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How to Collect Art: The Basics

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 are necessary.

All you need is a love and appreciation of fine 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 this article occasionally makes reference to particular types 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 reason they decide to buy it, and for however much money they feel like spending on it.

In other words, these techniques are not necessarily for everyone, but they are intended for people who like to spend their money wisely and who prefer to pay fair prices for quality art. If that happens to be you, then the following tips, pointers and recommendations will help you become a better collector. So let's get started...

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.

(1) Who is the artist and what is their history and background?

(2) How significant or important is the art?

(3) What is its provenance, history, and documentation (or more simply, where has the art been and who's owned it)?

(4) Is the asking price fair?

For the answer to the first question-- "Who is the artist?"-- 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.

Written information comes in a variety of forms including artist websites, gallery websites, online artist database resources, gallery exhibit catalogues, artist career resumes, features or exhibition reviews on art websites or publications, and art reference books like dictionaries of artists, art indexes, art or artist encyclopedias, monographs on artists, and art surveys or histories. In the great majority of cases, this information is available from whomever is selling the art.

In all cases, you want to both hear and read about the artist you're interested in. Do one at the expense of the other and you can easily come away with inaccurate or skewed ideas of how significant the art or artist really is. The types of information you come across during the course of your readings and listenings, no matter what artist you are learning about include facts like these:

* The artist's birth date and death date (if applicable).

* Where the artist lives and works.

* Where, when and with whom the artist studied.

* Organizations the artist belongs to.

* 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 honors that the artist has received.

* Public, private or corporate collections that own the artist's art.

* Positions the artist has held (teacher, lecturer, writer, and so on)

* Publications that mention or include the artist such as websites, books, catalogues, newspapers, magazines, and so on.

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. Knowing how to assess an artist's career information becomes increasingly important the more expensive the art you're thinking about buying. Basically, the more a work of art costs, the more respected, established and documented the artist should be.

The research and evaluation process for art is pretty much the same as it would be for any other significant purchase in life. For example, would you buy $55,000 car off of a show room floor, no questions asked? Would you buy an $800,000 house by standing in the yard, looking at it and concluding that it's exactly what you want? Of course not. You spend time learning about them first. In both cases, you want to know what you're getting before you spend your money, and the same should be true for art. With pretty much any work of art, this process begins by evaluating and making conclusions about whatever information you find. The following generally hold true no matter what art or artist you're researching:

* The more mentions the artist has in a given publication or website and the longer those mentions are, the better. An illustrated chapter or page or full interview about an artist is better than a chapter or page without illustrations is better than a paragraph is better than a sentence.

* The longer the artist has been creating and exhibiting art, the better. A 55 year old artist with accomplishments dating back 30 years tends to be more established and respected than a 55 year old artist who's only been active for a year and had only one or two shows.

* The greater the number of exhibits, awards and other career accomplishments an artist has to his or her credit, the better. Keep in mind that lofty sounding writings about an artist's majestic brush strokes or mastery of color may sound great, but fancy language is pretty much meaningless unless it includes FACTS. Never confuse facts with fluff, and in the art business there's no shortage of fluff.

* The more significant the collections that own the artist's art, the more important the artist tends to be. When museums own the art, that's always a good sign; major corporate collections are generally good for an artist to be in; private collections only carry weight when the collectors are known and respected in the art community.

* The more people who recognize an 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.

Question number two-- "How important is the art?"-- is answered by looking at as much art by the artist as possible, familiarizing yourself with the range art the artist has produced, 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 firsthand, 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 any specific 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 more they'll be able teach you 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