The First Time I Bought Art—And What I’ve Learned Since!

Every art collector had to make a first purchase. We asked collectors, curators and dealers about their first purchase and the lessons they learned from the splurge.

Patric Sandri
(Illustration: Patric Sandri)

At the high end of the art market, a lot of calculation goes into each purchase: How are this artist’s prices trending? Will I need to rent more space in my fine art storage facility? What are the tax implications?

You know, rich people problems.

But every experienced art collector had to make a first purchase at some point, when the stakes were not as high but the money may have seemed more significant, dealers more snooty and the fears of making a mistake far greater. The Observer asked a number of people in the art field who have bought and sold artwork—prominent collectors, curators and dealers—about their earliest purchase and the lessons they learned from the splurge.

Cultivate Friendships in the Art Business

Ashton Hawkins, longtime counsel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1969-2001) and longtime collector of contemporary art, recalls, “I was at Exeter, class of 1955, and I think it was in 1953 or ’54 that I went into a shop in Exeter—it was a shop, not a gallery—and bought an oil painting, a Maine coastal scene, by William Plummer. I might have spent $150, and it is pretty remarkable that I would have spent that much, since my monthly allowance was only $75. Over the years, I’ve bought a lot of contemporary art, [including works by Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, Paul Cadmus, Richard Avedon, Alfred Stieglitz, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney] from artists I came to know and from dealers who became friends, such as Brooke Alexander and Robert Miller. Artists and dealers who are your friends don’t require you to negotiate as hard, maybe that made buying art more fun. I brought a number of artworks last year to auction after I sold a second home on the Hudson River—but I still have the Plummer.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Bargain

Renato Danese, co-owner of New York’s Danese Corey gallery, notes, “When I bought art for the first time, I was a total novice, totally green and had no motivation to negotiate. The first work was an etching by Peter Milton, which I bought for $125 from the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, while I was a sophomore at George Washington University. I liked the etching, but I was moving around a lot, so I consigned the etching back to Bader, and I think he was able to double the price. My second purchase was an untitled Larry Poons lithograph, which I still own and that I bought for a couple of hundred bucks from the Leo Castelli Gallery. I was in my early 20s then, and Leo was very kind, letting me pay it off in time. It wasn’t until I started working as a dealer myself, first at the Light Gallery and later at Pace Gallery, that I learned how collectors think and how dealers view the process. Things have changed: When I was at Pace, we never gave discounts. I don’t know how things are done these days at Pace, but at my gallery we regularly permit discounts to buyers—5 to 10 percent for private collectors, up to 20 percent for museums. I try to get to know my buyers to see if they are looking to turn around and sell a work right away, which I don’t like, or if they plan to keep it for a long time.”

Shop With an Expert  (and Be Flexible)

Bijan Amini, partner in the Manhattan law firm Storch, Amini & Munves PC, has built a collection that is displayed in the company’s offices with the help of art adviser Laura Solomon. “Art helps productivity, and it keeps the place from looking drab,” he says. Mr. Amini recalls an early purchase: “I went to the Art Show at the Pier with Laura Solomon, and I saw this series of seven etchings—they were printers’ proofs—by Julie Mehretu and thought, ‘God, I have to have that.’ I wanted an oil, but that was too expensive. The category in which I was shopping was between $5,000 and $25,000, and this was around $35,000, but, again, I had to have it. We still have it. It’s outside my partner’s office right now. I can see it from here.”

Notes one veteran dealer: ‘The art world these days
is so full of sheep, with everyone just being led around.’

Don’t Be Scared Away From Auction Houses

Steven Kern, director and chief executive officer of The Newark Museum and former curator at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts and the San Diego Museum of Art, notes, “I never found art galleries and auction houses mysterious or intimidating,” and perhaps that’s because of his first good experience at one. “I was probably 19 when I bought at some small New England auction a late-19th century hand-colored etching of a city in Belgium by some artist—I don’t remember the name—and I paid just $5. It was already framed, so I didn’t have to pay for that.”

Pay Attention to Condition

Michael Rosenfeld, owner of New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, as a teenager in Manhattan during the 1970s was already collecting and dealing art: “I would go into galleries when I was in high school, riding my bike or skateboard. I made friendships with gallery owners, mostly the ones on Madison Avenue and 57th Street. They were open to a kid. Very encouraging. I’d see something in one gallery and say to the dealer, ‘I think so-and-so would like to buy this,’ and they would say, ‘O.K., go take it and sell it,’ and I did. It was very simple. There was lots of trust and not much paperwork. Over the years, I’ve made some mistakes, who hasn’t? I’ve learned, the hard way to pay attention to condition. Years ago, I bought a 1960s Burgoyne Diller painting at Christie’s. It looked dirty and I was told that a conservator looked at the painting and thought it could use a cleaning. I bought the painting and took it to the conservator who suggested the cleaning. A few weeks later they returned the painting and told me it couldn’t be cleaned. It was coated with some kind of varnish that can’t be removed, and the Diller is sitting in my warehouse. In retrospect, I should have pressed for more. When it comes to condition, the auction houses offer reports but have lots of disclaimers. It’s buyer beware. I should have had my own conservator examine the painting before I decided to buy it. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bought it.”

Ask Yourself the Right Questions

John Axelrod, a retired Boston lawyer, over a period of 40 years has assembled collections of American prints, European Art Deco objects, American modern decorative arts, Memphis furnishings, African-American painting and Latin-American art. Yet he says, “I remember the first painting I ever bought—I still have it. It is a picture of fishing boats at the wharf in Gloucester, [Mass.], and the artist was right there on the wharf with that painting and others he had done, so my first art purchase was direct from the artist. I didn’t do any research on the artist or his sales history. I was a teenager at the time, and I just liked it.”

“Obviously, I don’t buy like that anymore. Now, when I buy—and I buy substantially more expensive artworks these days—I first ask myself questions: Is the work good and is the artist respected in his field? (I get books on the subject and read them, so I know all about the subject.) I want to know, is the price a good price, and there are sources of sales price information that I check. I ask myself, ‘Is there anything else I’d prefer to spend that amount of money on?’ And, most importantly, and maybe connecting me now to when I was a teenager and bought that painting of the fishing boats, I ask myself: ‘Do I love it?’ It’s a kind of gut check, and if the answer is no, well that’s the end of the discussion. You move on.”

Pay in Installments, If a Dealer Will Allow It

Alicia G. Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y., has made acquisitions for the museum that have included works by Ross Bleckner, Mary Heilmann, Elizabeth Peyton and Joe Zucker. She remembers: “I was recently married in 1976, and my husband and I were furnishing an apartment. After a couch, we thought a work of art was the way to go. We went to the Rosa Esman Gallery, where there was a show of Howardena Pindell, and while there we both fell for a shaped paper piece by another artist, Mon Levinson. I don’t remember the price, and we didn’t have a lot of money—my husband Dennis was then an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and curators aren’t paid all that much—but Rosa Esman knew we were young and starting out, so she let us pay monthly until it was paid off. Maybe the fact that my husband worked at the Modern helped, I don’t know.”

The Mainstream Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One

Richard Polsky, an author (I Bought Andy Warhol) and art dealer in San Francisco remembers: “I was 23 at the time, just starting out in the art world and working at a gallery called Foster Goldstrom, and I bought a photograph from a San Francisco gallery by the artist Richard Misrach. I think it was for $250. It was a black-and-white photograph of the desert with shades of brown, and I really liked it. Then, someone I knew bought a different photograph by Misrach from the same show that was of a palm tree. He paid the same price that I did, but I thought, ‘Gee, he bought a better picture than I bought,’ so I took my print back to the gallery and exchanged it for that same photograph of the palm tree. The palm tree was a more mainstream image—see! I was already thinking like a dealer, doing what I thought the market would approve of—while the one I had bought originally was quirkier. It had a lot of different elements to it that were not what you’d expect.”

“So, I took my photograph of the palm tree home and hung it up, and I realized that I should have kept the one I bought originally. Eventually, I did go back the gallery and got that photograph of the desert again. What I learned from this is that you’ve got to trust your own eyes; you’ve got to trust yourself. The art world these days is so full of sheep, with everyone just being led around by what seems to be accepted and acceptable, and I fell prey to that right out of the gate. It was a very hard lesson, but I think I learned from it.”

The First Time I Bought Art—And What I’ve Learned Since!