How to Start Collecting Art, Even If You Aren’t Rich
If you have the income and inclination to start collecting art, your walls will never be empty. But your bank account could soon be.
No matter your taste or budget, there is a simple strategy for buying art so that it’ll bring you satisfaction for years, without debt or disappointment. Experts in both visual art sales and financial management agree on one central point: You must educate yourself before you spend a dime.
Today’s art-market headlines, though, make it sound like there is an abundance of buyers blowing wads of cash on art. Every year brings skyrocketing prices and sensational sales from the international auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
In 2018, Sotheby’s sold $6.4 billion in art around the world. Christie’s sold $7 billion.
But this is where research and education will shed light on the hype versus the reality of the art market.
What the Numbers Really Say About Art Collecting
Major auction houses rack up those numbers by selling the best work of the most important artists at the highest prices, in categories such as Old Masters, contemporary art, jewelry, objets d’art, and more.
Take, for example, one of the record-setting highlights of 2018: Christie’s sold the famed American artist Edward Hopper’s 1929 painting “Chop Suey” for $91.8 million in New York. That sale is part of an art-buying stratosphere that requires serious wealth (or a museum budget) paired with top-notch industry knowledge and a collecting strategy focused on the “blue-chip,” or highest-profile fine art.
And yes, reselling to recoup an investment at that level may indeed work. But the majority of collectors aren’t purchasing museum-quality works at the world’s most expensive sales. Even collectors spending $50,000 on a painting are not necessarily at that level, never mind those spending $5,000 or $500.
Understanding the levels of the art market is part of the learning process. And if visual art is your passion, the study will become a pleasure.
How to Start Collecting Art: Do Your Research
The first step is to look at as much art as you can and decide what you’d like to have with you every day. Museums, galleries, outdoor art shows, auctions, and even art school exhibitions will help build a body of knowledge.
“Follow what delights or intrigues you,” says Cynthia Griffin, who sells arts with her husband Stephen Haller, founder of the Stephen Haller Gallery.
Griffin recommends sticking to what you want and can afford. “People starting out should be very careful to avoid anyone giving you a hard sell or attempting to predict the future.”
One way to avoid pushy salespeople is to browse online art-selling platforms to pick up on trends and prices.
“I always say, ‘Go slowly,’” says Chrissy Crawford Corredor, founder of ArtStar, an online platform that focuses on emerging artists. The average price point for pieces on ArtStar is $1,000.
“I see young collectors go to [the Manhattan neighborhood of] Chelsea and get sold on something,” Corredor adds. “Then they are going to regret that expensive purchase. Trust your gut.”
Another way to soak in art without the pressure to buy is to visit auction houses before the sales.
Upcoming lots are typically exhibited to the public. Not only is admission usually free, but the experience can be priceless.
The pieces of art often come from private collections, so they have rarely been seen. And they may be purchased by other private collectors, so they may not be seen again for a generation.
Auction houses also usually post the estimate, or the amount that they think a piece will go for. Then after the sale, they post the “hammer price,” the price for which the work sold.
“That is an incredible way to educate yourself,” Griffin says. “Go to the exhibition, then look at how much the works sold for. You will begin to see what is available and what you might like.”
For the experience of meeting and talking to artists, opening-night parties are a glamorous place to start. You’ll also meet gallery owners and maybe other collectors with whom you share similar tastes.
Outdoor Art Shows
For a more casual approach, outdoor art shows often encourage artists to tend their booths and sell the work directly to the public.
Artist Rey Alfonso, who makes colorful sculptures on Baltic birch wood, started out in San Francisco’s gallery world. Then he tried selling at outdoor art shows and found he liked interacting with the public.
“In the gallery, it took or a year or two to sell anything. I discovered that I could sell directly to people,” Alfonso says.
That said, it means packing and hauling his work, then sitting around in a hot booth all day. “You do everything. But you have the opportunity to turn people into art collectors.”
He has regularly shown his work at the Artisphere festival in Greenville, South Carolina — so much so that he relocated to the city. The event’s executive director, Kerry Murphy, says Alfonso’s openness is not uncommon. Many returning artists ask to be at the same spot so their collectors can find them easily among the 135 booths.
Art Collection as a Way to Learn
Murphy sees every interaction with the artists as a learning opportunity. “I would encourage people to ask questions about the process,” she says. “‘Why did you choose this color palette? How did you choose this material?’”
From those interactions, she’s built her own art collection, not only at Greenville’s Artisphere (May 10-12, 2019), but also on her travels to other cities to see how they run their shows, including Colorado’s Cherry Creek Arts Festival (July 5-7, 2019), Portland, Oregon’s Art in the Pearl (Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 2019), Kansas City’s Plaza Art Fair (Sept. 20-22, 2019), and Miami’s Coconut Grove Arts Festival (Feb. 15-17, 2020).
Discovering Your Taste
Exposure and education will help determine what interests you as a collector, but don’t be surprised to discover that over time you find new areas of exploration and new artists.
“Your tastes will change,” says Haller. “For the average person, the first painting will be relegated to a secondary or tertiary spot in your collection. But unless you jump into the water, you won’t know.”
Starting out at the lower end of the price spectrum can ease the way.
“Photography is a great way to start. It’s inexpensive compared to paintings,” Corredor says.
“You can build a killer photography collection for the price of one original painting.”
Meanwhile, prints and drawings can also offer lower-cost entry points, but chose images you love, Griffin notes. Even if they retain value, the value is unlikely to grow exponentially.
Financial Tips for New Art Collectors
When it comes to the finances of collecting art, the homework is straightforward, says Brian Pitell, a financial adviser at Pittsburgh’s Luttner Financial Group.
1. Use Discretionary Income
Art should never increase your debt. It’s a purchase that is enabled by discretionary income, or the money remaining after meeting your savings goals and your fixed monthly and yearly costs. But even then, don’t be so sure.
2. Consider Your Retirement
Before assuming how much discretionary income you have, make sure you’ve given serious attention to your financial future. “Most people who think they can afford to collect art don’t even know if they have enough money for retirement,” Pitell says.
If you’re confident in a long-term financial strategy, then it’s time to face a question that will shape what you buy.
3. Understand Why You Are Collecting Art
Are you buying art because you love it or because you think there’s a profit to be made? Collecting is different than investing. And the two pursuits will lead you to different buying strategies.
“If you’re an investor, then turn a profit,” Pitell says. “But if you love it and it’s a hobby, that’s different.”
The challenge to art-as-investment is that what’s hot today may or may not have resale value later. “In 20 years, the art world changes,” Haller says. “What was popular or notable 20 years ago may be unknown now.”
4. Don’t Assume the Resale of Your Art Will Be Quick, or Even Possible
An “unknown” art treasure translates to an unsalable, illiquid asset. In other words, you may not get your money out.
“Liquidity has to do with how quickly you can access the money and spend it,” says Pitell, who contrasts artwork with stocks, which are typically highly liquid because there can be millions of buyers every day in the stock market.
Mistakes to Avoid
One hazard to avoid is buying a famous artist’s early or less-successful work just to have a well-known name on your wall. Savvy buyers know that a lesser work is just a lesser work, so the resale value is unlikely to rise much.
“If you already have well-known works by a specific artist, you might buy something that is a little unusual to go along with it,” Griffin says. But cashing in? “That would be most unlikely.”
Also beware of claims about the next big thing, says Brian Pitell, a financial adviser at Pittsburgh’s Luttner Financial Group, who gives a hypothetical: Say you invest heavily in a budding artist and something tragic happens before he or she becomes famous. You better like the work you bought, he says: “You are investing in one person. That’s a bet. Not an investment.”
Ultimately, Haller says, the best rule is the easiest to follow: “The only reason to start an art collection is to enhance your life. If you buy only what you love, you’ll never be disappointed.”