Buying art on a budget

Quality in art is not always related to price. It may take a good eye, some specialized knowledge, a great deal of patience, or a bit of luck, but it is possible to find and buy good art for relatively little money.

One can get good original paintings dating back from one to three centuries for as little as $1,000, or a solidly painted smallish contemporary canvas for three-quarters of that amount. It is also possible to buy good impressions of Old Master etchings and engravings for less than $50, excellent drawings and watercolors by artists of the 19th century for a few hundred dollars, and contemporary prints and works on paper for anywhere from $30 to $300.

It all depends on knowing where to look, and knowing something about what you see.

Before setting out with checkbook in hand and a covetous gleam in your eye, however, it might be wise to know precisely why you want to buy art. So many stories have recently appeared detailing spectacular profits made from the sale of paintings bought for very little only a few years before that the notion of buying art for profit has become common.

My response to that is, forget it! While it does indeed happen, such a profitable event is almost always the result of blind luck, a great deal of time spent pounding the pavements, the sort of sophisticated knowledge it takes years to acquire - or large sums of money to invest. Even then, the buyer has the problem of selling his fortunate find, and that can often be a long, difficult process.

A much better reason for buying art is that you love it and want to live with it. Or that you want to learn more about it. In either case, some knowledge of art is extremely helpful. Even the general art lover can lose his way in the gallery world if he isn't familiar with it, and becomes confused by the great variety of art on display. And the novice collector, groping his way in an unfamiliar world, can easily mistake slick technique or gimmick surface effects for the real thing.

Unless you fall in love with a work of art and absolutely must have it, or feel truly comfortable in the choice of a particular work, it's best not to buy it - even if a knowledgeable friend insists that you do. You'll be much better off if you look around a bit longer. And when you do find something you like and can afford, you should ask questions, find out all you can about the artist and his ideas, and, in general, familiarize yourself with as much of his work as you can. (You may, for one thing, discover that you like other paintings of his better than the one you originally saw.) You should remember, after all, that in buying art you are not so much buying a thing as you are bringing a quality, a mood, a vision of life, or a pictorial idea into your home or office.

With that in mind, where do you go to find art if you have limited financial resources, little knowledge about art, and a desire to get something of quality that is not merely a piece of pictorial gimmickry or sentimental trivia?

The opportunities are almost unlimited! There is hardly a town or small city in this country that doesn't have at least one framing establishment that also displays and sells art by local painters, sculptors, or printmakers, or a gallery or two featuring local talent. And the quality of such work, as I can attest from having seen many examples of it throughout this country, is generally remarkably high - even if sometimes a bit ''local'' in flavor and somewhat unsophisticated in technique.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to buy in one of the important art centers such as Chicago, San Francisco, or New York, your options remain just as great. New York, for one, has hundreds of galleries, quite a few of which sell relatively inexpensive works (somewhat under $1,000 to slightly over $2,000), as well as more expensive ones. (This is especially true now that America's 20-year art boom has apparently ended, and dealers are beginning to take a somewhat more realistic attitude toward lower-income collectors.)

If you have chosen New York, but haven't the time to visit all its galleries, pick up a copy of The National Art Museum and Gallery Guide. It comes out monthly (except in the summer); includes short but concise rundowns on who and what is showing at which New York - as well as many other United States - galleries; and is distributed free or for a small fee by many dealers. With it in hand, and with patience and persistence, you should be able to see quite a bit of art within your price range.

Auction sales are also excellent places to buy art. Although auctions take place in almost every American community, very few outside the major metropolitan areas feature art. Here again, New York stands out, with two of the world's great auction houses (Sotheby's and Christie's) and an increasing number of only somewhat smaller but excellent establishments where the modest collector can often successfully bid for works he otherwise would have thought utterly beyond his means.

All reputable auction houses hold pre-auction exhibitions of what will go under the hammer, and a few publish illustrated catalogs as well. Attending these preliminary viewings and studying these catalogs is essential if you want to know what to bid on. Again, however, if in doubt, don't buy.

The best bargains of all are original prints. Your choice here ranges all the way from 15th- and 16th-century Old Master engravings to prints by today's most innovative or tradition-minded printmakers. And at prices that range from $35 to as high as you want to go. It is even possible to get lesser and later impressions of Rembrandt etchings for several hundred dollars (and fairly good ones for $3,000), and fair impressions of prints by Durer, Blake, Goya, Daumier, Redon, and Whistler for $1,000 or $2,000. And, as for contemporary prints, if you steer clear of the big names and concentrate on the relative newcomers, you can easily build a small but excellent print collection for what it would cost to buy one really good painting.

In short, buying art on a budget is largely a matter of common sense and careful shopping. While it certainly helps to know something about art and to know precisely what you like, neither is absolutely necessary - as long as you exercise patience, ask questions, really look at the art you see, and aren't stampeded into buying. It's really only a matter of finding something you like and can afford, and then wanting it enough to spend your hard-earned cash for it. Some people might think that money misspent, but to those of us who love art , it is the best way of all to spend money.

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