and acquaintances. Thousands of artists around the world are just as talented as marquee-name art auction darlings (if not more so, in my opinion), but just haven’t had the exposure or luck as more established artists. Why not give them a boost?

If you really love someone’s work, inquire about it. Within the Matador community alone, we have hundreds of accomplished photographers whose portfolios are bulging with beautiful work. Two of my favorites are Matador Goods’ editor Lola Akinmade and Matador contributing editor Paul Sullivan.

5. Document everything.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Antiques Roadshow,” you know that the value of a piece is determined by a couple of critical factors: the condition of the work and its story. The story of a work–who made it, where it came from, how you got it–is called its “provenance,” and you’ll want to know the provenance of every piece in your collection if you hope to extract an eventual return on your investment.

Textile weaver in Oaxaca. Photo: Francisco Collazo

Before sealing a deal, ask about the work’s provenance and obtain as much tangible evidence as possible. Is the artist able to provide you with a certificate of authenticity? If you’re buying a hand-woven rug on a street corner in Oaxaca, Mexico or a tribal mask in Africa, is it possible for you to get the contact information of the person selling it? The more information you have about the piece and your purchase of it, the more value you’ll be able to claim in the future.

6. Curate your collection.

Again, like any other collection, you’ll want to take good care of your acquired art work. Just as you store your baseball cards in acid-free sleeves, you need to display or store your art work in a manner that’s appropriate to its composite materials. The Canadian Conservation Institute offers how-to guides for practically every type of art work, and is a useful resource to consult once you’ve brought your first pieces home.

Community Connection:

Art fairs are one place where you can learn more about the art world. Here are Matador’s 10 recommendations for the world’s best art fairs.

Interested in collecting textiles? Marie Cleland offers a guide with six tips here.

Still not convinced that collecting art is for you? William Moss Wilson offers a guide to traditional investing here.

Art + Design


About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • Gary Arndt

    #7 Have a lot of money

  • admin

    Not at all, Gary, which is my point in this article.
    I certainly don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve been able to steadily build a small collection of Cuban paintings, photographs, and textiles from Mexico over the past couple of years.

    The art on 20X200 starts at $20 USD per piece. And if you’re collecting while traveling, then you have opportunities to pick up pieces that are affordable compared to US and European gallery-type prices.

    My goal in this article was to convey the idea that art collecting is affordable for most budgets, and an economic recession makes it a particularly good time to start a collection.

  • San Francisco Wedding Photographer, Amanda

    You really don’t have to have a huge budget to start buying original art. You can buy small peices or limited edition items. You can hit art festivals too. I purchased my first original oil painting for $200 at a festival ( they were doing an auction and I was in love with the painting ). I’m not wealthy at all, so I couldn’t go over $200 ….. but the other guy didn’t raise his hand after $175. I got it ! It was exciting ! I actually felt bad about only paying $200 because it’s worth more and I offered the artist a free photos shoot for his family to ease my guilt.

    You can even buy handmade pottery – that’s original art. You can get hand printed photographs. I could make a whole list of affordable art ideas. Buy REAL art ! It’s worth it !

    • admin

      Right on, Amanda! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And art and craft festivals are fantastic sources to get started.

  • Mitch

    Exactly! My walls have some of the nicest art, all of it picked up while travelling abroad. Each destination yields fantastic items ready for framing when I get home. Buy what you like and you`ll never go wrong.

  • San Francisco Wedding Photographer, Amanda

    Nice. A travel reminder + originals for your walls! If you are traveling in a country where your money is stronger than the local currency ….. art can be very affordable too.

    I can’t help to think of pots I bought in Costa Rica ( that as a tipsy tourist …. I was stupid enough to believe were really hand painted and made by the sellers family ). I saw the same pots on the OTHER side of the country later. Perhaps they have a large extended family …. or maybe the pots were bought in China and resold. I’m assuming the later. ;)

  • Photographer, Amanda

    I just wanted to offer another suggestion. If you have a service to offer ( web design / massage / whatever you do ) and think the artist might need it , you can offer to trade. I’ve traded my services with a glass artist and I have original peices from an artist at the top of the game by doing the trade ( she used my photos in her advertising + I took her pro headshots ).
    Of course …. the artist might not need what you have ….. so don’t get huffy or anything if they turn you down. You can offer by email and it won’t cause any akwardness. You can also use the barter section of craigslist to get started if you want to find someone to trade with.

  • Jennifer

    Might I also suggest checking out college or university art shows. I went to the University of Delaware, which has an incredible Fine Arts program. In addition to the paintings the students display around town in bars and coffee shops, there is a school-wide art show at the end of every year where student art is showcased for the public. Even as a poor student, I was able to collect some really incredible art pieces. The students are so excited about interest in their art and so interested in getting their pieces out in the world that they will help you work within your budget. Good art collecting everyone!!!

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