Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are considered two of the most influential art collectors of the 20th century. They were civil servants from New York City who chose to live a frugal life and spend all their savings on art, including ceramics by Picasso and artwork by Roy Lichtenstein which they could only just afford on Herbert Vogel’s $23,000 a year wage. Nowadays, a National Gallery curator called their collection “literally priceless”.
Collecting in art is risky, as it is almost impossible to know how famous an artist will become and, in consequence, how valuable their art will become. However, the thrill and the prospective financial gains from collecting art can be enormous, as the Vogels’ story teaches. Its rare but possible.
Here are some ideas that should guide you as you take your first steps in art collecting.
Figure out why you want to collect art
If you have decided to seriously begin investing in art collecting then you probably already have a few pieces along with a general idea of how the world of collecting works. But as you would do before embarking in any other investment, you need to establish what your motives are.
Do you want to buy art because you love it? Or because you hope to sell it for a profit later in life? Knowing what your aim is will guide you through all your decisions after you enter the art world. A 2008 Wall Street Journal article collected responses from art buyers and they went from Julia Stoschek, who collects “to document her generation”, to Amir Shariat, who is “addicted to the hunt”.
Learn as much as possible about art and investing
Saatchi Art’s Invest in Art series, dedicated to showcasing upcoming artists, has a footnote that reminds collectors that “there are no guarantees when it comes to buying art and you should always feel happy with what you’re buying as it may be on your walls for a pleasurably long time”.
You can make collecting a bit less risky by bringing your passion to a whole new level. There is so much to say about art collecting that since 2014, Christie’s New York offers a Certificate Course in Collecting Contemporary Art.
Develop your knowledge by going to art fairs and galleries and experiencing as much new art as you can. Learn about different artists and about movements that interest you. Go to smaller galleries: you might not find a tour guide at the Saatchi Gallery in London, but just around the corner at galleries like Plus One or Gagliardi you will be able to have the curators and owners really delve deep into art with you.
Choose artists with your brain, but also your gut
There are a few ways you can go about deciding who you want to collect art from. You can choose (relatively) renowned artists, spending a bit more upfront and therefore having slightly better chances of making a good return of your investment.
You could also seek out the established artists who aren’t yet household names. Owais Husain, Rosie Irvine, James R. Eads are good examples as they have been featured in numerous galleries and shows, and have an established body of work.
Online art sellers Artfinder say that this is the only right way to buy art, and that investment buying is a mistake: “The art market is fickle, […] so buy it because you love it and not because you feel you should”.
But the Alternative Art Fair advises to start with physically smaller pieces of art, as they are cheaper and therefore slightly less risky investments.
Make friends in the art world
Especially at the very beginning, actively engage with other art collectors as well as auction houses, dealers and gallerists. Finding people you can trust will be useful as you build up your collection and these people can help and advise you. On the Observer site, collector Ashton Hawkins comments that “artists and dealers who are your friends don’t require you to negotiate as hard, maybe that made buying art more fun”.
You can also join young patron groups at your local galleries and museums: you will get many opportunities to buy and learn, and you will meet many fellow collectors. Examples are the Guggenheim Young Collectors Council and Tate’s Patron schemes in London.
Don’t forget the hidden costs of art
The price tag you are thinking of is the one on the art you want to buy. However, remember that once you have bought a piece of art, you will need to maintain it. The Financial Times notes that any piece of art needs to be preserved in climate and humidity controlled spaces so as not to damage it.
You can rent storage that suits your art’s needs, but this can come at a hefty price, especially if you want a private space for your art. If you decide to show the artwork in your home, you will have to make sure it is displayed in the best possible condition. For example, a painting needs to be framed with acid-free mats and ultraviolet resistant glass. As always, your investments need to be protected.
Other costs that you should consider and will not be able to avoid are specialist fine art insurance for each of your purchases, which is absolutely essential, as well as the buyer’s premium if you’re buying from an auction house. Sotheby’s standard premium for art under $50,000 is 25%, so as much as $12500.