There are as many reasons to collect art as there are collectors. A new house, perhaps, with vast blank walls that cry out for color and drama and texture. Maybe your parents collected art and you saw how much pleasure it brought them, or maybe you’ve just moved into your first condo and those posters you’ve been toting around since college suddenly seem, well, a bit passé. Or perhaps the act of surrounding yourself with creativity and beauty seems as natural — and as necessary — as breathing.
But how do you start? What should you look for when buying art? The rewards are many, but what are the perils and pitfalls? We talked to a number of experts in the field, and they all agreed that for the neophyte collector two elements are crucial: education and guidance. Learn about art, and find a savvy consultant to help you negotiate the complex world of galleries and dealers and auction houses; you will need the wisdom of their experience, their contacts and their intuition.
“You have to start with your taste,” says Megan Fox Kelly, an art advisor whose background includes the Curatorial and Special Exhibitions Department of the National Gallery of Art and her own fine art gallery in Santa Fe. Today her art advisory business is based in Manhattan and Fairfield, and she works with clients to build, manage and maintain their collections. “Start with what you like,” she states. “Dream and fantasize and be inspired. Don’t limit your imagination, but do set yourself financial boundaries, which is a way of giving yourself permission to buy something.”
Pinning down a client’s taste can be tricky, however. “People can’t always articulate what it is that they want,” Ms. Kelly confirms, “or you might have a couple who don’t necessarily agree. So we go to museums, and I bring them piles of books — of things that they can’t buy. If you then remove the equation of money, you’re simply looking at things and saying, ‘I like that.’ You get a sense very quickly of whether they are going to be contemporary or modern art collectors, or whether they are going to want something more traditional. And then within that, you deduce what is possible.”
“To start with, I would immerse myself. I would go to as many exhibitions as possible, which is not only insightful and educational but social and fun,” says Helen Klisser During, former gallery director at the Silvermine Guild Arts Center in New Canaan. (Ms. During has also been a private dealer and consultant, acquiring works from Cezanne to Warhol at auction for her clients, and has worked with such high-profile contemporary artists as Richard Serra, Mark diSuvero and Saul Steinberg.) “In this area,” she says, “certainly I would get onto the mailing lists of Silvermine, the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, the Westport Arts Center. Go to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield — you can’t buy art at the Aldrich, but you become knowledgeable.
“Not wanting to just plug Silvermine,” she adds, “but we have up to 25 exhibitions a year, with 350 artists.” Silvermine also schedules Wednesday lunchtime talks with the exhibiting artists. “It’s engaging, it’s relaxed, you bring your lunch, there’s wine,” she says. “The artists will talk about the process or their inspiration. It’s more intimate than a big opening. Those are terrific fun and you can buy work immediately, but there might be 300 people there and you might not get to talk to the artist. This is a much deeper experience.
“The more you know about art, the richer it becomes,” she continues. “You might be in a gallery in Chelsea and think, Oh, this is rubbish. Spend some more time. Dare to ask the question: What is this artist exploring? Or go to the auction houses: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips. Anybody can go to auction previews; and they’re like museum exhibitions for Impressionist and modern works. You will start to get a sense of what your money can buy.”
What do you do, however, if after your course of art immersion therapy, you decide that your heart lies with, for example, Edwardian portraitist John Singer Sargent? Can you have Champagne art on a beer budget? This is where consultants are invaluable for both their breadth of knowledge and for a kind of creative thinking. “What is it that you love about Sargent?” Ms. Kelly asks. “Maybe you love Sargent’s portraits, or his watercolors, or his Venetian scenes.” She laughs and adds, “All I do — all I have ever done in my career — is look at art. So if I can pinpoint the essence of Sargent, I can think of other things. Maybe there’s an American portraitist who studied under Sargent, and whose works are undervalued. What’s great and being ignored? I’m looking for that all the time.”
“Obviously major paintings by major Impressionist and modern artists, the important museum-quality pictures, are in the hundreds of thousands to many millions of dollars,” says Christopher Eykyn, a private art dealer (Eykyn Maclean of New York City) and former head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Christie’s. “But, there are plenty of other artists who worked alongside all the household names, whose work is sold by galleries and auction houses at considerably lower values.”
Once you have decided where your taste lies, there are some six elements to consider when purchasing a work of art: authenticity, which is the determination that a work was indeed done by the artist to whom it is ascribed; quality, which is not entirely subjective and involves research and a trained eye to decide whether the piece ranks among the best work of the artist; rarity, which enhances the monetary value of a work; condition, which involves factors like whether a piece needs restoration, or, worse, has been ineptly restored; provenance, the verified history of who has owned the work previously; and value, which involves all the elements mentioned and also includes variables like the secondary (or resale) market for the artist in question.
If that beautiful oil is beyond your means, prints, drawings and watercolors, which fall under the umbrella term “works on paper,” may be the best way to buy something by a favorite artist. “Once you go from what do I like, to what does it cost, to is that impossible, the next step is: What else could I buy?” says Megan Fox Kelly. “If you want to buy something for a few thousand dollars, prints are always an option. And again, you go out and start learning: in galleries, at auction houses and in books. There are all kinds of ways to learn about prints, their rarity and their quality, and how to judge them. And by prints, we’re not talking about reproductions from the museum shop; we’re talking about etchings and lithographs and monotypes, where the artist worked on the plate. The collecting of prints has its own levels and rules of connoisseurship and value, in the same way that paintings do.”
The amount of money a specific work of art has garnered in previous sales can often be researched at a website called artnet.com. “Say you are considering a Picasso print from a certain period,” says Helen Klisser During. “Artnet can tell you what Picasso prints from that period have sold for over the past ten years. You, as an enlightened collector, have access right at your fingertips. But do be careful — this is not telling you the condition of the works that sold, only the price point. Some people buy art,” she pauses tactfully, “to get social status, and it’s like buying an ill-fitting Prada suit; it may be Prada but the cut’s terrible. Do not be taken in by the weight of the name, and be careful. Dali signed a gazillion blank pieces of paper. You need to be shrewd — you’re not buying just for the signature.”
“Renoir is always going to be Renoir and Picasso is always going to be Picasso,” comments Christopher Eykyn. “But not every Renoir is a masterpiece. Every artist — almost every artist — has an off day.”
The rarity of a print primarily reflects two elements: how many impressions were struck (were there 50 or 500?), and whether the artist is known to have made innumerable prints or a handful. Prints can be a significant investment, and you need to first ascertain whether works on paper would be suitable for your home.
“Some of these larger and newer homes have great big windows with beautiful sunlight streaming in. If you’re going to put thousands of dollars of works on paper in a room with a southern exposure and enormous Palladian windows, you’re going to be at risk,” warns Megan Fox Kelly. “Yes, there are things that can mitigate that risk, like ultraviolet glass, but it’s still a consideration. A work on paper is far more sensitive than an oil on canvas, but I still wouldn’t want an older oil sitting in light that’s baking it — I’d want drapes on the windows!”
Ann Rae of New Canaan is an interior designer with a twist: She starts with the art, drawing on her background as a trained artist and her experience at putting together rooms that are both comfortable and bold.
“You don’t start with the fabric,” says Ann. “You start with the art, and you start with a client’s library to find out what they’re interested in. But really, you start with a painting or some paintings because that will reflect the taste of your clients, and you build around that. I would always urge them to design around the art. If you have colorful art, for instance, you might want a room of subtle monochromatic tones to show off that art. But first the art, always the art.”
Ann is known for blending contemporary and traditional elements in an entirely personal mix. “I think that in a home that is a mixture of collections, the art shows better when juxtaposed against something different. If you have all French Impressionist art, what do you come away with? Those are all very pretty pictures — but let’s take a modern-day artist and throw that against it. It’s all about contrast, and honestly, I think most good collectors have varied collections. It’s like the food on your plate: You want different colors and different textures and different shapes and sizes.”
Another option when building a collection is to find a “niche” market and specialize. Ellen O’Donnell Rankin of Rowayton, a curator, art advisor and lecturer, whose experience includes directorship of the Aldrich Museum and consulting to the Canadian Arts Foundation, is currently enamored of Irish and British art of the past century.
“Many of the galleries in New York represent contemporary as well as historic British artists, but there’s not much of a venue for Irish art,” she says. “Ireland is a country that supports the arts heavily through things like tax incentives. There’s a wonderful community of artists in Ireland who are finally getting recognition through galleries in Dublin as well as galleries in London, and now we’re trying to introduce those works to the United States.”
Works on paper are notoriously hard to ship “across the pond” because of temperature and humidity issues, so Ms. Rankin and her partner, Elizabeth Frances Martin, are importing sculpture and works in acrylic or oil. And you can buy a stunning landscape in oil for as little as $2,500. “It’s new and interesting and wonderful,” says Ms. Rankin, “and also, for the moment, undervalued.”
Imagine that after a few years your walls are filled and you are pleased … with maybe one exception. That splashy abstract over the fireplace doesn’t thrill quite as much as the day you hung it and stood back admiringly. Can you just blithely resell a work of art? Can a collection be fluid? “Yes and no,” says Megan Fox Kelly. “You need to think through your purchases. I don’t really like to talk about art as just an investment, but we all read about it, and we all have this feeling that it’s a highly liquid thing.”
There are two markets for all art: the primary market, or the first time a work is sold, which usually means contemporary artists selling through galleries; and the secondary market. “The primary market is where you don’t have to worry about provenance,” says Ms. Kelly, “since you’re buying directly from the artist or their representative. But the artist might be so new that there isn’t a secondary market yet, and so that kind of purchase becomes a bit more speculative. You know, Antiques Roadshow has done wonders for the art and antiques field but it’s also created expectations. We all think we have some treasure in the attic, or that painting that Grandma saved is outrageously valuable. Of course the price may go up, but so does the price of a Mercedes. And the sofa in your living room is going to cost more than it did ten years ago. So do your homework, and check your expectations at the door.”
“Of course there has to be one eye open on the investment side of it,” says Christopher Eykyn, “but that shouldn’t be the tail that wags the dog. At the same time, one doesn’t want to be making crazy financial decisions; one has to do one’s due diligence, or find someone to do that for you, to ensure that the price you’re paying has basis in reality.”
No collector is ever truly finished, no matter how crowded the walls: The unattainable Holy Grail awaits, reposing in private hands or in lofty state at an auction house. And a collection, in the end, is a responsibility, albeit a joyous and pleasurable one. “The paintings and the sculpture will outlive all of us,” Eykyn says, “so one has to look after them and take care of them until they move to the next generation, be it within one’s own family or to a museum.
“I think collectors get a great sense of achievement and enjoyment out of putting together a collection that works well. It can be a challenging and intellectual exercise, and also may represent one of the fun parts of having been successful in business. One collector called me from Europe — it was two o’clock in the morning in Paris — and he’d just read an artist’s biography. I was at home having dinner with my wife in Connecticut, and he wanted to discuss what a crazy guy this artist had been, living in France in the twenties and thirties. There’s an excitement to it.”
Or, as Ann Rae so eloquently puts it, “Art gives life to your life.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
The Silvermine Guild Arts Center
maintains a gallery image bank of 1,500 images that can be accessed by artist or key word: representational, abstract, figurative, painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, etc.
Helen Klisser During suggests the New York Times, Time Out New York, New York Magazine and The New Yorker listings for what’s new and hot in the New York gallery scene. For general trends, try the periodicals Art in America, Art News and Art Forum.
Megan Fox Kelly’s article “What to Look for in a Work of Art” is a comprehensive exploration of the six criteria — authenticity, quality, rarity, condition, provenance and value — and can be found at meganfoxkelly.com.
For sale prices, try the individual websites of the major auction houses and artnet.com.
Find out about area art exhibits, events, classes and more:
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, aldrichart.org
Center for Contemporary Printmaking, Norwalk, contemprints.org
New Canaan Center for the Arts, Waveny Park, carriagebarn.org
Rowayton Arts Center, Rowayton, rowaytonartscenter.org
Silvermine Guild Arts Center, New Canaan, silvermineart.org
Westport Arts Center, Westport, westportartscenter.org