Buying art - 10 useful tips to remember

What are the ingredients for a great art collection? An educated eye, money, sheer luck? Norwegian explorer, mountaineer, publisher, lawyer and art collector Erling Kagge has gained fame not only for being the first person to walk to the South Pole alone and for having climbed Mount Everest, but most recently for the release of his book, A Poor Collector's Guide to Buying Great Art. In it, Kagge narrates how he built his impressive art collection, which includes works by Tauba Auerbach, Urs Fischer, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince and Wolfgang Tillmans, despite having a limited budget.

Dr. Claudia Steinfels


Kagge's book gives 24 tips, from which I have distilled the 10 most useful pearls of wisdom for the burgeoning collector and added some recommendations and suggestions from my own experiences.


Before doing so, let me give you my answer to what is art


Art is a very personal translation of observations, ideas and feelings into a concrete shape. It expresses the nature of the artist’s personality and, at the same time, is witness to the epoch in which it was produced. A work of art records the burning questions of existence facing a creative individual and reflects – often in a coded form – socially urgent issues that have often yet to find entry into the public discusssion at the time it was made. Art is a catalyst that gains the attention of its viewing numbers by means of sensory stimuli and unsettling content, encouraging a very individual involvement. The confrontation with highly expressive, moving, disturbing art is fascinating and touching: it inspires a very particular way of thinking about life, in general.


There are basically two reasons to buy art. The first is pure love and deep passion. If you don’t have strong feelings when looking at art, then don’t continue to read. The second reason to buy art is because you see it as a potentially lucrative investment. If you fall into this category only, then I strongly advise you to work with an art consultant. Either way, you will find endless possibilities before you: there is so much art out there from which to choose that before you look at how to buy art, you must be honest with yourself about what it is you’re really looking for. Photography or painting, still life or landscape, figurative or abstract? Contemporary Art versus Old Masters? Outdoor or domestic sizes? Endless questions, so let’s dig into the matter.


Is there right or wrong art and is there a right or wrong way to buy or collect art? Basically, anyone can collect. If you want to buy intelligently, I recommend you follow a couple of rules, as suggested by Kagge.

1. Be in love, be impassioned, be obsessed

Kagge says that, to get the best value from your budget, you must have an obsessive drive to research, source and capture the object of your desire.

He cites the legendary art dealer, Lord Duveen, who -standing in front of JMW Turner's Bridge and Tower - famously proclaimed: “If I owned that picture, I should want nothing else in the world." Ideally, every single acquisition should be approached in such a mood.


2. Cultivate the perfect eye, nose and ear

Sometimes, it can be difficult to differentiate between bad and great art. Kagge recommends to not only train your eye but also your nose and ear, meaning that you must listen to what people around you are saying. However, buying with ears alone and leaving your eyes behind is not good advice either.

Famous are the words of the legendary art dealer Irving Blum, who said that whenever he heard an artist's name mentioned by two or more people whose opinion he respected, he went to see the artist’s work.

Having mentioned this, never forget asking yourself: who is the artist, how significant is the art, what is the art's provenance, is the asking price fair?

3. Hang out with people in the art world

To get the most value for your money, it can be very helpful to cultivate relationships with the movers and shakers of the art world. Personal friendships with advisors, artists, curators, collectors, dealers and gallerists offer invaluable perspectives on contemporary art and insider information to which others may not have access.

Equally, train and educate your eye by going to galleries, visiting museums, attending art fairs, following auctions, talking to artists and dealers. Read a lot, check online, do your own research or get advice from a professional.


4. The gallerist holds the key

Galleries have a critical role in introducing artists to collectors. Kagge says that it is crucial to get to know several good gallerists who represent the artists you are trying to collect.

He also mentions that it helps to buy regularly from a handful of galleries, as they will repay your loyalty by giving you their best works or offering discounts.


5. Don't expect to make money

Collecting art with the intention of making money is the biggest mistake a collector can make. Kagge points out that art was not made to be an object of speculation. The real value of buying and collecting art comes from the enjoyment of having a great piece in your home. However, if you succeed in collecting great art, you will most likely not lose money in the long run.


6. Be an early bird

Being the first person to see the art (ideally before the opening) gives you the unique chance of accessing the best works. The same goes for buying works from artists early in their careers. Today, an artist's career and price trajectory can be steep. Kagge admits that he likes to buy an artist early because he may not be able to afford the works later.


7. Accept that the best price might not be the lowest price

Often, collectors have to pay top prices to get the best pieces. It's better to buy one fantastic artwork than to buy five or ten mediocre ones. Don't be afraid to invest in the right piece.

8. Buy opportunistically at auction

Auctions offer fantastic opportunities to buy high quality works from mid-career artists who may not be highly touted or who may have fallen behind. However, be aware that the auction houses put as much as 30 per cent commission on the achieved hammer-price.


9. Be nice about money

It’s important not to be discouraged from pursuing an artwork that you can't afford. Many galleries are prepared to negotiate the terms of a sale and payment of sums in instalments is common practice. Set your target high: even though you might sometimes go beyond your financial limits, it will level out in a short time. Time is usually a great friend when you’re buying amazing works.


10. Ask for advice

Would you buy a £50,000 car from a showroom floor, no questions asked? Would you buy a £1,000,000 house by standing in the front garden, simply by looking at it and deciding it's exactly what you want? Of course not. You read about the car, ask people who own it how they like it, compare prices from dealer to dealer. You tour the house, carefully inspect every room, find out comparable house values and have the property inspected by a contractor. In both cases, you want to know what you're getting before you spend your money and the same holds true for art. In other words: if you are unsure, get a second opinion from a trusted art adviser.


As long as you remember a few basic rules, buying art should be an enjoyable experience. Try to invest some time in becoming acquainted with the art world and the way it works. But more than anything trust your instincts – we all have an opinion of our own. Best of luck!


The pricing of objects of desire and beauty is a delicate matter and the values ascribed to those are dependent on many factors; some more tangible than others.


Parameters to check:

  • Authenticity

  • Quality

  • Rarity

  • Condition

  • Provenance

  • Cultural impact

  • Art Loss Register

  • Restitution issues


Art historian and expert Dr. Claudia Steinfels is a renowned authority on the art market. She founded Steinfels Art Consulting in Zurich and London in 2012. A former manager at Christie’s and senior director and auctioneer at Sotheby’s, she and her team possess a unique expertise and overview on today’s art world. Steinfels Art Consulting o ers highly professional, discreet and tailor-made assistance for all art-related businesses with a comprehensive portfolio of ser- vices in the areas of collecting and mediation, selling, donating and the inheritance of art. The company handles complex assignments and places personalised client solutions as its top priority.


© Prudence Cumming Associates, Courtesy Timothy Taylor; Zhong Han, Courtesy Timothy Taylor; Evgeniy Zakharov; zhudifeng via 123rf; Claudia Steinfels





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