Landscape with the fall of Icarus, by Bruegel the Elder

First Steps in Collecting

Starting a collection can be daunting, but if you go with what you like and seek good advice, you’ll soon get the hang of things. The trick is to do your homework.

Many years ago, on a trip to Paris, my mother saw a small painting she loved. After several days of stopping to gaze at the tiny figures of peasants in a bleak and unforgiving landscape, she decided to have a look round the gallery. Like many would be art collectors, she had a good eye, but hadn’t much idea about what she was buying, and, as it transpired, she certainly didn’t have the budget for a Bruegel.

There are three basic types of collector. The first group collect fine art as a form of investment; for them, the mechanics of the art market and the trajectory of an artist’s career path sometimes outweigh the desire to own a given piece. Provence and household name artists that will appreciate in value with an accessible resale market appeal to this type of collector.

The second group are the buyers for whom it’s important to be seen to be supporting the arts. These are often business people who buy mainly at charity fundraising events.

The last group is made up of people who buy art because they fall in love with a period, a movement, an artist or an individual picture. Purchases are made for life and his type of collector rarely sells a work. Most of us fall into this category.

If you have the means, there are a number of sources of advice. HSBC Private Bank, for example, offers an art advisory service that can assist in putting together a collection for investment and managing the associated tax implications.

If you’re of lesser means, then you can still learn from your own researches, as well as talking to experts. Most gallery owners and auction house experts are willing to share their knowledge and if you live in a major city, there are often membership organisations such as the Contemporary Art Society’s Blood, which organise trips to visit artist’s studios and galleries. Understanding how pricing works in galleries and at auctions can help you buy at a better price. Open studios, degree shows and art society events also provide a good opportunity to gain an understanding of the local market, at least as far as contemporary pieces.

Another option for sociable collectors is to join an organisation like Cambridgeshire’s Wysing Collective. This is a way for small groups of households or businesses to buy contemporary pieces. Members collect art with others, under Wysing’s curatorial guidance. A group of between six and 10 individuals or households join together to form a collective and create a contemporary art ‘fund’ through monthly instalments of £25 or £50, which then funds the purchase of works that are then owned by the collective. The work is rotated around the members’ homes or offices on a regular basis, so if you can’t bear to give a piece up, this probably isn’t for you.

If your taste runs to non-contemporary pieces, then auction houses, online price tracking and research are the resources you’ll use most in your search for pieces to purchase. Learn all you can about your chosen subject as it will help you make better buying decisions.

Choosing what to collect

One of the most daunting tasks for the neophyte collector is deciding what to collect. There’s a lot of art out there with a tremendous variation in price and quality. A useful approach is to assemble a virtual collection by seeking out work from online catalogues and galleries, as well as art books. By collecting together representations of work that appeals, without regard to cost, or availability, a collector can usefully narrow down their field of interest. My own virtual collection includes Blake, Russian Icons, Freud, Auerbach and Bacon. Lately, I’ve been lusting after Rogier van der Weyden. My collection of purchases, including a couple of pieces that have taken up residence in the boot of the car until I get them reframed and another in the garage that I may have neglected to mention buying, tend towards figurative works in cool or dark colours, with strong draftsmanship.

Every collector needs the ability to trust their own judgement. For many people, especially those who are just starting out, this self-confidence can be elusive. For some, galleries are formidable places, an atmosphere not helped by a surprisingly common habit of not showing information and the prices of the work hanging on the walls. For some reason bakeries do this too, but at least there the buyer can be reasonably certain that nothing is going to cost more than a pound or two! In galleries, it can often embarrass a would-be collector and stifle a potential long term gallery-client relationship before it even gets started.

As someone starting to collect, it’s fair to expect a few embarrassing incidents along the way. My first came when I made an offer by email for a painting of around 10% of its market value. This was the most I could afford at the time, and few people would give house room to a Ken Currie death mask. It wasn’t a piece that would sit comfortably above the fireplace. The gallery didn’t even think my offer worth replying to, and several years later, they’re still looking for a buyer, and I’m not likely to buy anything else from them. Some you win, some you lose, but that’s part of the thrill of collecting.

Whatever you decide to collect, the best piece of advice I can offer is do your research and buy work that you love today and that you think you’ll still love in years to come. Oh, and never buy a Picasso from eBay!


Above Image: Landscape with the fall of Icarus, by Bruegel the Elder, Flickr

Alison Daniels has a passion for collecting that outstrips her budget. She owns Rainmaker Projects, a small marketing, research and communications company with clients ranging from arts organisations to energy companies and writes for a number of trade, consumer and corporate publications and websites. She would sell her Granny for a minor Francis Bacon.