Don’t just buy what you love - follow these 10 tips for buying art
The art market is a piranha pool. Here’s how to safely dip your toes in the water
Top of the market: Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photograph Cate Gillon/Getty Images
Even those who feel their love of art is pure are likely to feel a shiver of envy at news of insane prices fetched at auction: $110.5 million (€95 million) for a Jean-Michel Basquiat earlier this year, or what about the $142.4 million (€123 million) for our own Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud, back in 2013? It’s enough to send anyone scurrying to a gallery to see if they can get in on the action.
But is the world of fine art yet another system rigged to the benefit of the rich? Can you join the art club on slender means? And is it possible to build up a collection with very little cash?
The answer to the first question is, unfortunately, yes. At the mega end of the very rich bracket, collectors can nudge the market in favour of their own holdings. From arranging to have works bid up at auction, to sponsoring glossy publications, to promoting museum exhibitions of particular artists, collectors can skew the perception of value in the art market. These practices range from the unethical to bordering on illegal, but the art market isn’t famed as the last great unregulated market in the world for nothing. And in a world where reputation and illusion is everything, it’s difficult to make any charges stick.
But it’s not all about the depressing patina of filthy lucre imposing itself on the fruits of human creativity. Love and passion can still go a long way when it comes to creating an art collection. Take New Yorkers Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. He was a postman, and she was a librarian, and together they amassed a collection of almost 5,000 art works, including pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso and Cindy Sherman.
In 1992, they donated their entire collection to the US National Gallery of Art
They lived off Dorothy’s wages, and used Herb’s income to buy art: one of their criteria was that they could carry it home, by subway or taxi. They also made friends with artists: the Washington Post reports that the famous wrapper of buildings (and islands), Christo, once gave them a collage in return for minding his cat.
In 1992, they donated their entire collection to the US National Gallery of Art. But this approach takes dedication or perhaps obsession. The Vogels lived their entire lives in a one-bedroom apartment, and bought art instead of going out for dinner or travelling. It’s also worth noting that alongside the names in their collection who went on to become ultra-famous, there are also a lot who vanished without a trace.
The reason buying art can be a hit-and-miss game is the tired and trite advice to “buy what you love”. It’s only worth following if you have an exemplary track record when it comes to amorous matters. Those of us who have loved beauty, only to have later become bored, or equally have fallen for maverick brilliance only to find it petering to gritty irritant, need to take that whole “love” thing with a pinch of salt.
Just like any other world, from dog racing to fine wines, the art world is composed of wonderful, passionate, fun and brilliant people, and some pretty ghastly ones too. But getting into buying art is more than just filling your walls with things to look at. It’s a brilliant adventure, full of imagination and surprises. Spanish painter Joan Miró said that “in a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it . . . you can look at a picture for a week together and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
I love this picture because it’s universal. I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind
I’m also reminded of some lines in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, as James Hobart is trying to explain to Theo Decker why some art matters: “If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal. I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind’. That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” That’s the kind of art that, whatever it costs, will always be priceless – whatever you paid for it.
Experience teaches valuable lessons. So here are my top-10 tips for buying art that is lovable and affordable, and maybe even ultimately financially rewarding.
1. Get to know the world. You’d shop around for a car, so why not art? Go to the galleries, and keep an eye out for open studio days. With 21 of Ireland’s leading galleries showing their wares, VUE at the RHA (November 2nd-5th, vueartfair.ie) is a great place to start. Get to know the galleries and ask to be on their mailing lists. Once you find you love an artist’s work, see more of it. You don’t have to wait for the artist to have an exhibition either: most galleries have “backroom” works, which they’ll be happy to show you when they realise you’re serious. Keep an eye on the Ticket magazine on a Saturday in The Irish Times for new show openings, and subscribe to the excellent Dnote, a free email round-up of art exhibitions around the country (dnote.website).
2. Ignore people who try to tell you what to think. You’re the one who’s going to have to live with the work, so form your own opinions about what you like.
3. Ignore people who tell you someone is becoming “very collectible” even more vigorously than those in number two above. It’s almost as insane as the idea of a handbag being an “investment piece”. Just like cars, most art works lose at least 30 per cent of their value as soon as you walk out of the gallery. The point about buying art is that you want to live with it. If it accrues value over time, it’s a bonus.
4. Consider prints. Hen’s Teeth gallery is running an exhibition, “60 x 60”, at the RDS, Simmonscourt in Dublin with 60 works, by 60 artists at €60 a pop (November 2nd-4th) as part of The Future event (the-future.is), and online at hensteethprints.com. You can’t really go wrong. Or take a look at Stoney Road Press, which creates fine art prints with many of Ireland’s most celebrated artists (stoneyroadpress.com), and have some deliciously wantable things. Because prints are “editioned”, they’re less expensive. The lower the number of works in the edition, the more valuable they may become. It’s a myth that the first print in an edition is more valuable than any subsequent ones however; it just appeals more to people who like being number one.
5. Coming up to Christmas you’ll see lots of group shows, as well as fundraiser sales, where the works are often anonymous and priced competitively. It’s a lot of fun, and it always tells you something about yourself if you find you love the work more (or less) when you discover who it’s by. Next summer’s art college degree shows are also a good bet for new, and consequently more affordable work.
6. What about going direct to the artist? If the artist is represented by a gallery, it’s kind of unethical to try to buy directly from them. After all, the gallery is paying rent for its space, promoting the artist at art fairs and paying staff to keep the whole show on the road. The art world in Ireland is very small though, so a great many artists don’t have representation, even though it’s richly deserved. An artist with representation has already been “discovered”, and the gallery will be working to enhance their artists’ reputations, and so while you may be paying more for the work, it may appreciate more too.
7. What’s the right price? A gallery will fix a price, and you can check it in the context of previous prices for the artist, and any auction record they may have. With younger artists, or those without representation, you will have to trust all that knowledge you’ve gained from going to the galleries (see number one). If you’re tempted to strike a bargain, don’t forget, artists have to eat too. And when you have agreed a sale, please pay promptly. Most artists live a very hand-to-mouth existence.
8. Ignore fashions and keep your nerve. Artists are always being discovered, and rediscovered. Equally, never buy a “name”. Even the best artists have their off days, and a dodgy Jack Yeats is never going to fetch as much (or bring as much joy) as one of his masterpieces.
9. What about buying online? Irish start-up Artfetch was bought out a couple of years ago by London-based Rise Art (riseart.com), and if you’re unsure about buying without seeing the physical thing, you can rent some of their pieces by the month, which is a great way of testing your affections.
10. Can you save on framing? Really good framing is expensive, but if you want to preserve your new work of art, you can’t really skimp. It’s no problem to bung a cheap print in an Ikea frame (I do it all the time), but they will fade, and get mottled with age. Acid free paper and museum glass will preserve your art work, and a good framer will help advise on mounts and materials.