As you look around your home, you realise that you’ve started to amass a number of artworks. You also spend hours each week reading about exhibitions, artists, fairs and searching for work on various online platforms. It’s time to admit you’ve been bitten by the art bug. The good news is that you’ll be infected for life, despite the best efforts of economists, accountants and their armies of tenacious number crunchers to find a cure.
Being a collector is not always an easy path to follow. Family and friends will look at you strangely, other collectors will challenge your rationale (or lack thereof), your wealth adviser will try to steer you towards investment vehicles which offer him a better kickback, and “Hi, I’m an art collector!” rarely works as a captivating conversation starter outside of galleries and fairs. But there are things you can do to win friends and admirers along the way by ensuring you collect like a museum curator, no matter what your budget or collection size.
Understand your collecting motivations and aims
Ask yourself honestly why you collect art. In all probability the full answer won’t come to you in a split second. Beyond “because I love it”, are you interested in a particular artform, culture, movement, artist, etc? Or do you see art as a tangible asset class for building wealth (if yes, read the section below on research at least ten times)? Knowing why you collect and what you hope to achieve helps you stay focussed and to not waste money on art that is irrelevant to your collection. Sure, your aims may change over time, but a serious collector’s motivations and aims don’t change just because they’ve discovered the Next Big Thing on Instagram.
Define your collection policy
All good museums have a collection policy which the curators follow. Typically a written document, it defines the parameters of what is allowed to be collected to ensure it’s relevant to the stated charter of the institution. Use the intelligence you’ve gained from the exercise above to define your own personal collections policy (it doesn’t need to be in writing, but it might be a handy reference if you’re easily distracted by exciting – but irrelevant – art that’s constantly coming on to the market). Obviously as a private collector, you have more latitude to adapt and change your policy as your collecting horizons expand, whereas the National Portrait Gallery will never acquire anything that’s not a portrait. Plus you can modify your policy without being subjected to lengthy curatorial committee and Board approval processes, unless you count an involved and/or opinionated life partner as your committee and Board.
Do your research on the artist and dealer
While this might sound blindingly obvious, surprisingly few private collectors research their artists and art sellers in much depth and breadth. You need to have a clear idea of where your chosen collecting area fits within historical and contemporary contexts. Here are just some of the questions you need to consider:
About the artist and artwork: What type of exhibition and auction records do the artists have? Are they of local, national or international relevance? Are they in public or significant private collections? What has been written about them, and where do these articles appear? How well respected is the writer? Have they been the subject of fraud or forgery; what was the outcome? Have they ever disowned work, and under what circumstances?
About the seller: Who are their representative galleries and/or secondary dealers? What type of reputation do these art sellers have? What has been written about them? Are the names of the owners of the gallery/dealership/auction house publicly available? Do you know anyone who can recommend these sellers to you as trustworthy? If they belong to industry associations, how credible are these associations? Beware of taking the seller’s credentials on face value. Not all associations are equal!
Build good relationships with galleries and auction houses
Everything you’ve read about getting preferential access to work is true: relationships really matter! Be patient, because the various sellers and industry professionals want to know that you’re not wasting their time and that you’re committed to the artist and to them (believe me, galleries work out pretty quickly which relationships are worth cultivating). And don’t expect to get generous discounts from the outset; you won’t, unless they’re a minor gallery desperate for a quick sale. The higher up the ladder you go, the longer this process will take. Money may talk, but privileged information is gold.
Check the provenance & condition report
Provenance is where even seasoned collectors and public museums can get caught out. As a general rule of thumb, the more hands a work has passed through, the harder it becomes to determine whether the provenance is authentic. This is where your research on the seller is important: if they are highly regarded, the risk of forged or misleading provenance is reduced significantly. But as the New York Knoedler case highlights, there are rogue “good” galleries, too. For contemporary and modern work, it’s especially important to check how often it’s been traded. Works that are flipped (resold frequently) tend to lose value because collectors rightly or wrongly believe that the flipped work is inferior to the rest of an artist’s oeuvre.
Always check the condition of the work carefully – even new work! Are there signs of damage, wear, or repairs? If the work has been repaired, who did it and to what standards? Is there any documentation to support that? This has implications on the conservation of the work into the future. What might look like minor issues now could turn into expensive conservation headaches later as the work ages.
Consider present and future conservation needs
All work at some stage will need preservation or conservation. The materials the work is made from and the condition it’s in when you buy it, will determine what needs to be done and when. For some works, it will be decades before any major work needs to be undertaken; for others it will be an immediate need. Naturally, there are costs associated with that process, so check before you buy. Also keep in mind that each material has its own environmental vulnerabilities, e.g. paper hates bright light, UV and humidity. Be prepared for non-archival materials to degrade faster than proven archival materials, and certain materials when mixed or brought into contact, have adverse reactions that may only show up as the years pass. Time-based and digital media will eventually need to be migrated to new platforms as current technology is superseded; a failure to stay abreast of these IT changes could mean you can no longer display the work.
Transport and storage requirements
If you have run out of space to exhibit the work you’re considering acquiring, ask yourself what are its storage requirements and what costs that will impose on you. Storage should always be dry (check the relative humidity), dark and secure. Shelving and packing materials should always be acid-free and cleaned regularly. Transport for fragile works can be very expensive if a work requires specialist crating or handling such as temperature controlled shipping. Do you also have space to store those expensive custom-made travel crates? Public galleries may pay for these costs if they’re loaning your work for an exhibition, but don’t assume they will.
Like all precious things in life, your collection should be properly insured. Don’t neglect to notify your insurers each time you add a new piece to your collection, unless it’s covered under your household insurance. If you move your collection around regularly, you might also want to investigate taking out your own transit insurance that covers the work from door to door. Most carriers that offer insurance only cover the work while it is in the vehicle, which puts your work at risk while it’s being loaded and unloaded. In my experience, most damage occurs during manual handling, not during transport (providing it’s been properly packed and loaded). Check that your work is fully covered during exhibitions, loans to museums, or at any other place – including your framer – either under your own policy or the other venue’s! Finally, take high quality photos that can be used to identify your work in case of theft.
In this information hungry world, it pays to keep good records of your collection. As your collection grows, consider giving each piece a unique acquisitions number so it’s readily identifiable (“untitled” by Sam Citizen, cat. no. 156.2012 as opposed to “untitled” by Sam Citizen, cat. no. 138.2010). This is standard museum practice. Keep copies of 300 dpi print quality images, certificates of authenticity, bill of sale, associated paperwork, condition reports, loan agreements, artist CVs, exhibition records and catalogues, articles, etc that relate to each piece. There are some excellent collections management programs around that can help you digitise and manage your database. Having this information at your fingertips means that you can quickly identify where every piece is displayed or stored, what work you have on loan and when it’s due back, when conservation checks are due, insurance reminders, etc. And if you then decide to sell a work, a complete history of the piece may help increase its value.
One final pro tip
Never do anything to a work unless it’s totally, completely reversible – including framing! Anything you add to a work should be able to be removed without leaving a trace (serious conservation work excepted; consult a qualified and experienced conservator). You risk damaging and devaluing the work, and if the artist is particularly sensitive, having the work disowned by them.
Collecting art has immeasurable personal and cultural rewards when done with equal doses of consideration and passion. And there’s no economic formula to describe it.
If we can assist with you with further advice, please don't hesitate to contact us.
First published January 2016 in two parts on our our blog art means business.