So You Want to Start an Art Collection?

March 05, 2021

By Kathy A. McDonald

how to start an art collection

If you are new to art collecting, don’t be put off by the hype surrounding whatever’s trending among deep-pocket collectors. While they may frequent art fairs such as Art Basel and high-profile auctions at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, it will be more valuable for you to establish your own sense of style or taste as you begin to amass a personal collection. And there’s enough art out there to suit any size budget, even for those starting out with limited funds. From black-and-white sketches, oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures and mixed media pieces to photography, pottery, tapestries, woodwork and even neon art, the options are endless. There’s also a new, innovative way to own a rare piece of art if you’re looking at the medium solely as an investment (and don’t need to actually hang anything on your wall).

Collecting art can be a fun, mind-expanding adventure. Ideally, a personal art collection shows what moves and inspires the collector and, in some ways, illuminates their personality, quirks and all. Which might explain why Everydays — The First 5000 Days, an NFT (non-fungible token) of a collage by the digital artist known as Beeple, just sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s. (The single JPG file is the most expensive NFT ever sold at auction by far and makes Beeple “among the top three most valuable living artists,” per Christie’s. His response on Twitter? The same as everyone else’s: “Holy f***.”) It could also explain why an almost ripe banana (purchased at a grocery store) attached to a gallery wall with duct tape sold for a reported $120,000 at 2019’s Art Basel Miami. Those sale prices might sound crazy (and they were), but like all things in the contemporary art scene, the name of the artist who created the work, the gallery that sold it and the person who bought it can contribute to its overall value.

And while most experts and art advisors agree there is no guarantee that a piece’s value will appreciate over time, owning personally treasured works by up-and-coming artists can dramatically pay off. Just ask the lucky few who kept and later sold their Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings.

The famed artist launched his meteoric career by selling his Xeroxed collage postcards on the streets of New York City’s East Village for $2 a pop back in the early 1980s. Decades later, Basquiat canvases remain in high demand (Beyoncé and Jay Z are fans) and at auction earn stunning prices (e.g., $110.5 million for 1982’s “Untitled”). Those who kept and later sold his creations, including those limited-edition postcards, scored a massive windfall.

What do you need to get started? We consulted a few pros to find out.

Determine Your Personal Taste
Investing first in one’s own taste is the most satisfying approach to collecting art. Art world professionals and collectors recommend finding work that resonates with you personally before banking on its eventual appreciation. “Buy what you love and want to live with” is their collective advice because for every Basquiat or Banksy picked up on the street, there’s endless fine art that’s merely decorative with minimal resale value.

“There are so many variables, that it can be hard to consistently pick winners or time the market (unless that’s all you do),” says Christian Pillsbury, a collector, entrepreneur and proprietor of Northern California’s Eden Rift Vineyards and winery.  Pillsbury bought his first painting, a small abstract landscape by painter Eric Aho, when he graduated from high school. Making money off of the investment was never his goal. “If you buy well, things have a way of coming up over time. For that reason, [my advice would be to] buy well in your chosen areas.”

Concentrate on a Type of Media, Style or Time Period
Smart art collecting begins with self-discovery. Cesar Garcia, executive and artistic director of Los Angeles’ alternative art space the Mistake Room, lays out a course of action: “Go and see as much art as you can before you buy anything — shows, museums and gallery walks will help develop your own eye. When you find something you really respond to, ask yourself: ‘Why did I or didn’t I like it?’ This allows you to really start honing in on the artists and practices you want to live with.”

Stay Focused
A cohesive collection, rather than random purchases, can be more valuable in the long run. Los Angeles-based art critic turned collector and gallerist Matt Gleason’s advice comes from acknowledging his own mistakes. “Having a narrow range or focus as a collector can really help you out; it allows you to say no easier,” he explains. Gleason’s learned over the years to dial down and concentrate on a specific genre, amassing a well-regarded collection of work by Chicano artists. “If you say yes to everything, you’re going to run out of money,” he warns. “If you’re thinking about investment value at all, really focus on what you love and learn the history, which will tell you who the players are and the market value.”

Set a Budget
“Buy what you love and buy within your means,” Marsea Goldberg, owner/director of Los Angeles’ New Image Art Gallery, advises. Goldberg echoes the essential need to research and develop personal likes and dislikes. (Her gallery is known for launching emerging artists into the mainstream.) “If you love art, and it’s not just a passing fancy, definitely stick to a budget,” Gleason echoes.

Even if you’re unable to save enough to purchase prestigious art, especially those pieces by famed blue-chip artists in the $1 million to $10 million range, you can still own some of those incredible, famous works.

A new venture established in 2019, Masterworks, acquires high-end paintings ranging from Claude Monet to Keith Haring, then files an offering circular with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and allows investors to buy shares for as little as $1,000. The return on investment is realized when the work is sold — unless, of course, it is sold at a loss.

Consider Multiples
Many artists produce limited editions of fine art prints (multiple and numbered works on paper). These tend to be more accessibly priced. The number of prints per edition contributes to the cost and value; the lower the number of prints, the higher the value. Street artist and OBEY Clothing creator Shepard Fairey (the artist behind the iconic Obama “HOPE” campaign poster) frequently releases well-priced, open-edition lithographs (as low as $35 for a signed print) via his website.

“Even if it’s a free poster, if you love an image, if you love looking at it every day and it makes you curious, makes you laugh and sparks joy, that’s what art collecting is about,” says Lorie Mertes of Miami’s Locust Projects, the city’s longest-running alternative art space.

Source the Internet
Following an artist online can lead to brilliant buys. Case in point: Damien Hirst, one of contemporary art’s major figures, recently released inexpensive prints as a fundraiser for several nonprofits. “Go to art fairs, talk to dealers, talk to artists, go to galleries and look at Instagram,” Goldberg suggests.

Instagram and other platforms enable artists — Boston-based landscape painter Julia Powell, for one — to cultivate a significant online following and sell directly to collectors. (Search #artworks, #artistsofinstagram and #artsy for the globe’s creative output). Popular online showcases (e.g., Etsy and Society6) connect lesser-known artists directly to collectors via their respective online marketplaces. Artsy.net features established galleries and also hosts individual art collectors seeking to sell select pieces with multiple ways to search. All major art fairs, auction houses and galleries catalog their shows online, providing an almost unlimited trove of material and resources for newbie and experienced collectors alike.

In the End, Always Collect From the Heart
Actor, producer and art fair-goer Brad Pitt explained to Marc Maron on his WTF podcast that he doesn’t collect art as an investment; rather, he said, he collects artwork that “moves” him. He looks for art that he’d want to be surrounded by each day.

That idea drives many collectors, including multimedia artist and collector Tim Youd, represented by New York City’s Cristin Tierney Gallery: “When I wear my collector’s hat, I want a piece on my wall that reveals something again and again.” Youd is also quick to point out that “personal tastes will change over time; collecting, in some ways, is a learning process.”

“Make sure you like what you’re buying,” warns Pillsbury, who recalls one piece by an important artist that he really didn’t love but bought anyway because he felt pressured. He thought it would grow on him. “It never grew on me at all,” he confesses, “and now lives as an expensive cautionary tale in a guest bathroom (where all bad paintings end up).”

What you learn and do today may come in handy down the road when you cross paths with the next Basquiat hustling handmade art on a street corner. Like they say, success happens “when preparation and luck meet opportunity.”