Art Collecting 101: A Crash Course

Have you ever dreamed of decorating your home with an amazing collection of original artwork? If so, read on…we have put together a crash course on collecting art, with plenty of resources for further reading.

Personal art collection from Be More Art.
Living with Art via

Amassing a meaningful art collection requires a strong eye, time to explore, and a willingness to do some homework. Notice I did not say a ton of money. It’s possible to collect no matter what your budget, and I’ve known people who had delightful art collections that they gathered exclusively from garage sales and thrift stores.

Developing an Eye for Art

If you feel a psychological shock before a work, buy it without further ado.

Sergei Shchukin

But art collecting does require a solid understanding of what moves you. There is no better way to develop your instincts than looking at all kinds of art. Go to museums, check out art books from the library, or even take an art class yourself! We would urge you to explore art fairs and festivals, local galleries, open studios, Facebook and Instagram, and local art blogs such as the wonderful (which covers culture in Baltimore, Md).

The Rewards of Collecting Art

Collecting is a form of madness. It’s not a bad obsession. It’s not a drug addiction. It’s a good addiction. It keeps you out of trouble.

Jo Garfield, Art & Antiques 2010

Art collectors have a variety of reasons for collecting art. Some see curating as a creative hobby that lets them express themselves, others do it for the joy of living with great art. Still others embrace the challenge of the hunt, or they want to engage social and mingle with creative people.

The talks on Larry’s List with art collectors are a resource for understanding the myriad of benefits of art collecting. In particular, I enjoyed this interview with Freddy Insinger about being a younger art collector.

The best book I’ve found on why to collect art is by Ethan and Thea Wagner. The Wagners are avid art collectors, and this book outlines the thrills and rewards of art collecting.

Collecting Art or Investing in Art?

Damien Hirst should run Lehmann Brothers.

Alberto Mugrab

Ethan and Thea Wagner also offer many thoughtful insights on the difference between collecting art versus investing in art. One such insight is “the art market [is always] rife with unimportant artists who are overpriced and important artists who are underpriced.” And they strongly question the assertions like “the best art is the most expensive because the market is smart.”

That said, the Wagners are well aware of the current tendency among some collectors to place a priority on market trends. After all, art is considered a financial asset class along with stocks, bonds, and real estate. There are even companies now that treat famous masterworks as commodities, letting investors buy shares in blue-chip artwork, and share the profits when they are sold.

Understanding the Ecosystem

Art is about life, the art market is about money. 

Damien Hirst

Adam Lindemann wrote a fascinating book called Collecting Contemporary in 2016. It was an insider’s guide to the contemporary art market. Lindemann defines the key players: the Critic, the Dealer, the Consultant, the Collector, the Auction House Expert, and the Museum Curator. Then he rounds up the most influential people in each role and coaxes them into tell-all interviews. This is entertaining and juicy, and it paints a picture of the conflicting interests at play.

To a large degree, the gallery system is a self-regulating affair designed to promote and protect the interest of everyone involved. This delicately balanced ecosystem is vulnerable to irresponsible collectors. Collectors who flip art can seriously upset the apple cart by driving the work of contemporary artists up to unsustainable price points. This kind of dynamic can seriously jeopardize the artist’s long term career prospects.

Fear of unfettered speculation on the work of living artists has led to the unspoken rules of the art world, and the use of systems, or “waiting lists,” that determine which collectors get access to the most desirable works. In fact, a new collector may have trouble getting access to sought-after artwork because of these opaque systems. For those collectors who would like to cultivate a reputation with leading galleries, the usual advice is to develop deep collections of the work of artists that they enjoy early in their careers. This early support can pay off in terms of priority access to the most desirable works of those artists at the height of their careers. Obviously, this is a long game and represents a long term commitment.

Approaches to Collecting Art

Doug Woodman, an economist, has written a book called Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate about Art. Woodman shares interesting examples that illustrate how the art market works and gives advice for new and prospective art collectors. Interestingly, Woodman divides art collectors into three “species”; the connoisseur, the masterpiece collector and the marketplace collector.

The masterpiece and marketplace collectors largely operate within the traditional gallery system, collecting work by dead artists and a few mega-stars among the living. Masterpiece and marketplace collectors are few and far between because a relatively small number of people have either the means or access to collect works from artists at the pinnacle of the market.

What differentiates marketplace from masterpiece collectors is this: the masterpiece collector is interested in only the “best” works from an artist, while the marketplace collector is happy to collect a selection of works from proven names. The marketplace collector tends to collect from leading galleries and major art fairs and enjoys the social scene of the art world.

But the heart and soul of the art market today is the third type, the connoisseur collectors. Unlike the masterpiece or marketplace types, connoisseurs tend to collect artwork from overlooked, emerging or mid-career artists whose investment potential is unclear and uncertain.

Larger in numbers, connoisseurs are motivated by the emotional rewards of art collecting. They also enjoy learning about art and make their own decisions without generally relying on art advisors or gallerists/dealers. While these collectors tend to be affluent, spending about $5000/year on a handful of pieces, examples abound of art collectors who started on a shoestring budget.

A New World for Connoisseurs

In recent years, a new world of possibilities has opened up for the connoisseur. Indeed, for anyone who is collecting for primarily for love of art. And for those who would rather forego navigating the complexities of the art world ecosystem of leading galleries and major art fairs.

Today anyone with a mobile phone can discover art on Instagram and buy art directly from artists around the world. In addition, online art marketplaces have significant advantages because a collector can conveniently and efficiently search through almost unlimited options; and prices are generally lower and often far more transparent than in a traditional gallery.

If you are interested in exploring the world of collecting online, we’d encourage you to check out our A to Z Guide here.

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