Learn About the Artist, Then Buy the Art
Q: I was at an art auction preview last week and overheard two people talking about a painting in the sale. One said to the other that the painting was a late work and not worth bidding on. What is a late work, and are late works not worth buying or bidding on? More generally, how do you figure out whether a work of art is worth buying?
A: A late work refers to a work of art completed toward the end of an artist's career. Whether or not a late work is "worth bidding on" or buying depends on the artist. Late works can sometimes be commercial in nature, second-rate repeats of earlier successes, or may be inferior in other ways due to an artist's advanced age. In general, collectors prefer early or mid-career works of art, but not always. Late works by Grandma Moses, for example, are highly collectible and definitely worth bidding on.
Now to your broader question-- what makes a particular piece of art worth buying? In other words, what about a work of art makes it great or good or noteworthy in any respect? The answer in large part involves understanding the life, art and career of the artist who made it.
One of the most common errors inexperienced art buyers make is buying without knowing much more than the names of the artists whose art they decide they want to buy. They assume that just because an artist is well-known, for example, that any work of art signed by them is valuable, and that the signature alone is adequate justification for buying the art. The truth is that it may be great and it may be awful. If you think for one instant that every single piece of art with a known artist's signature on it is automatically collectible, valuable or of superior quality, think again. If that's where you're at, you better watch out because you're fair game for anyone who might be inclined to sell you something mediocre for more than it's worth. Plenty of works of art by even the most famous artists are so subpar that no informed buyer would ever buy them, no matter how cheap they are.
People overpay for inferior art all the time because they don't have enough experience looking at art and don't know enough about the artists who made it to tell whether or not it's any good. In fact, the main reason why poor quality art has any market at all is that people who have no idea what they're doing buy it.
All artists, even the most famous, make great art, good art, not so good art, and art that just plain sucks. If you want to buy good and avoid sucks, you better learn how to tell the difference BEFORE YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT BUYING PIECE NUMBER ONE. Here's how to do it:
* Scour the Internet for information about the artist from as many different sources as possible. Get the big picture; don't stop after one or two websites and think you've done due diligence. Also look through any books, catalogues, articles or reviews you might come across-- as many as you can get your hands on and from as many different sources as possible. Pay special attention to interviews or features about the artist, either online or in books or catalogues, and pay especially special attention to the images or illustrations because those are usually better quality examples of the artist's work.
* Talk with collectors who are familiar with the artist, galleries who sell or represent art by the artist, and even curators or critics if you get a chance-- whenever and wherever you can. Have them explain to you what makes the good art good and why.
* If you're fortunate enough to have the opportunity, speak directly with the artist. Have them provide you with information about their career, their resume, and have them explain particular pieces or styles of art. Have them tell you about their most significant artworks and what makes them significant.
* Look at plenty of art by the artist-- as much as you can and wherever you find it. Your goal is to learn why one piece is more desirable or expensive, and the next one is not.
* Shop around. Get MULTIPLE opinions from MULTIPLE galleries or dealers BEFORE you buy. Do not settle exclusively on one gallery or dealer, no matter how compelling they are. Wait until you have a good feel for the overall market.
* Keep in mind that it's all about the art. No matter how gorgeous or well-appointed the gallery or how convincing the seller, you want to make sure you're getting a quality work of art for your money.
* Corroborate all claims that a seller makes regarding a particular work of art (or the artist who made it). Often you can simply ask the seller for information or data that substantiates what they're telling you; other times you may have to call out for second or third opinions. What you want are facts-- names, dates, prices, illustrations, essays, websites, etc. If you're not sure whether you've got enough information to go on, then wait until you are.
* Don't try to be clever and beat the bushes for bargains until you genuinely know what you're doing (if you only think you know what you're doing, then you're not ready either). Rest assured that you will be taken to the cleaners if you do.
Getting your basic art education may sound like all work and no play, but quite the contrary. If you like art, learning about it by going places and looking at it, reading about it, and meeting interesting art people in the process is pure pleasure-- and great adventure. The fringe benefits, of course, are that the more legwork you do, the better informed you get, and the more discriminating you become as a buyer.
Back to your original question, all artists have periods in their careers when the art they create is generally considered to be better than the art they create during other periods-- early, late or somewhere in between. The more you know about an artist, the easier you can identify which periods those are, what the art produced during those periods looks like, where the best places are to find it, and what prices are fair to pay for it. To repeat-- this is knowledge that you should acquire BEFORE YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT BUYING PIECE NUMBER ONE-- as you wend your way from website to website, dealer to dealer and gallery to gallery. Not only will you eventually find the art that's perfect for you, but you'll have plenty of fun and fascinating experiences in the meantime.
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