How to Start Collecting Art: A Guide

Hussein Hallak, co-founder of art discovery platform Momentable, shares strategies for new collectors.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 08: 'St. Francis' (centre) by Kehinde Wiley goes on view at Sotheby's as part of 'Shake it Up': Works from the Mario Testino Collection, September 8, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby's)
Potential buyers consider ‘St. Francis’ (center) by Kehinde Wiley, on view at Sotheby’s as part of ‘Shake it Up: Works from the Mario Testino Collection’ in 2017. Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Collecting art is, in several ways, incomparable to any other hobby or investment. It is intimately connected to one’s personality and style—an expression of one’s taste. There’s a lot more to it than showcasing beauty or buying low and selling high. Yes, art is an asset class, but there’s a journey of self-discovery and education involved in art investing, and dipping a toe into the world of collecting isn’t easy, particularly for those starting from scratch. The intricate fundamentals of art appreciation; the nuances of value assessment; and the responsibility of curating, protecting and preserving art can be overwhelming. There are additionally many art styles, mediums and artists whose works one might collect, which can make figuring out where to begin especially challenging. But every art collector was once a novice. The initial difficulties you may feel are merely part of the learning curve, a path that will eventually lead you to an unparalleled sense of satisfaction. The joy of owning a piece that showcases you, the thrill of discovering an emerging artist and the pride of nurturing an eclectic collection over time are rewards that make the journey of putting together an art collection quite gratifying.

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SEE ALSO: Art Advisor Katharine Earnhardt On Entry-Level Collecting, Untapped Markets and More

Money isn’t the foremost concern for starting an art collection. Many entry-level art collectors acquire their first pieces without the backing of a large budget. The good news is that passion, taste, patience and research take you far in this pursuit. Below are several art collecting tips to help you get started.

Practice appreciating art

The first step is to do a lot of looking. Attend art fairs and exhibitions to acquaint yourself with different styles, mediums and artists. Take note of what piques your interest and sparks emotion—that’s a good place to start. Art appreciation is almost always about emotional resonance. You’re often motivated to collect because of how a piece makes you feel.

Each piece of art you acquire is, in essence, a mirror reflecting your emotions and a tangible manifestation of those feelings. Art expresses what human nature is; it epitomizes emotions and experiences that words often fail to encapsulate.

When you gaze upon a painting or sculpture and experience a surge of emotion, i.e., joy, sadness, nostalgia, curiosity or awe, you’re connecting with the artist’s intent, the narrative they’ve imbued in their work. This emotional reaction is indicative of a deep relational affinity with the artwork.

Your art collection, therefore, becomes a visual diary of your emotional journey, chronicling your evolving tastes, experiences and emotional states over time. Each piece you collect represents a particular emotion or memory you wish to reminisce about.

Your emotions influence the direction of your art collection and imbue it with a personal touch, making your collection unique to you. When you allow your emotions to guide your art-collecting journey, you create an intimate connection with the pieces, making the collection all the more satisfying and personally meaningful.

Set a thoughtful budget

It’s not about how much money you have but how you manage and allocate it responsibly. Even art collectors such as producer Dick Wolf and Miami Heat’s Kevin Love spend wisely. The trick is to strike a balance—you don’t want to underspend and compromise on quality, yet you also don’t want to overspend and risk financial instability.

It’s important to resist the temptation to go all out when you first embark on your art-collecting journey. It can be easy to get carried away and spend a fortune on a single piece, especially when captivated by its beauty or the artist’s prestige. However, such a move can jeopardize your financial comfort and limit future collecting opportunities.

On the other hand, opting for very inexpensive pieces can also lead to challenges. While you might save some money in the short term, you’re likely compromising on quality or authenticity. Moreover, cheaper art may not hold its value over time, reducing the potential for financial gain if you choose to sell in the future.

Start by setting a realistic and manageable budget. Factor in any ongoing costs, such as insurance, framing or restoration, and remember that you’ll also need to budget for future acquisitions. Consider starting with a modest budget and gradually increasing it as you become more comfortable and knowledgeable about the market.

It might also be wise to diversify your collection by investing in various pieces at different prices. This strategy will allow you to explore various styles and artists without committing too much to one area. Embrace the learning process and adjust your budget according to what brings you the most satisfaction and value.

Remember, art collecting is not just about the amount you spend but the value you derive from the pieces you acquire. The key is to spend wisely and enjoy the journey.

Think carefully about your collection goals

Clear, specific goals are crucial in building a selective art collection. This process allows you to refine your focus and approach your collection strategically. Art can span centuries, continents and countless styles; therefore, having a defined objective helps you focus on what matters most.

You might consider specializing in a particular art movement, period or style. Perhaps you’re drawn to the vibrancy of Impressionism, the dynamism of Abstract Expressionism or the simplicity of Minimalism. Alternatively, you could concentrate on works from a specific region or country, i.e., Japanese ukiyo-e prints or Mexican muralism.

You might also be intrigued by a particular medium, i.e., sculpture, photography or watercolor. Some collectors focus on pieces that explore a certain theme, such as portraits, landscapes, social issues or nature.

Another approach is to become a patron of emerging artists, which has a financial perk attached to it. You could help nurture talent and potentially see a substantial return on your investment if the artist becomes successful. This is a common motivation for many art collectors, and you could earn a reputation among your peers as an art connoisseur.

Remember, a thoughtful collection doesn’t necessarily need to be a large one. The goal is not to amass as many pieces as possible but to curate a thoughtful, cohesive collection that reflects your taste and passion.

Educate yourself first

Traditional art history knowledge is integral to the art-collecting process, providing invaluable knowledge and insight to enhance your collecting experience. By understanding the context in which a piece of art was created—including the period, cultural backdrop and artist’s circumstances—you better appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the work, thereby developing a keen eye for detail.

Art history is a rich tapestry of human creativity and expression, spanning diverse cultures, eras and styles. In-depth knowledge of this field lets you develop the skill to distinguish between different art movements and understand their significance. For instance, knowing the characteristics of Cubism will help you appreciate the innovative, multi-perspective approach of artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Recognizing specific techniques and styles also aids in establishing the authenticity of a piece. This knowledge is particularly advantageous in the art market, where forgeries can sometimes slip through the cracks. Likewise, understanding an artist’s evolution and career trajectory provides a sense of a particular piece’s place within its oeuvre, potentially impacting its value.

Engaging with art history encourages a deeper emotional connection to the artwork. Each piece carries a story—about the artist, the era it was created and the societal issues of the time. As a collector, understanding these narratives adds a layer of depth to your collection, making it a visual feast and a historical journey.

Work with an advisor

The most important tip when buying art for your collection is to trust your gut, but it’s also a good idea to connect with an experienced advisor who can connect you with gallerists, collectors selling privately and artists. Let your tastes, preferences and instincts guide your decision-making process. Art is a subjective field, and what appeals to one person might not have the same impact on another. If a piece moves you, inspires you or makes you happy, it’s a worthy addition to your collection.

When looking for art, there are several avenues you can explore. Art galleries and museums are great starting points, offering various pieces from different artists and periods. You can also attend art fairs, auctions and open studios, which are fantastic opportunities to discover new artists and pieces. Online art sales platforms have also made browsing and buying art from the comfort of your home easier.

The process of buying art varies depending on where you choose to purchase. At a gallery or art fair, it can be as simple as expressing your interest in a piece and making a payment. Auctions, on the other hand, are more competitive and can require strategic bidding. Online purchases often involve additional considerations, i.e., shipping and handling.

Despite the excitement and joy of buying art, there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of. Avoid impulse buying and take the time to research the artist and the piece before purchasing. Be wary of deals that seem too good to be true—they often are. Authenticate the work before buying, especially when dealing with high-value pieces or well-known artists. Don’t forget to consider the practical aspects, such as the size of the artwork and where it will fit in your home.

Remember the Certificate of Authenticity

The Certificate of Authenticity (CoA) proves that the artwork you’ve purchased is genuine. It typically includes details such as the artwork’s name, artist, medium, dimensions and creation date, often signed or approved by the artist, gallery or authoritative entity.

Having a CoA is crucial for several reasons. For one, it’s your primary defense against counterfeit artworks or frauds. The art industry isn’t immune to scams, and there’s always a risk of encountering fake pieces or forgeries. A CoA provides reassurance of the artwork’s legitimacy and protects your investment.

Next, a CoA means everything when insuring art. If your artwork gets stolen or damaged, the insurance company would require proof of its authenticity and value, which the CoA can provide.

Moreover, if you decide to sell or loan your artwork in the future, a potential buyer or institution would likely request a CoA to verify its authenticity. Without this document, the value of your artwork will be significantly reduced, or it might be difficult to sell it at all.

Despite its importance, obtaining a CoA is often overlooked, particularly by novice collectors. This can be a costly mistake. The art market is complex, and determining the authenticity and provenance of a piece is hard, especially when dealing with unusual pieces. This is why a CoA shouldn’t be considered merely an option but a necessity in art collecting. Seeing that your artwork comes with a CoA, you’re safeguarding your investment and contributing to the integrity of the art market.

Think in terms of quality, not quantity

In any form of collection, the adage ‘quality over quantity’ rings especially true in art collecting. A common misconception among beginner art collectors is that a larger collection implies greater value or esteem. However, this flawed perspective will lead to hasty decisions and unsatisfactory acquisitions.

The pursuit of quantity over quality dilutes the resulting art collection’s value. It’s akin to a treasure chest brimming with trinkets but devoid of true gems. A piece of art isn’t just a mere decorative item but a manifestation of an artist’s vision and talent. Each piece has a unique narrative and cultural value, which enriches the collection.

Indiscriminate collecting may also result in a disjointed, incoherent collection. An art collection should ideally reflect the collector’s preferences and intellectual curiosities as well as a unifying theme. A meticulously curated, thoughtfully acquired collection stands as a testament to the collector’s journey, showcasing their evolving tastes and understanding of art.

Additionally, focusing on quantity may lead to financial imprudence. Art collecting is an investment, and like any other investment, it requires careful consideration and due diligence. Amassing many mediocre or low-value pieces may eventually cost more than investing in a few high-quality pieces.

Putting a premium on quality leads to a more satisfying, enriching collecting experience. The thrill of art collecting lies not merely in possession but in the hunt—the deep dive into the art ecosystem, the joy of discovery and the exhilaration of acquiring a piece that genuinely moves you.

Take good care of your art collection

Caring for your art collection is as important, if not more so, than acquiring the pieces in the first place. An art collection is more than just an assortment of expensive stuff; it reflects your adoration and a high appreciation for the art you buy.

Proper care and maintenance of each piece are imperative to retain their aesthetic appeal and monetary value. This includes protecting the artwork from environmental factors such as light, temperature, humidity, dust and pests, which can lead to degradation and damage over time. Failing to do so could result in dull colors, cracked surfaces or even irreparable harm that reduces or even negates an artwork’s worth.

Appropriate handling and cleaning practices are critical, too. Rough handling causes physical damage, and improper cleaning methods will result in irreversible harm. Remember, each piece in your collection is unique and may require specific care methods depending on its medium and age. An advisor can also connect you with experts who can help you.

Equally important is proper display and storage. Art pieces should be displayed to enhance their visual appeal and shield them from harm. When not on display, they should be stored carefully to prevent exposure to harmful elements.

Maintaining the value of your art collection also means staying informed about the market dynamics and the specific artists in your collection. Regular appraisals will help monitor the value of your collection and guarantee your art pieces’ insurance coverage remains adequate.

In the end, maintaining an art collection is a multifaceted commitment. It’s about cherishing the beauty of each piece, preserving it for future generations and acknowledging its role as an investment. Every step you take to care for your collection is a testament to your appreciation for the art, contributing to its monetary value and cultural and sentimental worth.

How to Start Collecting Art: A Guide