Chapter 5 - Where to Acquire Art
You've visited the vast store of riches museums have to offer, wandered through numerous art galleries, perhaps taken an art history course or two and you've gotten a handle on the type of work that speaks to you. You're ready to take the plunge. Now the question is: where do you buy? Let's examine your options.
Commercial Art Galleries
As you know from your preliminary visits, art galleries come in all shapes and sizes, from the highly commercial to the personal, the elegant to the funky. Just as you did when you visited museums, take your time and have a good look around. If something grabs your attention, don't hesitate to ask the gallery staffer about the work. Some valid questions are:
1. Can you tell me something about the artist?
2. What do you know about this particular piece?
3. How much is it?
4. Do you have anything else by this artist?
It is important to see a body of work by the artist so you can differentiate between the mediocre, the merely good and the excellent. Not everything an artist does is wonderful; even Picasso had his bad days. By examining a wide range of an artist's work, you will get a better feel for what is his or her best effort.
Galleries may focus on showcasing established artists or prefer to represent new ones. They may even have a collection of work by departed "masters." When faced with the choice of buying a so-so work of an established artist or a masterpiece by an emerging artist, you're better off buying the best work of the new artist. You always want to acquire the finest the artist has to give.
Keep in mind that a gallery is still a store and the sales staff, sometimes referred to as "art consultants," are there to make a sale. Most work on a commission basis and are trained to mirror your interests and close the sale. There is nothing wrong with saying, "I'm just not ready to buy at this time."
Even if you have taken up a lot of the art consultant's time, do not feel guilty about not making a purchase. Buying a piece of art is a big step, and not just because of the financial outlay. It's like inviting someone into your home—for an extended stay. You have every right to be sure the work of art will benefit your quality of life before you issue the invitation.
If you are not ready to buy, but have established a rapport with an art consultant who has been helpful and patient, the right thing to do is to take that person's card and ask for him or her should you decide to make a purchase later. Remember, most art consultants work on commission, so if you were to return to the gallery and buy from someone else, it would be discourteous and demoralizing to the person who worked hard to gain your business and your trust.
Before visiting galleries be sure to check newspapers and art magazines (a subscription is not a bad idea) which have up-to-date information on current exhibitions. If an artist you favor is having an exhibition, you'll want to attend, for this is an excellent opportunity to view a larger than normal body of the artist's work. Exhibitions also present an opportunity to meet the artist as well as other collectors.
Most galleries have "guest books" for you to sign. This will put you on their mailing list for future shows. There is no need to feel intimidated by attending art openings even if you are a novice. People are relaxed and friendly and share your interests, a good place to start.
If you think you might like to work with a single person to help you build your collection, a private art dealer can fill that role. Private dealers may be found through ads in arts publications and directories or word of mouth from other collectors. Artist guilds, museum curators and gallery personnel are also good resources for referrals. Most art dealers worked in galleries at one time or another and decided to strike out on their own.
Art dealers are usually art collectors as well and are in the business because of their passion for art. While they don't have gallery space to show an artist's work, they often display art in their own homes. Part of the motivation of being an art dealer is to have the "loan" of work which they might not ordinarily be able to afford.
Art dealers often broker sales between one collector and another, or between an estate and a collector. Many dealers prefer to represent proven artists over new artists because new artists have not yet benefited from gallery exposure, making the dealer's job more difficult.
The advantages to working with a dealer are that you can see the art in a domestic setting and build a friendship with someone knowledgeable who is willing to share that knowledge with you. Once a dealer gets to know you and your tastes, he or she can guide you in building a cohesive collection and provide you with companionship in the art world.
Should you visit a dealer's home (by appointment) and not be enamoured by his or her taste, don't worry, there's no obligation. It's okay to say, "Thank you for your time. It's just not for me."
The Artists Themselves
Many wonderful artists are not affiliated with galleries or dealers but sell directly to collectors instead. This could be because the artist is new and undiscovered, or conversely, because the artist is well established and has a large enough collector base and reputation to allow him or her to disconnect from the middleman. The successful artist probably has a spouse, other family member, or trusted friend to handle business affairs, artists being notoriously (fairly or unfairly) regarded as not doing well in that area.
If an artist is not with a gallery, how do you find him or her? You may cross paths at non-gallery affiliated art shows such as municipal exhibitions, local juried exhibitions at guilds and museums, artist collectives, art school exhibits, fairs, charity fundraisers, and, by chance. Note cards bearing reproductions of an artist's work usually have contact information on the back. Internet searches of artists in your area can also bear fruit.
(Note: It is not ethical to seek out artists whose work you have seen in galleries with the objective of dealing with the artist directly. For the artist to sell to a person who was exposed to his/her work in the gallery first is called "taking the client out the back door," and is a risky practice for artists, with both their reputation and gallery representation on the line. If all artists did this, galleries would be out of business.)
Once you have tracked down an artist whose work interests you, an appointment may be made to visit the artist's studio. The exciting thing about a studio visit is not only do you get to meet the artist and have him or her all to yourself, but you get to see work in progress, and in the artist's own space at that. Valuable insight into the artist's work can result from this experience.
There may be cost savings in dealing directly with the artist as well. With no middleman to pay, the artist can afford to charge the collector less (galleries have overhead, commissions, advertising costs, etc. and take from 40% to 70% of the selling price). If an artist is not established, how much he or she charges for the work can depend on how much money is needed at the time. If the artist hasn't sold in a while, the price could go lower to make the sale. There is a real downside, however. If the pricing on an artist's work is arbitrary and inconsistent then it is difficult to affix a real value to the work and sustain that value over time.
If you have something to offer besides money, emerging artists are sometimes open to trading their work for goods or services. This is especially true if you are yourself an artist or craftsman. Or maybe you are a massage therapist—artists spend a lot of time on their feet and can get aches and pains in their arms and shoulders from holding a brush aloft for long periods. Perhaps you own a boutique with an outstanding collection of vintage Hawaiian shirts or run a fabulous restaurant. Whatever the commodity, once you get to know the artist well enough, you might suggest a trade.
Another way to acquire more of an artist's work once you have established yourself as a collector is to introduce the artist to other collectors. If the artist sells a number of pieces because of you, you just may be rewarded with a painting for your efforts.
In any case, studio visits are fun, singular experiences. The atmosphere is casual, relaxed, and pressure-free. There is the opportunity to get to know someone worth knowing and find something unique and wonderful for your collection with pleasant memories attached.
For one reason or another, a collector may want or need to divest himself of art. Sellers often advertise in the classified sections of art magazines or newspapers. Sometimes they make the rounds at art shows in order to establish contact with other collectors. They might put the art up for bid on eBay.com or seek representation by a dealer. This is called the "secondary market" and refers to the reselling of art.
If a collector is selling because he or she wishes to make a profit on investment, it is unlikely you will get a bargain. If, however, the collector is in financial trouble, you might get a great deal. A good practice is to always apply the principles of evaluation (which will be discussed in another section) no matter where you purchase the art. Don't assume anything.
When buying on the secondary market you should pay close attention to the condition of the art. This is especially true for prints and other fragile works on paper. It is not a good idea to buy work sight unseen without adequate safeguards, no matter how good the price. If you are dissatisfied, you may have little chance of getting your money back.
You should also insist on documentation, whether the work is an oil on canvas or a graphic. Provenance is essential to a collector. We will discuss this at length in the section on documentation.
Non-gallery Affiliated Shows and Exhibitions
This could be an art show sponsored by a city or county and held in a municipal building. It could be an exhibition of student work at a local college or university. An art dealer might mount a show in a hotel lobby, showcasing his or her stable of artists, built perhaps around a particular theme. Many cities and towns boast "artist colonies" that hold street fairs featuring arts and crafts.
You get the picture. These are excellent places to see diverse kinds of work and prices are usually affordable. If you are looking for emerging artists and want to get in on the ground floor of an artist's career, these exhibitions are great hunting grounds.
Several artists may be included in an exhibition. Consequently, each artist may have only one, two or three pieces in the show. This does not give you enough exposure to an artist's work to judge the relative quality of a particular piece. Sometimes artists carry portfolios containing photographs of their other work. This can be helpful in determining if the artist is for you. It is, however, no substitute for seeing the art in person. If you are interested in an artist's work, it's a good idea to arrange a studio visit if possible.
The internet is a great place to conduct a search if you know exactly what you are looking for, i.e. 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, and have had direct exposure to them in the past. It is not a good idea, however, to purchase art online if you have not seen the artist's work in person before.
Exercise caution when buying art on the net, just like you would in buying any other high ticket item. Make sure safeguards are in place (i.e. credit card purchase with a buyer satisfaction clause; verifiable testimonials from other satisfied customers) to make sure you don't get burned.
Auctions are not good places for the beginning collector. Only an experienced collector who has a handle on current market values should partake. He or she is aware of the fluctuations in the art market and the variables that effect market valuations. Often thousands of dollars (even millions) are at stake and the experienced collector knows the factors that determine the value of a given work—its condition, whether or not it's been restored and the extent of the restoration; when in the artist's career the work was created and if collectors are favorably disposed toward the artist's work at this point in time.
Bidding is a specialized skill, learned over time, and with much observation. Savvy collectors attend pre-auction viewings and talk with other people. They closely examine the condition of the work in which they are interested and, in the case of a framed print, may even ask to see the piece out of the frame to determine its condition. The lesson is—never bid on anything at auction unless you are certain about its condition and its value.
The beginning collector is on pretty safe ground at small country auctions where there is little chance of getting burned. Not so the big auctions. The danger for the novice is that it's far too easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment and buy on impulse. The beginner's best bet is to go to the big auctions only as a spectator.
At estate sales and even garden variety yard sales serendipity can come into play. We've all seen that someone on Antiques Road Show whose mother bought a folk painting or some such at an estate sale for $10 that turned out to be early American primitive worth thousands.
Odds are you won't find something of such great value for a pittance, but can it happen? Yes, indeed. It's sort of like buying a lottery ticket. It's fun, and you probably won't win, but there is a chance, albeit a small one, that you will.
The only problem with estate and yard sales is you have to buy the item then and there. There is no time for evaluation and research. You have to go with your instincts.
Yes, by all means prowl estate and yard sales as part of your quest. Prices are traditionally low, so a purchase won't break the bank. You might even get lucky.