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How to Collect Art:
Patience is Key to Buying the Best
Q: I've recently been introduced to the work an artist who people have been actively collecting for years. He's apparently pretty popular and from what I've been able to find out, his selling prices have risen steadily over the past ten years or so. I would like to buy a piece or two of his art, preferably more important ones, and am wondering how best to proceed.
A: This is a difficult situation to be in. Right from the start, know that you have to be patient and willing to pay full retail-- or maybe even a bit higher-- for the right piece. That's the key anytime an artist is highly sought after and an active collecting market for his or her art is already in place. Don't get antsy and jump on the first thing you see. Top quality pieces simply don't come up for for sale all that often, either at galleries or on secondary markets, and on those infrequent occasions when they do, they tend to attract a lot of attention, collectors are more than willing to fight over them (with money, that is), and as a result, they're almost always priced high. Yes, plenty of eager buyers are looking right along with you and are prepared to compete fiercely for the privilege of owning any major works that appear on the market.
To complicate matters, a number of this artist's best works are increasingly ending up museums or have already been acquired by private collectors. Those in museums will likely never come onto the open market again; those in private collections may come back onto the market, but often only in situations where some family member in some subsequent generation decides to sell the art instead of keep it. Typically with artists as collectible as this one, many of the pieces that are placed up for sale tend to be average to below average in quality and above average in price-- not the best circumstances for making good buys. Because the artist is so desirable and his market is so active, you have to be especially careful about overpaying for inferior artworks. In other words, you have to know how to spot the best and leave the rest.
While you're waiting for that perfect piece (along with everyone else), position yourself as close to the starting gate as possible. Study the artist's life and work so that when a worthwhile piece comes along, you'll be able to recognize it and act fast. Tell as many galleries and dealers as possible who either represent the artist or sell secondary market works what you're looking for, and above all, make sure that anyone you speak with knows that if they come up with the right art, you're ready, willing and able to pay the price on the spot without quibbling. Be aware that galleries may already have waiting lists for this artist, and if you give any indication that you're looking for bargains or that you'll waffle, whine or complain when you hear the bottom line, you'll be instantly ruled out as a potential buyer. You might also advise all significant bricks-and-mortar auction houses of your wants and take advantage of online search services like Artnet or ArtPrice that monitor the auctions for you and notify you when art by the artist comes up for sale. This artist has been around long enough for there to be a chance that a major work may come up at auction.
If you decide to go the auction route, you better know how to recognize a quality piece of this artist's art and also know how to research its history as well as spot condition problems and other defects that could affect significance or collectibility. Galleries and collectors who are fans of this artist certainly won't give you much advice on a piece that's up for auction because if it's any good, they'll likely be bidding against you. When bidding, you will have somewhat of an advantage over dealers because you can pay retail while they have to leave room for profit. Collectors will most likely be bidding too, however, so you still must be prepared to bid beyond what you've determined to be a fair retail price when the art's really good and you're serious about owning it. But at the same time, set a reasonable limit and don't go beyond it. You don't want to get bid up or otherwise overpay. And to repeat, if you're at all unsure about your abilities to evaluate art at the level of professionals, keep your cool in a competetive bidding situation or handle any other aspect of the auction experience, stick with retail galleries and let them do the legwork for you.
If you have questions or concerns about any painting you're being offered-- at auction or otherwise-- seriously consider hiring a neutral consultant or advisor knowledgeable about the artist to inspect and research it for you. At auction, make sure that he or she will not bid or compete against you for the art and that they're not already affiliated with anyone who might. When an artwork is for sale at a well-established and respected art gallery or major auction house with experienced staff people to research and inspect it in advance, you can usually forego the outside consultants and take their assessments at face value, but then again in situations like this, informed second or third opinions never hurt.
As for smaller local or regional auction houses or less established galleries that don't have experience or expertise in the artist's art, particularly when their only presence is online, you really have to know what you're doing. These are territories where just about anyone can put up just about anything for sale, describe it however they please, and make claims or representations that may or may not be true or substantiated. Online auctions like eBay are among the most dangerous places to search for art by significant artists. If you're not an experienced dealer or collector and can't compete on the same level as professionals, don't even think about bidding or buying at these venues. Much of the art that you find there tends to be inferior in quality, have condition problems or at worst, be outright forgeries. When it comes to art by highly collectible artists, the best art tends to show up at the best galleries and the best auctions. Beating the bushes and backwater venues for undiscovered treasures can be hazardous for your wallet. Plenty of unscrupulous sellers are out there lying in wait for buyers who think they know what they're doing, but don't.