How to Buy Art
If you’re reading this at home, stop and look around. Do you see anything that moves you — anything meaningful, engaging, daring, or provocative? Or is your multimillion-dollar home punctuated with generously framed poster art and cliché desert décor? If you want to give your piece of paradise a personal touch, seek real artwork that appeals to your sense of good taste and aesthetics.
You might be unable to articulate what you like; but as the saying goes, you’ll know it when you see it. (Actually, impulse buys usually disappoint in the long run, after the novelty wears off.) You want innovation and quality.
No idea how to get started? No worries.
We’ve asked gallery owners and directors the uncomfortable questions — and their candid responses should give you the confidence to walk into any space with your eyes peering only for the prize.
Exercise Your Eyes
The first thing you want to do prior to making a purchase is look at as much art as possible:
- Visit museums and take the docent-led tours.
- Take advantage of studio visits, tours, and lectures.
- Ask your friends about the art in their homes.
- Stop and look at art in public places.
- Explore every art gallery on the map.
Don’t sweat that last item. In most galleries, you’ll be greeted warmly and invited to look around and feel free to ask questions. No one will follow you around — unless you solicit that level of attention.
“If you feel intimidated, visit during an art walk or an artist reception, when there are many other people around,” says Lisa Dempton, owner of A Gallery Fine Art in Palm Desert.
Ellen Sorkin, director of Denise Robergé Art Gallery in Palm Desert, says the most important factor in buying art is “your own preferences, likes and dislikes, and what will create joy for you every day.”
To figure this out, Allen Hicks of Modern Masters Fine Art in Palm Desert suggests perusing Artnews or Art in America magazines. (We also like Modern Painters and Art+Auction.) “See if there are ideas, both visual and philosophical, which resonate with you,” Hicks says. “Then seek out galleries or art institutions that may display that type of work.”
If you look at enough art, you will develop an eye and begin to trust your instincts. “Seeing important works in high-end galleries and museum collections is very helpful,” says Alec Longmuir, director of Buschlen Mowatt Galleries in Palm Desert. “Without that basic sense of history, it is harder to gauge where the artist is coming from and if their execution is based on any real substance.”
Do Some Homework
Once you identify an artist you like, consider his or her credentials — particularly when dealing with high-priced works, says David Katz, owner of Coda Gallery in Palm Desert. Look at the artist’s exhibition history and note the public and private collections that include the artist’s works.
Eleonore Austerer, owner of Eleonore Austerer Gallery in Palm Desert, encourages collectors to research dealers to find one they can trust to advise them. “The art market is too complicated to learn it all,” she says. “Go to someone who has the big picture and can steer you in the right direction.”
Make these efforts and you’ll be empowered to ask dealers smart questions and understand their answers. Reputable dealers are eager to educate and will never pressure you to make a purchase; they want long-term relationships.
It’s OK to ask about artwork that’s priced way higher than your budget. There’s usually a reason for that high price, and it is often fascinating. Longmuir, for example, will ably orate about a million-dollar Lynn Chadwick sculpture. But you should let him know up front if that piece is out of your league.
The honest exchange will help foster a relationship between you and the dealer.
Galleries usually post the prices on labels next to the artwork so you can determine if it is affordable. Hicks explains how galleries determine their prices:
“[Dealers] get artwork from three basic sources: the artist (if living), on consignment, or through secondary markets,” he says. “Most frequently, contracts are entered into with the source, but sometimes the gallery buys the artwork outright. Gallery acquisition prices or consignment agreements can range from 30 to 60 percent below the retail price, but the gallery profits only after it pays for the shipping, insurance, advertising and promotion, sales commissions, and a contribution to overhead (space rental, utilities, etc.).”
“It is a very expense-heavy business,” Longmuir concurs. “Galleries are part dealers, agents, marketing arms, and publicists for the artist. It’s time-consuming, which is why artists have dealers in the first place.”
Demand and stature of the work and artist also figure into prices. “The blue-chip artwork of the world would not have reached that point without having had some level of influence or impact on society and culture as a whole,” Longmuir intones. “Generally, price is set between the artist and their representatives based on sales history, demand, and, to a lesser degree, the secondary market.”
Austerer adds, “Prints and originals by 20th century masters are priced based on past sales. Contemporary art prices are set by the artist and the dealer based on merits, education, exhibitions, etc.”
Regardless of the demand or stature of the artist, you must love the work to live with it, which is why most galleries will allow you to live with a piece for up to a few days before expecting your decision.
“We take it to their home — or let them take it if it is framed,” says Austerer, who allows prospective buyers to keep a work overnight — “24 hours max.”
Payment methods vary among dealers. Galleries generally will not discount — don’t even ask; it’s poor form — but most offer interest-free installment plans. “We recognize that this can be a sizable investment and will customize payment options for our clients,” Longmuir says. “Do plan to put down at least one-third of the cost though.”
Katz cites the same minimum down payment, but Sorkin says Denise Robergé Art Gallery has no hard and fast rules: “We accommodate many scenarios.”
Dempton says A Gallery Fine Art offers installment plans and allows collectors to take home the artwork. Other galleries will hold a piece until the collector has paid a certain amount or in full.
Betting on Auctions
If you enjoy charity or traditional auctions or surfing eBay, you might find a deal, but beware the great potential for error. “Charity auctions can be OK,” Austerer says. “But the artwork is only as good as the gallery or dealer who donated it. Generally speaking, one only donates the lower-end works by any artist.”
Austerer, a certified fine art appraiser, has often been enlisted to value goods purchased at charity auctions “that turned out to be worthless fakes or pages from a book in an attractive frame. Ask all the questions beforehand.”
Longmuir adds, “There is always a reason someone is selling something. Is it worth paying $100 on eBay for an Ed Ruscha print worth thousands only to find out it is a fraud? Even if it is the real thing, will you be able to prove it? What is its provenance? Does it have a certificate of authenticity? Why would someone sell something at such a deal if the market was so strong for it?
“It is a popular misconception that the entire secondary market is based on what happens at Christie’s or Sotheby’s,” he continues. “But for every $500,000 Dan Flavin or $10 million Warhol, there are great works of art that don’t meet their expectation or come close to their retail values. Reasons include who was paying attention at the time, artists’ super-loyal followers who regularly trade at higher values that may go unnoticed by big auction houses, and works from some periods of an artist’s career that may not be as desirable as others at the time of the auction.”
Still, galleries always have first crack at artists’ new works.
Once you commit, forget what you spent. Just love the art. “Art appreciation is a lifetime process,” Hicks says. “One’s tastes will refine and change as exposure to art expands. Soon, it will be you who can instruct the gallery staff, and not the other way around!”
Tips from the Experts
- Look at as much art as possible and keep an open mind (or you might miss something good).
- Ask questions, listen, and learn about different subjects, techniques, movements, etc., to reveal and reinforce your preferences. Allow gallery personnel to educate you about the artists they represent and the styles in which they work.
- Research as if you are buying a house or a car.
- Get your interior designer onboard. “Know what you want,” says Alec Longmuir, director of Buschlen Mowatt Galleries. “If you are seeking decoration and the value of the artwork is on how it matches your upholstery, a good designer will help you. If your tastes are more serious, there are designers who understand fine art and have strong alliances with good dealers.”
- Avoid impulse buys. Keep an inventory of pieces that interest you, and be-come intimately familiar with a piece before buying it.
- Remember that openings are social events. To properly view the artwork, come back when the gallery returns to a walkable hush.
- Respect the gallery. Don’t borrow artwork for your dinner party under the presumption that you’re interested in purchasing it. It’s a small desert and word travels fast.
- Don’t ask for a discount. Galleries typically stick to their posted prices and offer installment plans for payment.
- Collect a few excellent pieces rather than many mediocre pieces.
- Buy the best of an artist’s work in a series or period.
- Assure the authenticity. Reputable dealers will provide a certificate of authenticity and, if appropriate, the provenance for each work.
- Check out student art shows. “A fabulous place to find bargains,” says Allen Hicks of Modern Masters Fine Art, which sometimes hosts student shows. Coda Gallery also has exhibited student art. “Talk to the artists to get a sense if they are committed to doing this,” Hicks says. “Support their efforts.”
- Ask how to frame, light, and maintain the artwork. Generally, you want to avoid direct sunlight. Consider UV filters on windows, and clean with a feather duster or antistatic cloths.
- Know your dealer. As the relation-ship develops, the good dealer will become one of your greatest confidants and advisers. They will do more than move inventory into your home; the best dealers will have some of the best work.