It has never been easier to buy art.
Affordable art fairs, where you can pick up a modern master for under a £1000, are thriving while higher-end international Biennales and Triennales are proliferating. Nowadays you can browse, buy and bid for art on line, pop-up galleries are mushrooming and, in London, the rise of the mega gallery continues apace as new spaces promote the knife-edge of contemporary art. Art, to put it bluntly, is out there.
See our where to buy section for more advice
Buying art is the easy bit, but forming a collection – a body of work that you love but which also has artistic merit - is more challenging. There is a huge difference between a ‘comfort’ artwork that looks pretty and one with longevity. So how do you learn to winnow ‘good’ from ‘bad’ art? Sarah Flynn of Cheffins auction house recommends that you treat the process of acquisition as an education. ‘Some people are more visual than others, but we can all improve our ‘eye’ by looking and learning,’ she says.
Even a little knowledge can help distinguish between the interesting and the derivative. Visit your local museum. Read the classics (John Berger, EH Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky) and the art magazines or join the patrons groups of museums such as Tate Modern. Make time for the free talks offered at various institutions. Membership of the not-for-profit National Art Fund or the Contemporary Art Society includes visits to artist’s studios, collector’s homes as well as talks and exhibitions.
THE SOURCEBOOK: ART
Artichoke Printmaking, 020 7924 0600, artichokeprintmaking.com. Christies, 020 7839 9060, Christies.com. Cheffins, 01223 213343, cheffins.co.uk. Contemporary Art Society, 020 7831 1243, contemporaryartsociety.org. Flowers Gallery, 020 7920 7777, flowersgalleries.com. National Art Collections Fund, artfund.org. Open Studios Network (openstudiosnetwork.co.uk) lists local open artist’s studio events. Sotheby’s, 020 7293 5000, sothebys.com. Caroline Wiseman, 020 622 2500, carolinewiseman.com. West Two Art Gallery, 079026 1440, westtwogallery.com.
Art for investment
Like fine wine, art is often touted as a ‘safe’ investment. However even the wealthiest collectors will insist that they collect art for pleasure as opposed to rich returns. Byrna West, of the West Two Gallery expands, ‘If you collect for investment, there are bound to be disappointments. You have to like what you are buying,’ she adds, ‘but there’s also a subtle cross-over between an emotional and intellectual response to art.... All the great collectors found something unique, they remained true to their tastes even if that taste developed over time. A true collector knows how to aggregate art; they become an expert even if it’s on a low-key level and they can potentially influence other buyers,’ she concludes.
If you are concerned about values, Nicky Wheeler of the Affordable Art Fair counsels: ‘Buy a work by a well-known artist. It’s still possible to buy a print by Hockney or Julian Opie for under £4000. If you’re buying a new artist you’re taking a risk, so buy what you like and want to live with.’
Galleries and fairs
Fairs are an excellent place to learn about art and cultivate contacts. Most dealers are keen to impart their knowledge says Nicky, ‘If you’re interested in an artist ask to see other works to see how their style has developed. Galleries always have stock which won’t be on show, so you may find other pieces you like.’ Once you have found a gallery you like, befriend the owner. Make it to previews and mingle with collectors and artists - socialising is all part of the enjoyment of collecting.
It is nearly a hundred years since Marcel Duchamp’s urinal sculpture first shocked the art-establishment. Yet for the uninitiated, contemporary art – be it video, installation or mobile-phone photograph – can still feel like uncharted terrain. Again, Fabienne Nicholas of the Contemporary Art Society counsels that you ‘take time to visit galleries, read about artists and learn.’ Behind every artist there’s a subtle system of endorsement and this includes what art school they went to, where their work has been shown etc. Look at reviews, awards and residencies. The pinnacle of achievement is having an artwork in a public collection.
‘Contemporary art is about knowledge production – the spread of ideas rather than just beautiful things,’ she explains. ‘Every piece should have a conceptual backbone – it might be a reference to art history or politics - that’s what makes it interesting.’
Another option is to use an art adviser. At the Contemporary Art Society for instance, consultants charge a daily fee (most take a percentage of the price of the work). ‘I have one client who is interested in building a collection. We spend a day a week visiting studios, shows and galleries so he can find out what he likes,’ says Fabienne.
One of the chief delights of buying contemporary art is engaging with a living artist says Isabel Bingley, curator at Flowers Gallery. ‘It’s fascinating to watch an artist develop. I spend time with our artists discussing their work and its techniques so I can communicate that to clients. It makes the process of collecting much more human.’
Buying at auction
Auction houses exert an enormous influence on the art market as their results determine values in the ‘secondary market’. Yet despite the often stellar prices, salerooms remain excellent places to buy and learn about art. Pre-sale viewings and attending sales are a useful way of staying informed. You can browse at will and there is no pressure to make up your mind until the last minute. The price you pay may be high but it is a useful indicator of desirability, be it an 18th century drawing or 1950s sculpture.
Chatting to in-house experts can also help locate ‘overlooked’ areas. As James Rawlin of Sotheby’s explains: ‘Famous artists often have periods of their life which are academically celebrated but commercially left out in the cold: a drawing by Henry Moore from the 1930s can start at around £10,000, much less than his famous shelter drawings from the Second World War.’ Trend-shunners could also consider Old Master Drawings, as Sarah Vowles of Christie’s points out: ‘You can still buy a beautiful drawing by an 18th-century Italian Master such as Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo for around £15,000. Drawings offer an immediate glimpse in to the way an artist worked.’
Prints and lithographs
Artists’ prints can be an affordable collecting option but buyer beware, as dealer Caroline Wiseman explains: ‘An original print is conceived, executed – or overseen – by the artist, it’s not a mechanical reproduction.’ The image may derive from a block, stone, plate or screen to ‘produce an artwork in its own right with the artist’s signature.’ Editions range in size; smaller print runs are more desirable.
‘Contemporary printmaking is having a renaissance,’ continues Murray Macaulay. ‘Art presses, like Paragon or Counter Edition produce works of exceptional quality. Galleries including the Whitechapel often commission artists to make prints. Most well-known artists are committed printmakers,’ he continues, ‘and can be surprisingly affordable: a work by Anish Kapoor or Tracey Emin might be around £500.’ Or visit Artichoke Printmaking (a favourite with Ralph Lauren) a studio where artists produce prints for clients including The Victoria and Albert and the British Museum.
‘Many galleries are happy to accept instalments, so always ask,’ says Nicky Wheeler. Or consider the Art Council’s laudable Own Art loan plan that allows you to take out an interest-free loan to buy works from galleries signed up to the scheme (look out for the pink sticker). Only the bold should try haggling for a discount.
What to collect?
A collection can be a melting pot of styles or media, known as ‘horizontal collecting.’ Or you can define your parameters; ‘One client focussed only on sculpture he could hold in his hand. This meant he could afford to buy the best - useful advice to anyone.’ Sarah Flynn notes: ‘We have collectors of self portraits or Maltese street scenes.’ You can choose to only collect one artist, immersing your self in their story; or focus on the art of emerging countries like India or Russia. Miniatures, tapestries, photographs, tribal art - the list is infinite.
However slim your means, take heart from the tale of postal clerk Herbert Vogel and his librarian wife Dorothy. Living on Herbert’s salary and buying art with hers, over 30 years they filled their one-bedroom, rent-controlled New York flat with about 2,500 works by some of the world’s most famous artists – Andy Warhol, Christo, Richard Tuttle – some now displayed in the Washington National Gallery.
Caring for your collection
Common sense applies. Keep drawings and paintings out of direct light and ensure sculpture is on a stable base. Avoid hanging work over radiators, on window sills or near heaters.
Most household contents’ policies allocate a fixed amount which may not be enough to cover your collection. If so, consider specialist art insurance (names include Hiscox, Axa or Gurr Johns). ‘Stolen art works can often be traced; but people often underestimate collateral damage through fire or water,’ says Andrew Cheney of Hiscox. A specialist will visit your house to compile a catalogue of your collection. Valuations need to be reviewed every five to ten years.
Money spent on a specialist art removal company is money well spent. Check your carrier is a member of ICEFAT (International Convention of Exhibition and Fine Art Transporters).
Compulsive collectors may want to put excess art in to specialist conservation standard storage (try Christie’s or Cadogan Tate).
Keeping up to date
For up to the minute values join Artnet.com, a database of auction results. Or visit culture24.org.uk for national art news.
Selling an art work worth more than works worth over £10,600 will be subject to Capital Gains Tax when sold. Works designated of historical or national interest may be exempt. Hmrc.gov.uk.