Whether you would like to purchase a few artworks to fill wall space in a new apartment or you are interested in beginning a serious art collection, buying at auction can be a straightforward entry point. The process is rather transparent, and it is one of the few opportunities in the US art market to have an idea of pricing up front. Auction houses always provide an estimate of a work’s value—a range in which the specialists believe a work will sell. Following are my top tips for new collectors.
Figure out what you like. You ought to do this first, no matter where you think you’ll buy your first few pieces. Visit local museums, commercial galleries, auction previews, and art fairs. Read art books and periodicals. Follow artists, museums, curators, art critics, and gallerists on Instagram (some of my favorites are @lornasimpson, @icaboston, @whitneymuseum, @louisianamuseum, @eugenie.tsai, @curator_on_the_run, @robertasmithnyt, @galerielelong, and @wienerroitherundkohlbacher). Keep in mind that the artworks you purchase will be installed in your home or office. They will be things that you see often; so, you should love them!
Come up with a budget. It’s always a good idea to start small, especially if you’re still developing your taste in art. Decide what “small” means to you and your bank account ahead of time, so that you won’t be caught in the tough spot of falling in love with something you can’t afford.
Start easy. By this I mean lower price point, good condition, an artist you’ve heard of before. Your best bets will be photographs, works on paper, or small-scale pieces. Works on paper include prints which are made in multiples (look for ones that are signed in pencil and were made in small editions) and unique works on paper (drawings, watercolors, pastels, etc.). You will need to be mindful of condition because works on paper are more difficult to care for than are paintings on canvas or bronze sculptures. Check for toning or discoloration to the paper, fading, creases, and tears. Also, think about how you will display the work – it’s best to keep works on paper away from too much natural light and humidity. You can often find a good buy on a work on paper that is unframed; but, in order to hang it, you’ll need a frame with glazing (ideally uv-protected Plexiglas). It’s great if you come across something you love by an artist with whom you’re already familiar; however, if you see something interesting by an artist you don’t know, that is a good chance to do a bit of research. I recently purchased a small abstract gouache on paper by the Swiss artist Walmar Schwab. I’d never heard of him, but I’m very interested in 20th-century European abstraction. Try to avoid works that are outside of the usual practice of an artist—artists often stick to the same motifs and/or artistic styles throughout their careers. Buying a student drawing of a studio model by an artist who is most recognized for his or her large-scale gestural abstract paintings might not be the best choice.
Ask questions! Auction previews and art fairs are a great place to do this. You can see a wide variety of artworks at both, and auction specialists and gallerists are on hand for just this purpose. Auction previews are free and open to the public, and estimates are clearly displayed on the label for each work. My colleagues and I are always available at Skinner’s previews. We may be tucked away in an office, but please ask to speak with one of us—we’ve worked hard to catalogue each work, and we love to share what we’ve learned along with any details about condition or provenance that we can share! We’re also happy to discuss the market for a certain artist or genre and the auction process, and we’ll even let you see the back of a painting or the underside of a sculpture. Likewise, dealers take on the expense, time, and effort of setting up a booth at an art fair just so that they can get in front of a new audience. They welcome questions about the art they are displaying and pricing. You will often have to buy a ticket to get into an art fair, and the prices of the artworks will not usually be displayed on the labels (though some European galleries do include prices on their labels, and other galleries may have a price list available, usually you will have to ask for this information).
Do your homework. Buy from a respected auction house or dealer, one who will address issues of authenticity and provenance. If there is a catalogue raisonné, make sure the seller can provide you with the catalogue number and/or page for the specific artwork. Ask for a detailed condition report and more images. If you don’t know the jargon used in a catalogue description, condition report, or in the conditions of sale, ask or Google it! As I mentioned above, my colleagues and I are always happy to explain any part of the auction process—provenance, condition, bidding, buying, shipping, etc.—and, if there is something we don’t know (we are not conservators, and we don’t always have access to thorough provenance), we will tell you that too!
One main difference in buying contemporary art from an auction house rather than a gallery is that with an auction house you are dealing with the secondary market. That is, this is at least the second time that particular work has been sold. The secondary market for many contemporary artists is not very deep, making for affordable auction buys, especially at regional auction houses outside of New York City. I think the best auction experience for first-time buyers involves visiting the preview and coming to the auction. Come well before your lot is set to come up, so that you can get the feel of the room and see how it works (in fact, even if you aren’t ready to bid on anything, or prefer to leave an absentee bid, still come to prepare for your next auction!). I hope to see you at a preview soon.