A Beginner’s Guide to Building a Fine Art Collection

richard_hamilton copy

Step 1: Intent & Budget

A good place to start is to think about the reason you’ve decided to begin a collection. Is art collecting a new hobby? Are you trying to predict the next big auction star? Whether passion or investment is your goal, it’s wise to take a moment to consider what outcome you’re looking to achieve. These answers may also influence the amount you’re willing to devote to a budding art collection. Carefully create and understand your price limitations now, and it will help you keep a clear mind later.

Step 2: Discover Your Direction

You may already have an idea (or think you do) about what kind of art you like and dislike. There’s still a lot of art waiting to be discovered, so before you jump to a purchase, it’s good to consider your options. They best way to see what’s out there is to simply go and see it!

Keep in mind that building a collection of fine art should not only be viewed on a piece by piece basis. The best collections tell some kind of story, and each piece relates to the next. It may be helpful to think of your collection as a personally curated museum exhibition or gallery show. These often have a clear beginning and end point, as well as an overall theme. Themes can as specific as Female Portraits by Female Artists since 1950, or as broad as Scenes of Everyday Life. A direction will let you focus on a concept that you love, rather than individual pieces that you like.

No matter your budget, museums are an excellent place to go see different types of artwork. Take a look at art throughout the ages and you will begin to understand what styles, color palettes, and subjects stand out to you.

Art fairs are another inexpensive and efficient way to see an array of galleries and artists under one roof. While most of the larger, pricier fairs are taking place, various smaller satellite fairs pop up that are typically more focused and show pieces in a lower price tier. Gallery openings and auction house previews are also fun and free ways to view smaller selections of artwork. Don’t be intimidated to attend these only for research!

Understanding your taste will help you speak clearly about your interests to individuals in the art world. If you can explain what you like, it can lead you to other (likely more affordable) artworks of a similar style.


Step 3: Know What You’re Talking About

You shouldn’t feel rushed to make your first purchase! It’s better to take some time to thoroughly explore the art world before committing to a piece. If there’s a particular work or artist that still resonates with you months later, it’s a good sign that the piece is right for your collection.

It’s important to understand the market before you make your first purchase. There are resources available online (like artnet’s price database or AskArt) that can show you past sale prices for artists you’re interested in. Pay attention to gallery prices when you attend exhibitions, and don’t be afraid to ask if the prices aren’t readily displayed on the walls (it’s actually the law that galleries must disclose the asking price!).

Auction estimates in preview catalogs can also give you an idea for expected values. Always keep your budget in mind and target pieces you can realistically acquire. Always choose quality over quantity–wait to acquire higher quality pieces slowly, rather than purchasing many pieces of lower quality in a short time span. Remember, a good collection takes time to build.

Step 4: The Thrill of the Purchase

The are numerous different ways to acquire art. Find the gallery, auction house, online site, or studio that sells the works you’re interested in. Ask for the entire known history of the piece before you commit to a purchase. Choose the work with a clear and well documented provenance over one with a mysterious past. Has it been displayed in any exhibitions? Owned by a renowned art collector? Has it been restored? These are invaluable tidbits that can make one piece a better purchase than another.

If you’re purchasing at auction, it’s better to stay quiet the first few moments after a lot has opened up so you can understand the level of interest in the piece and the rate at which the price is increasing. Let the bidding settle down before you make your offer. Factor in premiums and other additional costs (shipping, framing, restoration, etc.) before you determine your budget per item.

If you’re buying from a gallery (whether brick and mortar or online) or from an artist’s studio, don’t be afraid to negotiate. If you’ve done your price homework and you know the current market and what you’re willing to spend, you can often engage in some degree of a negotiation. Asking prices are not set in stone!


Step 5: Keep it Clean

Educate yourself on how to best conserve each individual piece. For example, works on paper generally should be displayed where they will not be exposed to direct sunlight.

If you buy an item with existing condition issues, do some research to find out who the best art restorer is in your budget. Also seek advice on whether the restoration is necessary–sometimes it’s best to leave a piece alone.

Most importantly, make sure to retain as much information and documentation about each piece as possible. Even if you don’t intend to sell your artwork or disclose what you purchased it for, keep absolutely everything for your own record keeping. This includes a bill of sale, certificate of authenticity (if your piece came with one, if not–do some research to see if COAs are typically issued for that artist), gallery cards or auction catalogs that featured your piece, etc. The more information you keep, the better! If you are purchasing work by a living artist, ask questions about the piece and see if the artist will provide a written document for you. This will add to the provenance, and will be a nice token for you to remember the artist’s motivation for creating the piece, and your inspiration to purchase.

At the end of the day, art collecting should be a fun way to add some color to your daily routine. Don’t sweat it if you failed to purchase that one piece you missed, or if the market for another piece never quite took off. If you stick to what you love, you’ll never regret the purchase.

Featured Image: Detail of Richard Hamilton, La Scala Milano, 1968