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How to Buy Art Like a Pro

August 18, 2017  |  4 min read

“Does this sound familiar?  You’ve decided to buy a property.  It takes you weeks, maybe months to find, via buying agents or estate agents. Then you get the specialists in: a surveyor, then a lawyer.  Maybe you got some quotes for remedial work too.  A month or two down the line, once you’re sure the property and the area are alright, you finally put your money where your mouth is and cough up.  All that advice cost money but you know it was worth it, or you will when you come to the re-sell.  After all, who in their right mind would buy property without research, specialist expertise and advice, a survey and a search?  Well, strangely when it comes to buying art many people do, as it turns out.  Many people cheerfully throw away large sums of money buying art which, from the moment they’ve put down the money, can be worth a great deal less than they have paid – especially as it turns out, at the lower price levels but not exclusively. In fact often, if it’s contemporary work, it’s worth little more than the price of the materials.  Don’t believe me?  Try selling it back to the dealer you bought it from.  It is fine to not know anything about art and know what you like but having someone on your side with experienced advice is a good idea.

Now, it’s fine to buy art that way, but there is a better one.  The commercial art world is a minefield and most of the mines have been laid by the “trade” and those who are self-interested in selling certain art works; so be careful and get help, independent help. There are many, many good and exceptional Art Dealers but they all have a vested interest in talking up their artists/artworks, so find out what other informed people think and know.  You can generally spot them at an opening – they’re the ones who look at the pictures, not the canapés.  Quality in art is much less subjective than you might think.  A good starting point is a solid grounding in art history – you really can’t have enough of this.  Even with a fairly basic understanding, you’ll be able to root out the plagiarists and see them for the dull copyists they are.  You may also begin to discern the big issues that have driven the development of art over the last few centuries.  With this knowledge comes understanding, and with that, profound pleasure.  Next find out about your artist: read books if there are any, or failing that search online and catalogues but, remember, the dealer’s sales manual, often grandly called an exhibition catalogue, probably won’t be much help in ascertaining quality.  From your research, work out when the artist stopped copying other people and found a unique style.  Don’t worry, all artists worth their salt spend a good deal of time working through other artists’ idioms before finding what is somewhat patronisingly called their mature style.  Of course, some, in fact most, never do and they’re the ones you’ll never be able to sell.

So now you’ve got a picture by this artist and you know it fits the criteria.  Next, if this picture is by a famous artist, establish its authenticity.  When buying from auction or a reputable dealer, they will be able to give you binding assurances based on the piece’s provenance.  If they turn out to be wrong, they’ll give you your money back.  Let’s assume its right, now you need to check the condition.  Again, an auctioneer or reputable dealer should be able to tell you about this.  Whatever you do, always look very hard at the piece.  If in doubt, get a professional conservator to have a look.  I’ve seen drawings that have been ripped into shreds and then stitched back together so skilfully that even dealers have not noticed until it’s too late. It is often a good idea to get a quote for restoration work before buying, especially with older works.

Finally, check what comparable works have sold for through galleries and at auction but beware of comparing “apples with pears”! Works that look similar, of a similar date and size by an artist can vary in price dramatically. If it seems a fair price, buy it.  With luck you will have bought something of enduring interest to you and others.  Perhaps so much so that you’ll never want to sell it, but if one day you do put it back on the market, you might just get your money back plus some, at the very least.

The mode for investment in Art has dramatically risen over the last 10/15 years…and rightly so, but the key is for buyers to fully understand the pitfalls, nuances and nature of Art market. It is even more important though for those advising to understand the motivations and rationale of the buyer.

One addendum, if you think auctions are the cheapest option you may be surprised. Works sell at auction regularly for significantly more than you could on that same day, in the same city, buy for far less in a good commercial gallery, especially with “multiples” or prints. That sort of thing can happen when people don’t know anything about the market but know what they like.  Remember too that you can wait forever for something to come to auction that is readily available through a dealer and that the good dealers tend to have work of a far higher calibre than that which tends to come to auction.

If you haven’t got time to do all of the above, and frankly who does, then you might be best advised to get hold of someone who is independent of the dealers and who knows the business. They’re called Seymours.  Good luck!

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