So you have found a piece of original art that might be a great addition to your art collection. Here are 6 questions to ask before buying art that will help you decide whether or not purchasing the piece makes sense for you.
First and foremost, you’ll want to know more about the piece. When and where was it created? What was the process? What about the artist? Are they still working and if so, where can their work be found?
One piece of art often has connections with others by the same artist and from the same network. What else is connected to this piece?
If you feel good about the story and the artist, you’ll want to get comfortable with the seller and the purchase. If you’re not buying directly from the artist, you want to be shown the provenance to be sure you know that the piece is actually by that artist. Beyond verifying authenticity, the seller should be able to explain that they have the right to sell it. Can they provide a bill of sale from when they bought it or a digital record or provenance such as an Etching?
You’ll also want to find out the price. Galleries are notorious for hiding the price or setting the price based on who is buying the work. If you feel uncomfortable with the price quoted, you can ask for information on the recent sale price of other works by the same artist.
Lastly, how does your potential purchase fit with your existing collection? Do you have a place to display it? Will it look out of place with others in your collection? Be sure to take that into consideration. If you’re looking for more details on art collecting, be sure to check out our Art Collector’s Guide to get you started.
What Is the Story Behind This Piece of Art?
So you find a piece of art appealing. Now it’s time to learn more about it. You may be buying directly from an artist. You may also be purchasing from a third party such as a gallery or another collector. You’ll want to know the date and location of the creation.
If possible, collect what is called a “process statement.” This is a simple statement in writing by the visual artist about the materials used and how they created the piece.
Beyond the process statement, can you find out what the inspiration for the piece was? What was the artist focused on at the time? What is depicted? Is it part of a series? If you’re talking directly to the artist, you can ask these questions and write them down or request they create an Etching of the piece and transfer it to you.
If you’re buying from a third party, you’ll want to find out where this piece has been since the art was created. Was this piece once in the collection of someone famous, hung in a public place, or does the piece have quite a bit of history on its own?
Remember, much of the enjoyment of a piece of work is wrapped up in its story.
What Should I Know About the Artist?
If we think about great art, the artist almost always has a colorful story and personality. While no one can predict who will become a “blue chip” artist, the combination of talent and artist profile certainly help.
From a biographical standpoint, can you document the artist’s career? What got them started? Did a particular event set that artist on their artistic journey? Are they classically trained or self-taught?
Was there a period of adversity for the artist on a personal level or perhaps due to global current events such as wars or collapsed nation states?
Has the artist garnered interest from arts organizations that serve as a stamp of approval? Artists will often state what galleries, art shows, and museums have shown their work as well if their pieces are held by notable collectors. They may also name-check other artist friends if notable.
What about their work? Is there continuity and integrity in what they do? Sometimes controversy is even better. Will they be on the wrong side of history at some point? An artist that manages to stay in the news is definitely handling the public relationships side of their art business well.
How Does This Piece Fit with the Rest of the Artist’s Work?
When we think about some of the blue-chip artists whose work changes hands for millions of dollars, they often have distinct series or periods. The Met defines Picasso’s periods: “In order to trace his stylistic evolution, his body of work is often divided into periods: early work, the Blue Period, the Rose Period, the African Period, Cubism, Neoclassicism, Surrealism, and later work.”
If you were going to buy a Warhol, you might want a portrait of Marilyn Monroe or one of his soup cans pieces. Especially with an eye towards appreciation/investment, you’ll find pieces that are deemed “representative” of the artist at their best will be worth more than one-off experiments that don’t really fit with the rest of their career.
So your task when you evaluate a piece for purchase is to try to glean a broader understanding of the artist’s work. If you’re looking at a piece in a gallery, they likely have others by the same artist on site. The gallerist should also be able to talk you through that artist’s career.
If you’re looking to purchase directly, the artist may have pieces for sale on a website where you can see how it correlates with other works. When you make the purchase, you may ask the artist to make a brief written statement on an Etching or other record that includes not just that piece’s story but how it connects to a series or project.
How Does This Piece Fit with the Rest of My Collection?
Many fine art purchases are made with a specific location in a home or office in mind, often in physical proximity to already-owned pieces. That said, collectors should consider whether the piece goes with those pieces but the rest of the room as well. Adding a piece with a totally different mood to the rest of its surroundings is a great way to create an uncomfortable room.
Setting placement at a property aside, most collectors tend to specialize in certain artists, time periods, styles, etc. If you’re considering making a purchase outside of your “traditional style,” you should consider whether or not your interest in this new direction will be lasting or fleeting.
If you’re already a well-versed art collector with many pieces on hand, you can open your capacity for new styles and genres by adopting a rotation strategy. Think of your rooms as galleries, where you can move pieces from storage to display and vice versa.
Does the Price Make Sense?
One of the more surprising aspects of art collecting for new collectors is how opaque pricing can be. For more expensive pieces, you should even expect that the seller will want to qualify before telling you the price.
In the art world, the identity of the collector matters. Pieces that make their way through galleries and museums generally appreciate in value and drive up the price of other pieces by that artist. Similarly, pieces that are purchased by renowned collectors add credibility to the artist’s career and increase prices. That said, an A-list celebrity might be offered a lower price than someone with no public profile for the same work, in a somewhat analogous way to how influencers on social media are given preferential treatment at casinos.
So when you’re buying a piece, you want to do your research to understand what comparable sales have happened recently and for what prices. Using those “comps” and the history of the piece in question, you can adjust up or down based on how interesting its unique history is.
Can the Seller Prove Authenticity and the Right to Sell It?
So you’ve decided you like the piece, its story, its connection to the artist’s other work, and feel it would be a good addition to your collection…Now you want to be sure you’ll get what you pay for.
If you have ever purchased a used automobile or a piece of property, you have some familiarity with the concept of a “title search” or “title study.” Understanding that you are not buying a new car from a dealership or that the piece of real estate you are buying has been owned by others, you need to feel comfortable that you’re not about to be defrauded.
With fine art, the concept of provenance is defined by the Museum of Fine Art Boston as: “…Its history of ownership, from the time of its creation to the present.” If you are buying directly from the artist, you want to collect a bill of sale or better yet an Etching so that you can prove provenance for future buyers.
If the piece you want is already in the hands of a third party, you need to understand how they got it. If they can show a bill of sale,
Now that you’re armed with these questions, go out and find your next acquisition and try them out for yourself. You’ll be glad you did your homework when you have a new addition to your collection.