Helpful Tips for Buying Art at Galleries

Q: I collect furniture from the 1940's through the 60's. I do a pretty fair amount of buying at collectibles shows and from stores that specialize in furnishings and decoratives arts of this time period. I've held off on buying any art so far, but many of the dealers have paintings and sculptures that also date from the period. What sort of questions do I need to ask before buying this art? What's the difference between the art they have for sale and the art that the galleries have? Who's more expensive?

A: Learning about art is similar to learning about furniture. With furniture, you begin by finding out who made it and how old it is. With art, you find out who the artists are and when the art dates from. The next level of questioning parallels learning the histories of furniture designers and manufacturers. You want to know when and where the artists lived, worked, exhibited, how significant they were, what they accomplished in their lifetimes, and how much their art currently sells for. In other words, how good is the art and do the artists have collectible track records?

Regarding where to shop for art, keep in mind that furniture dealers tend to know more about furniture than they do about art. If you're a serious Herman Miller collector, for example, you want to buy from a furniture dealer who specializes in furniture from that company rather than from an art dealer who may offer a piece or two of Herman Miller furniture from time to time. Likewise, experienced art collectors patronize art galleries rather than furniture dealers.

Since you're getting serious about art and you don't know that much about it, you should probably begin by shopping at art galleries that specialize in art from your favorite time periods. Be prepared to pay more, though, because they tend to deal in higher quality art and more collectible artists than what you see for sale from furniture dealers. An additional plus point is that art dealers are better informed, have better selections, more accurate pricing, and better overall perspectives on the fine art marketplace.

If, on the other hand, you're more interested in the decorative impact and appeal of the art-- the way it looks rather than what it represents or who made it-- and are not all that concerned about how famous or in demand the artists are, then buying at shows and shops as opposed to galleries is fine. Better furniture and decorative arts dealers consistently offer reasonably good quality works of art at moderate prices. The artists may not be that well known, but the dealers still consider their accomplishments and sell pieces that exemplify the dominant themes and subject matters of particular time periods. This is not to say that you can't find occasional pieces of top quality art by first or second tier artists at collectibles shops and shows, but it's not likely, and you really have to know what you're doing in order to make great buys in these types of venues.

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