Questions Beginners Have

About Buying and Collecting Art, Part I

As an art consultant, advisor and appraiser, one of my jobs is working with collectors and beginning art buyers to help them understand how the art business works and how to locate and buy the art they like the most. Along the way, I get asked plenty of questions usually having to do with topics like figuring out what to buy, learning about art and artists, researching potential purchases, shopping at galleries versus online, deciding how much to pay, comparing prices, negotiating purchases and so on. Here are some of the more common questions people ask along with their answers....

Q: I'm interested in buying art but hardly know anything about it. Where do I start?

A: Hold off on buying for now. That's the most important thing. And look at as much art as possible. You don't want to find yourself in uncomfortable situations where someone is trying to sell you art you know little or nothing about, or for that matter, whether you even like it. In the early stages, you simply don't have enough of a footing to know your tastes and preferences, what questions to ask, and how to corroborate what sellers are telling you. Listen to whatever they have to say, but at the same time, politely inform them that you're just starting out and are not quite ready to buy.

While exploring the vast and wonderful world of art, don't limit yourself only to what you're already familiar with or what others think you should pay attention to. Keep an open mind and look at plenty of art everywhere, both at galleries and online. The art world is a really huge place with an unbelievable variety of quality collecting options. Along the way, ask all the questions you want, learn as much as you can, and get a feel for how different people talk about art. This approach makes for a great education and helps you identify the art and artists you really love the most. In the end, you never know what you'll discover and ultimately buy, live with and enjoy.

Q: Once I have an idea of what kinds of art I like, how do I find it? Where do I go and whom do I talk to?

A: Deciding what kinds of art you like and really focusing in on your favorites is an ongoing process. The more art you look at, the better you're able to fine-tune and direct your searches in terms of your favorite artists, subject matters and other particulars. Read, listen and see how it's described by galleries, by the artists who create it, and online. Pay attention to what the types of art you like the most are called and what words are commonly used to describe it. That's how you learn to search for and locate it. Gradually identify and zero in on the artists, galleries, websites and social media pages that specialize in your favorites offer significant selections.

Q: Should I buy art for enjoyment or investment?

A: Art has so many positive benefits-- it enriches, beautifies and enhances your environment; makes you think; shows you new ways of looking at things; introduces you to unique, unusual and fascinating perspectives; improves the quality of your life; informs and educates; engages your psyche; expands your mind, and just plain makes you feel good when you look at it. Rather than think of art as investment and in dollars and cents terms, consider its numerous non-monetary benefits and plus points as "intangible investments" instead.

Money should still be a concern, of course, but only in terms of making sure a seller's asking price is reasonable and in line with what similar works of art by the artist typically sell for. Rather than worry about whether or not it's going to appreciate in value over time, figure out whether you're paying a fair price now. That's what's most important. No one can foretell the future, but you can certainly determine fairness today based on current market information. All else considered, the easiest way not to enjoy art is to focus on money matters at the expense of all else.

Q: How do I decide how much to spend?

A: Strictly limit your purchases to discretionary capital, not money that's budgeted or required for necessities. Don't go too deep too fast; start off buying more reasonably priced art. As you become more experienced and confident in your collecting, you can gradually increase your per-piece price. Once you better understand the marketplace and especially the art and artists you collect, an excellent strategy is to buy the best work by an artist rather than smaller or less significant works. If the best work is too expensive or you're not all that experienced, sometimes starting smaller is better. Another option is starting with artists whose best work is more affordable and in your price range. Whatever you do, don't get out ahead of your knowledge level. Take your time, get grounded, and learn how to effectively navigate the artscape first.

Q: How do I find reputable galleries, dealers, artists, websites and other types of sellers?

A: Established resources are generally best for starters. For example, do galleries belong to recognized art dealer associations? How long have they been in business? Do they have respectable profiles in the art community? Are their artists and art shows reviewed by significant art publications, websites or critics? Best procedure at the outset is to work with galleries that have profiles in the art community and that collectors pay attention to. The same goes for websites that offer varieties of art from multiple sellers. Sticking with websites that vet or qualify their sellers are good to work with if you're new to art buying. In the meantime, read national and regional arts publications and online content provided by websites that specialize in the types of art you like. If you're buying or collecting more locally or regionally, find the most respected and established galleries, artists and websites for your area. You can usually ask around to find out which these are without too much trouble.

Q: Are there types of dealers, galleries, artists or online venues to watch out for?

A: Yes. The biggest warning sign is when you're inquiring about art you're interested in and things start moving too fast. For example, someone at a gallery might approach you shortly after you enter, engage you in conversation, begin by asking about what kinds of art you like, and then pretty soon start asking personal questions like where you live or what you do for a living. Or they may try to focus your attention in on a particular artist or work of art that they're representing or selling rather than talk about you and your preferences. Anytime you find yourself getting cornered or pressured into taking action now, especially on art you know little or nothing about, head for the door or the next website or wherever else you can flee to as soon as you possibly can.

Q: Is it good to go to art fairs like Miami Basel?

A: Absolutely. The best regional, national and international fairs show all kinds of art by all kinds of galleries and artists, and you can come away with a really good overview of whatever segments of the fine art marketplace they focus on. Not only do you get to numerous works of art up close and personal, but you'll also have opportunities to engage in conversations with an impressive array of sellers representing a wide range of artists, specialties, and geographical regions. The learning opportunities alone are more than worth the experience.

Q: Is it safe to buy art online?

A: Definitely. More and more people are buying art online, and online buying is getting safer and safer and safer all the time, assuming you're buying from reputable established sources. As you get a better footing and learn your way around, you can get more adventurous and start exploring a broader range of sellers and sites, but take it slow and make sure you know who you're dealing with and what you're getting yourself into. Follow your favorite galleries, artists and other art venues on social media and through their websites, get on their email lists, keep current with their offerings, and whenever you have questions, ask.

Many people who buy art online already know what they're looking for, but many more are constantly on the lookout for fresh, new, unusual or promising work by artists whose art they may not be familiar with. Until you really know what you're doing, avoid trolling for bargains on sites where anyone can offer any kind of art for sale without qualifications, or where private parties can sell whatever they want. Beating the bushes like that can be a very risky business.

Q: How about buying directly from artists?

A: I generally advise buyers to start with galleries and established online resources. As you become increasingly confident about what types of art you want you collect, have plenty of experience looking at and evaluating it, and know your way around the marketplace, you can definitely start approaching and buying directly from artists. You should also have some knowledge of how to determine whether an asking price is fair and reasonable before you start buying direct. Many collectors prefer buying from artists for the experience, the personal service, the adventure, the interactions, and so on. Some artists sell their art exclusively through galleries, particularly those with longstanding gallery representation, but as the Internet becomes more viable as a platform for selling, more and more artists are choosing to go it on their own and sell direct.

If you'd like to read Part II of this article-- more questions and answers for beginning art buyers and collectors-- you'll find it here.


Need professional input on your art buying or collecting? I am always available to assist. Give me a call at 415.931.7875 or drop me an email at and make an appointment. Typical consults only take a half an hour-- that's $95-- but in the long run that $95 will be nothing compared to how much you stand to benefit when deciding whether or not to buy, and more importantly, how much to pay.


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