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How to: Start an Art Collection

Art + Architecture
by Julie Schwietert Jul 7, 2009
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.

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.

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.

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.

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