A Beginner’s Guide To Buying Art

If you think about buying art, you might first think about Sotheby’s auctions and absurd price tags; the rarified domain of the rich. What you need to know is that this image of art as something only the sophisticated can appreciate is rubbish – anyone can appreciate art.

An art collection doesn’t mean a dining hall lined with towering portraits of 16th Century European royalty with their horses and hounds. Everyone can, and should, own art. Affordable art exists, and it can transform a drab room into a meaningful expression of your character. And, if you’re lucky, it may even appreciate in value.

Now, unless you’re insanely wealthy, it’s difficult to afford art that’s near-guaranteed to increase in price. Usually, only the work of famous artists with secure legacies is a blue-chip financial outlay. If you’re among the vast majority of art buyers, the primary motivating factor should be whether you love the artwork. However, if you do your research and hone your instincts, you could develop a collection that’ll make you love coming into your home, has the potential to grow in value, and doesn’t require you to shell out millions. Here are a few tips to get started.

Look at lots of art

Would you love to have it hanging on your wall? Does it tell you something new every time you look at it? The best way to find answers to these questions – to discover what kind of art you really love is to spend time in galleries, both big and small, looking at art.

There’s no monopoly on appreciation, and there’s no secret to gazing at a painting and deciding whether it works for you. Butthe more you bring to art, the more you’ll find in it.

Along with seeing as much art as you can, it’s worth checking out some art history. The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes and Ways of Seeing by John Berger are a couple of highly readable classics that provide the groundwork for understanding how and why art matters.

Additionally, magazines like Artlink and Art Monthly are useful resources for keeping up with the contemporary scene, and following up-and-coming artists.

Get to know artists and gallerists

Elliott Eyes Collection buying art

Image: The Elliott Eyes Collection (Christopher Pearce)

If you find an artist you like, introduce yourself at a gallery opening or follow them on Instagram. If you love their work, send them a message. If you’re after something of a particular size or style or price, many artists are happy to discuss commissions, which can be tailored to your requirements.

“A gallery can provide insight into the artists and suggest other artworks you may like.”

Once an artist begins to see some success, they’ll usually come to be represented by a commercial gallery, which will show and promote their work on commission. If an artist is represented, you should buy through the gallery rather than from the artist directly.

Gordon Elliott and Michael Eyes own Sydney’s Elliott Eyes Collection – 324 artworks contained in their Erskineville terrace house. Elliot has developed a large network of gallery owners and artists.

“A gallery can provide insight into the artists and suggest other artworks you may like,” he said. “Also if they know you’re keen on an artist you may be able to get access to view works before others.”

Support emerging artists

Supporting emerging artists is not only the most affordable entry-point into the art world, it’s a way of contributing to your city’s art scene. The best way to ensure an artist’s success and the popularity of their work is to buy their art.

If you’re on a strict budget, start with artist-run initiatives, or ARIs. These are galleries run by artists, usually showcasing emerging artists and focusing on innovative and experimental work.

Smaller galleries will exhibit one to three artists simultaneously over the course of a month, launching each show with an opening event. They also occasionally hold fundraising nights, which offer the chance to snap up a bargain. For the last nine years, Firstdraft, an excellent non-profit venue near the Art Gallery of New South Wales, has held an annual silent and live auction that’s included artists such as Archibald winner, Mitch Cairns, with the majority of works selling for under $500.

buying art 2

Just start collecting

Elliott’s advice for how to begin a collection?

“Just start,” he said. “As your knowledge and experience of art and artists grow, your taste and budget will change.” And how do you improve? “Ask lots of questions,” Elliott suggested. “Ask other collectors how they manage their collection.”

“As your knowledge and experience of art and artists grow, your taste and budget will change.”

Any form of artwork can be collectible, from sculpture to photography to ceramics to video (if you purchase a film work, artists will sometimes provide you a nicely packaged limited-edition USB).

Photographs, prints, and sketches are often the most affordable media, and you don’t even have to buy the original. A signed photograph or print will often be labelled with its edition number (i.e. 2/6) and knowing that a work is part of a limited run can give you a good idea of whether it might be a worthwhile purchase.

George Adams is co-director of Sydney’s galerie pompom, a commercial gallery representing a wide range of local artists. His response to how to balance art as an investment and an aesthetic object: “Always go for what appeals to you first. Talk to the gallery staff that you’ve gotten to know. They can give you some idea of whether it’s also someone who will be a good investment purchase. But sometimes if you really love something then just buy it anyway, investment or not.”

If art’s not your thing, maybe you’d consider investing in shares.

Dan Dixon is a writer based in Sydney. He writes on the arts, politics, literature, and culture.