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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 selling.

Ask the artist or seller whether the art is original or reproduced by digital or mechanical means. This question is especially important in determining whether you're looking at original art or limited edition prints, Ask the artist or seller whether the art is original or reproduced by digital or mechanical means.

This question is especially important in determining whether you're looking at original art or limited edition prints, giclees in particular. Many limited edition "works of art"that are not hand created by the artist, are little more than digital or photo-reproduced copies of originals, often not produced by the artists who sign them, but by digital printers or commercial publishing companies.

So remember-- when you're looking at a limited edition, always ask whether it's a an original, a reproduction created by the artist or a reproduction from a commercial publishing company and get the answer in writing. If you happen to like the way an image looks and you don't mind if it's a copy print, 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 usually among the least significant 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, labor-intensive, high-end pieces the artist has created, or is it more like a two-minute pencil sketch on a three-by-five card? Keep in mind that major works tend to be 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 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. All 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 an artist has ever created or produced, stick with the typical and save the offbeat or unusual works for later.

The answer to the third question-- "What is the art's provenance, history and documentation?"-- is determined by assembling all incidental information about the art. This is like writing the biography of the art from the moment the artist completed it right up to the present day.You do this because good documentation and provenance not only speaks to a work of art's authenticity, but also increases it's collectibility, desirability and market value. Good provenance in the art world is similar to a good pedigree in the pet world. A painting that was exhibited at an important art show, for example, is more collectible than a similar looking painting that wasn't; a sculpture that won a prize is more desirable than a similar sculpture that didn't; a watercolor that made the news because of its controversial subject matter is more interesting to collectors than a similar watercolor that didn't. If art you are considering possesses any such characteristics or histories, you should know about them.Begin by asking the artist or seller to tell you everything he or she can about the art you like. Find out where it's been, what it represents, how it came into being, who's owned it, whether it's been exhibited, won awards, or been pictured or mentioned in any writings, either online or in hard-copy, and either by experts or by the artist himself. Does it commemorate special events either within or outside of the artist's life? Are any interesting stories associated with it? These are the types of questions you should ask. The answers are often interesting, enlightening and just plain fun.Whenever the art is by a living artist, ask the artist to tell you about it. If the art is for sale at a gallery and the artist isn't available, ask the gallery owner whether you can have a brief conversation with the artist either in person or over the phone.In addition to what people tell you, put together as much physical documentation as possible from online or printed sources such as those mentioned above. This includes printouts, copies or photocopies of entries in publications or online that mention the art, certificates or statements of authenticity, and whenever possible, signed statements or descriptions from the artist and/or dealer detailing whatever they tell you. It's kind of like the art is the visual component; the documentation is the cognitive.At all times, keep truth separate from guesses or fiction. Gossip, third-party suppositions and hearsay do not qualify as provenance. Make sure everything you're told actually happened. When a story cannot be conclusively verified proven with concrete tangible evidence, don't take it seriously.

And now for the biggie-- question number four-- "Is the asking price fair?" This is not so much a question of what the art might be worth at some point in the future or whether it's a good investment. Nobody has those answers, not even psychics. All you want to know is whether it's priced fairly and reasonably today. This is a question that must be asked and considered because like any other goods or services, art is sometimes overpriced.For instance, an artist or gallery owner may tell you every piece of art is unique and that the price of the piece you're looking at is what it's worth, but that kind of logic doesn't wash with anyone who's been around collecting or the art business for any length of time. Art is like real estate in that an individual piece may indeed be unique, but plenty of other pieces are similar or comparable to it. Those comparables-- like similar houses in the same neighborhood, so to speak-- are one of the things you look at when evaluating the price of any art that you're thinking about buying.

Contrary to what many people believe, art prices are not mysteriously pulled out of thin air or divined by some incomprehensible sixth sense that only artists and art dealers possess. Once you learn the basics, pricing a work of art-- in most cases-- becomes no more complicated than pricing milk at the grocery store. All you have to do is a little comparing and contrasting between the art you're thinking about buying and records of public and private sales of similar works of art that have already sold.

Of course, in order to do that, you must first realize that such records exist-- many people have no idea they can actually research art prices from previous sales records.

Not only do such price records exist, but they exist by the millions, are available in online databases (that generally charge for access) and on many gallery and artist websites. At auction alone, 300,000-plus new sales results per year are added to the major databases.

Begin your price research with the artist or seller. Ask to see or hear about recent sales results for art by whatever artist you're interested in. Make sure the artist has a track record of selling works of art similar to the piece you like for amounts comparable to what you're being asked to pay.

Most galleries have this information on file and will talk about it with you (be careful when any dealer is reluctant to discuss previous sales).

All this effort to buy a single piece of art may seem a little tedious as you read about it here, but in fact, it's just the opposite. Buying art intelligently not only becomes second nature once you get good at it; it also becomes an adventure. Once you get the hang of how things work, your quest for knowledge turns into exciting detective work, and so much of what you discover turns out to be rewarding. Experienced collectors, one of whom you may one day become, can research and evaluate most works of art in as little as fifteen to thirty minutes. For them, the importance of knowing about a work of art, including that it's priced fairly, cannot be underestimated. Having this knowledge not only increases their enjoyment of that art, but also their appreciation and engagement with the art world in general.

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