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The Art of Buying Art

What to look for, what to look out for

Barbara Spoettel

But how do you start? What should you look for when buying art? The rewards are many, but what are the perils and pitfalls? We talked to a number of experts in the field, and they all agreed that for the neophyte collector two elements are crucial: education and guidance. Learn about art and find a savvy consultant to help you negotiate the complex world of galleries, dealers and auction houses; you will need the wisdom of their experience, their contacts and their intuition.

“If you’re very ambitious — if you have serious resources and you’re going to take a plunge in the deep end — then you definitely need advice,” says Peter Sutton, the executive director of the Bruce Museum, who also authenticates Old Masters for Palm Beach’s prestigious international art fair and advises private collectors at the vast European Fine Arts Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands. “You can also educate yourself by making regular visits to the viewings of auctions; that gives you a sense of both the range of quality and the range of price,” says Sutton, also the former director of the Old Master Paintings division of Christie’s auction house. “You can go kick the tires and find out what you like. And with Sotheby’s and Christie’s right down the road — we’re very fortunate to be a brief ride away from the capital of the art world — you can do a little reconnoitering.”

“You have to start with your taste,” says Megan Fox Kelly, an art adviser whose background includes the curatorial and special exhibitions departments of the National Gallery of Art and her own fine art gallery in Santa Fe. Today her art advisory business is based in Manhattan and Fairfield, and she works with clients to build, manage and maintain their collections. “Dream and fantasize and be inspired,” she says. “Don’t limit your imagination, but do set yourself financial boundaries, which is a way of giving yourself permission to buy something.”
Pinning down a client’s taste can be tricky, however. “People can’t always articulate what it is that they want,” Ms. Kelly confirms, “or you might have a couple who don’t necessarily agree. So we go to museums, and I bring them piles of books — of things that they can’t buy. If you remove the equation of money, you’re simply looking at things and saying, I like that. You get a sense very quickly of whether they are going to be contemporary or modern art collectors or whether they are going to want something more traditional. And then within that, you deduce what is possible.”

“To start with, I would immerse myself. I would go to as many exhibitions as possible, which is not only insightful and educational but social and fun,” says Helen Klisser During, gallery director of the Silvermine Art Guild in New Canaan.

(Ms. During has also been a private dealer and consultant, acquiring at auction works from Cézanne to Warhol for her clients, and has worked with such contemporary artists as Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero and Saul Steinberg.) “In this area,” she says, “certainly I would get onto the mailing lists of Silvermine, the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, the Westport Art Center. Go to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield — you can’t buy art at the Aldrich but you become knowledgeable.

“Not wanting to just plug Silvermine,” she adds, “but we have up to twenty-five exhibitions a year, with 350 artists.”

Silvermine also schedules Wednesday lunchtime talks with the exhibiting artists. “It’s engaging, it’s relaxed, you bring your lunch, there’s wine,” she says. “The artist will talk about the process or their inspiration. It’s more intimate than a big opening. They’re terrific fun and you can buy work immediately, but there might be 300 people there and you might not get to talk to the artist. This is a much deeper experience.

“The more you know about art, the richer it becomes,” she continues. “You might be in a gallery in Chelsea and think, Oh, this is rubbish. Spend some more time. Dare to ask the question: What is this artist exploring? Or go to the auction houses. Anybody can go to auction previews, and they’re like museum exhibitions for Impressionist and modern works. You will start to get a sense of what your money can buy.”

What do you do, however, if after your course of art immersion therapy, you decide that your heart lies with Edwardian portraitist John Singer Sargent? Can you have Champagne art on a beer purse? “What is it that you love about Sargent?” Ms. Kelly asks. “Maybe you love Sargent’s portraits or his watercolors or his Venetian scenes.” She laughs and adds, “All I do — all I have ever done in my career — is look at art. So if I can pinpoint the essence of Sargent, I can think of other things. Maybe there’s an American portraitist who studied under Sargent and whose works are undervalued. What’s great and being ignored? I’m looking for that all the time.”

“You can pick up an Old Master painting for as little as five to ten thousand dollars, and a good one, too,” says Peter Sutton, who is an authority on Dutch Old Masters and has curated exhibits and published books and catalogues on the genre. Old Master simply means the work was done between the thirteenth century and roughly 1800 (if the artist worked in a traditional style, it can extend to 1850.)  “You can find Old Masters in the less expensive auction houses like Kensington in London or, in New York, Doyle’s or Tepper’s. Or Shannon’s auction house in Milford — we’ve bought pictures for the museum from them.

“And they’re a much better investment, quite frankly, than contemporary art,” he comments. “Contemporary art has gone through such whipsaws of value, and it is certainly in a bubble at the moment that’s about to burst. Everybody forgets 1990. Contemporary art had been run up through the 1980s, and then in December 1990, the whole art market collapsed and lost three-quarters of its value. It was a highly speculative market, driven by the Japanese at that time. About the only things that don’t lose money in serious dips are Old Masters. They’re the Little Engine That Could — they don’t rise as spectacularly as contemporary art, but they don’t plunge either.”

“Obviously, major paintings by major Impressionist and modern artists, the important museum-quality pictures, are in the hundreds of thousands to many millions of dollars,” says Christopher Eykyn, a private art dealer in Manhattan and former head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s. “But there are plenty of other artists who worked alongside all the household names, whose work is sold by galleries and auction houses at considerably lower values.”

Once you have decided where your taste lies, there are six elements to consider when purchasing a work of art, according to Megan Fox Kelly: authenticity, which is the determination that a work was indeed done by the artist to whom it is ascribed; quality, which is not entirely subjective and involves research and a trained eye to decide if the piece ranks among the best work of the artist; rarity, which enhances the monetary value of a work; condition, which involves factors like whether a piece needs restoration or worse, has been ineptly restored; provenance, the verified history of who has owned the work previously; and value, which involves all the elements mentioned and also includes variables like the secondary (or resale) market for the artist in question.

If that beautiful nineteenth-century oil is beyond your means, prints, drawings and watercolors, which fall under the umbrella term “works on paper,” may be the best way to buy something by a favorite artist. “Once you go from what do I like to what does it cost to is that impossible, the next step is: What else could I buy?” says Ms.  Kelly. “If you want to buy something for a few thousand dollars, prints are always an option. And by prints, we’re not talking about reproductions from the museum shop; we’re talking about etchings and lithographs and monotypes, where the artist worked on the plate. The collecting of prints has its own levels and rules of connoisseurship and value in the same way that paintings do.”

The amount of money a specific work of art has garnered in previous sales can often be researched at a website called artnet.com. “Say you are considering a Picasso print from a certain period,” says Silvermine’s Helen Klisser During. “Artnet can tell you what Picasso prints from that period have sold for over the past ten years. You, as an enlightened collector, have access right at your fingertips. But do be careful — this is not telling you the condition of the works that sold, only the price point. Some people buy art, ” she pauses tactfully, “to get social status, and it’s like buying an ill-fitting Prada suit; it may be Prada but the cut’s terrible. Do not be taken in by the weight of the name. Dali signed a gazillion blank pieces of paper. You need to be shrewd — you’re not buying just for the signature.”

“Renoir is always going to be Renoir, and Picasso is always going to be Picasso,” comments Christopher Eykyn. “But not every Renoir is a masterpiece. Every artist — almost every artist — has an off day.”

The rarity of a print primarily reflects two elements: how many impressions were struck (fifty or 500?) and whether the artist is known to have made innumerable prints or a handful. Prints can be a significant investment, and you need to first ascertain whether works on paper would be suitable for your home. “Some of these larger and newer homes with great big windows and the beautiful sunlight streaming in? If you’re going to be putting thousands of dollars of works on paper in a room with a southern exposure and enormous Palladian windows, you’re going to be at risk,” warns Megan Fox Kelly. “Yes, there are things that can mitigate that risk, like ultraviolet glass, but a work on paper is far more sensitive than an oil on canvas. I still wouldn’t want an oil that’s older sitting in light that’s baking it — I’d want drapes on the windows!”

Another option is to find a niche market and specialize. Ellen O’Donnell Rankin of Rowayton, a curator, art adviser and lecturer whose experience includes directorship of the Aldrich Museum and consultant to the Canadian Arts Foundation, is currently enamored with Irish and British art of the past century.

“Many of the galleries in New York represent contemporary as well as historic British artists, but there’s not much of a venue for Irish art,” she says. “Ireland is a country that supports the arts through things like tax incentives. There’s a wonderful community of artists in Ireland who are finally getting recognition through galleries in Dublin as well as galleries in London, and now we’re trying to introduce those works to the United States.” Works on paper are notoriously hard to ship “across the pond” because of temperature and humidity issues, so Ms. Rankin and her partner Elizabeth Frances Martin are importing sculpture and works in acrylic or oil, and you can buy a stunning landscape in oil for as little as $2,500. “It’s new and interesting and wonderful,” says Ms. Rankin, “and also, for the moment, undervalued.”

Imagine that after a few years your walls are filled and you are well pleased, with maybe one exception. That splashy abstract over the fireplace doesn’t thrill quite as much as the day you hung it and stood back admiringly. Can you just blithely resell a work of art? Can a collection be fluid? “Yes and no,” says Megan Fox Kelly. “You need to think through your purchases. I don’t really like to talk about art as just an investment, but we all read about it, and we all have this feeling that it’s a highly liquid thing.”

There are two markets for all art: the primary market, or the first time a work is sold, and the secondary market. “With the primary market, you don’t have to worry about provenance,” says Ms. Kelly, “since you’re buying directly from the artist or the artist’s representative. But the artist might be so new that there isn’t a secondary market yet, and so that kind of purchase becomes a bit more speculative. You know, Antiques Roadshow has done wonders for the art and antiques field, but it’s also created expectations. We all think we have some treasure in the attic or that painting that Grandma saved is outrageously valuable. The price may go up but so does the price of a Mercedes, and to replace that sofa in your living room is going to cost more than it did ten years ago. So do your homework and check your expectations at the door.”

“Of course, there has to be one eye open on the investment side of it, but that shouldn’t be the tail that wags the dog,” says Christopher Eykyn. “At the same time, one doesn’t want to be making crazy financial decisions; one has to do one’s due diligence or find someone to do that for you, to ensure that the price you’re paying has basis in reality.”

No collector is ever truly finished, no matter how crowded the walls. The unattainable holy grail awaits, reposing in private hands or in a lofty state at an auction house. And a collection, in the end, is a responsibility, albeit a joyous and pleasurable one.

“The paintings and the sculpture will outlive all of us,” Eykyn continues, “and so one has to look after them and take care of them until they move to the next generation, be it within one’s own family or to a museum.

“I think collectors get a great sense of achievement and enjoyment out of putting together a collection that works well,” he says. “It can be a challenging and intellectual exercise and also may represent one of the fun parts of having been successful in business. One collector called me from Europe — it was two o’clock in the morning in Paris — and he’d just read an artist’s biography. I was at home having dinner with my wife in Connecticut, and he wanted to discuss what a crazy guy this artist had been, living in France in the twenties and thirties. There’s an excitement to it.”

“I love my paintings,” Peter Sutton says warmly. “They’re very pleasing to live with, and they’re much nicer than a stock portfolio. You get dividends every day.”