The Art of Affordable Collecting

Set a goal, do your homework, visit galleries, fairs, auction houses, and most of all, follow your passion

Not many thrills in life exceed the thrill of the chase. Pursuing another addition to a growing collection keeps the eyes sharp and the legs strong. As Raymond Nasher, whose collection of modern sculpture is on view at the Guggenheim Museum, says, "Collecting makes life more exciting. There's the aspect of being on a quest, always looking, always evolving. It brings a great sense of joy."

Yet, when it comes to collecting art, most people are intimidated and uncertain how to begin. Experts offer a few tips on how even the financially and aesthetically challenged can begin to collect art.

"New collectors need to define what they want out of a collection," says Elaine A. King, former executive director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center and now professor of critical theory and history of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She adds, "One thing that hurt the art market in the 1980s was collectors began to look at art as pork bellies. There was an investment boom, then the art market fell out, and people got angry."

Her advice: If your goal is speculation, hire a professional consultant. But if you seek to acquire art for pleasure and stimulation, you should embark on a journey of self-education. The first step is to focus. "Otherwise, you get this higgledy-piggledy collection," Dr. King says. "Determine your preferences," she continues. "Do you like figurative work, pieces with political or social commentary, word-and-text pieces, colorful art? Give yourself some boundaries, and trust your intuitive response."

Charles Carpenter is a self-taught collector who acquired art on a modest budget, paying in installments. The retired chemical engineer from Connecticut, whose outstanding collection of contemporary art was recently exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, explains how he got started: "I read everything. I read about Jackson Pollock before I ever saw a Pollock." Mr. Carpenter was working in a steel mill in Gary, Ind., when he saw his first Pollock. He paid $100 for a gouache by the artist in 1947. (Pollock paintings sell for upwards of $10 million today.)

Talk to artists

Besides reading voluminously and constantly looking at art in museums and galleries, Carpenter says, "I talked to artists. Good artists know more than anyone else about art."

In the process of collecting their works, he became friends with blue-chip artists like Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly before their works were selling. When Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg could not afford $50 a month for a studio, Carpenter paid a few months' rent. He visited Oldenburg to see new work, always bringing a deli sandwich for the "poor, struggling artist."

One day, Oldenburg called Carpenter saying, "Your sandwich is ready." Carpenter expressed surprise that Oldenburg was treating him to lunch. The sculptor said, "No, it's a painted, plaster sandwich" - a wall piece that Carpenter added to his collection.

Besides opportunities to commission works and acquire directly from the studio, by getting to know artists, you can learn their informed opinion on up-and-coming hot artists. Another way to get insider scoops is to join collectors' groups hosted by all major museums. These groups offer sessions with curators, private tours of exhibitions and collectors' homes, and studio visits.

Another networking tactic is to cultivate local experts and outlets.

Community galleries often show works accessible to those on a budget. "Some of the best works within reason come from regional artists who don't have the expense of shipping and can sell for less," says Louise Kalin, director of Gallery North, a small gallery on Long Island. She advises, "Talk to curators and people in the education department of your local museum or historic society to get recommendations about artists in your area."

Local government-sponsored arts councils also mount group exhibitions and publicize art activities. Artists' cooperatives, run by and for artists, are another venue to see new work and meet artists. In addition, art expositions that bring together works from many galleries are a compact way to browse a wide range of works.

Ms. Kalin cautions, "Stay away from large art auctions sponsored by non-art organizations and from one- or two-day sales in hotels." Unlike established galleries, organizers of these events may not guarantee authenticity of works sold.

Major auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's offer free entertainment and education. Much-hyped auctions like the Andy Warhol "garage sale of the century" (where a $20 Fred Flintstone wristwatch sold for $20,000) get scads of publicity and intimidate frugal buyers.

But, actually, 80 percent of merchandise Sotheby's sold in 1995 went for less than $5,000, and 25 percent for less than $1,000. Sotheby's offers Arcade sales of less costly items, as does Christie's East.

Auction-house bargains

"Sightseers are welcome in the auction room," says David Redden, Sotheby's senior vice president. He adds, "Prices vary enormously. An awful lot of objects sell in the hundreds or very low thousands of dollars." Specialists at auction houses, says Redden, "are more than thrilled to talk about what they love" to visitors. Catalogs including presale estimates and detailed descriptions of works, exhibits of works to be auctioned, and lectures by authorities are all part of the tutoring available.

Since demand determines price, bargains can be obtained by bidding on works that are not currently in fashion. "The fineness of a painting," Redden believes, "is not necessarily indicated by price. You can find beautiful and important objects in a low price range."

A classic example of buy-low/sell-high is the case of Van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime. At the turn of the century, a Van Gogh sold for the equivalent of $829, but by 1990, his "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" set an auction record of $82.5 million.

John Marion, former chairman of Sotheby's, notes in his book, "The Best of Everything: The Insider's Guide to Collecting - for Every Taste and Every Budget," nine factors that determine value: things like authenticity, condition, rarity, provenance, and size (much of this information is available at Sotheby's Web site, http://www.sothebys.com).

Developing a relationship with a reputable gal- lery is another resource for beginners. "You can get advice from a person with decades of experience in a particular specialty," says Jennifer Brown, director of Contemporary Art at New York's Berry-Hill Gallery. "That's part of the fun of the job to educate the collector."

She advises neophytes, "Don't let the marble faade intimidate you. After five minutes inside, that daunting outward appearance breaks down," and gallery assistants should be pleased to help.

Before choosing a work to acquire, Ms. Brown advises, do your homework. "You research washing machines and cars before buying. Do the same for art."

But in the end it comes down to passion. As Nasher said of his criterion for acquiring a sculpture, "When we saw it, it gave us butterflies."

"You have to live with it," Brown agrees. "It's all about your heart and what you fall in love with." She adds, "If you love an artist and can't afford an oil, learn about works on paper, and buy a print by that artist."

Speak up

Another tip: Don't be afraid to admit you have a limited budget. Ask a dealer to show everything up to a certain amount. Ask to see the slide file for a particular artist or inquire about commissioning a small piece within your price range. Galleries also allow "slow pay," or paying by installment, and are often willing to negotiate a 10 percent reduction off the list price.

Works on paper, such as photographs, drawings, watercolors, preliminary sketches, and prints are an affordable option. But buyers should check that the print edition is limited (the smaller the number produced, the more valuable) and the work is signed by the artist. Prints mechanically reproduced by photo offset are not considered original prints, even if signed by an artist. And Salvador Dali was notorious for signing blank sheets of paper, which were then run off in editions of 5,000.

Less-expensive works can be located by identifying emerging artists, not yet discovered by the art world. Master of Fine Arts exhibits of new graduates from art schools highlight work by students and reveal the hippest trends.

Alternative spaces like nonprofit galleries (Thread Waxing Space and Apex Art in New York, for example) showcase unrepresented artists at the outset of their careers. Many low-budget, artist-run spaces, like Pierogi in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, maintain files of inexpensive works by emerging artists.

Street fairs, crafts fairs, and ethnic handicrafts picked up on travels can also yield inexpensive objects of aesthetic value. Oaxacan carved wood animals, batik, African carvings, Thai rubbings, and pottery are just a few possibilities.

Crafts museum gift shops feature handmade objects by master artisans, selected by knowledgeable curators. The American Craft Museum in New York "is geared to both beginning and seasoned collectors," says director of communications Joan McDonald.

Prices start at $18 and rise for limited-edition or one-of-a-kind works by well-known artists like Michael Lucero, Dale Chihuly, Wendell Castle, and Harvey Littleton.

Another area where bargains abound is in art by nontraditional artists, like children or Outsider or Visionary art by untrained artists. Vintage prints and photographs can be found in countless secondhand stores and flea markets.

Whether collecting Amish quilts or acrylic paintings, prints, or photographs, an aspiring collector has no excuse for running into a blank wall.

Books for the Aspiring Collector

THe Best of Everything: The Insider's Guide to Collecting - for Every Taste and Every Budget

By John Marion

Simon & Schuster, 1989

The Complete Guide to Collecting Art

By Lee Rosenbaum

Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

How to Invest in Your First Works of Art: A Guide for the New Collector

By John Carlin

Yarrow Press, 1990

Art for All: How to Buy Fine Art for Under $300

By Alan S. Bamberger

Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1994

Magazines for Further Reading

Art in America

Brant Art Publications Inc., New York

Artnews

Art News Associates New York

Art & Antiques

Trans World Publishing Inc., New York

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