How to collect art

As the Frieze Art Fair nears, don't miss our beginners' guide to collecting modern art

  • How to collect art

    We thought we were meant to criticise art, not vice versa

  • Know what you want

    When buying art, my advice is first to figure out your motives. Do you want something to match the curtains or liven up a dreary corner of the sitting room; are you hoping to make a fast buck from the booming market; or are you after a long-term and fascinating, but expensive commitment? If you are looking for something you like, it’s easy – just go with your gut feelings. But if you are investing a lot of your precious time and money, you must do some homework, get some advice or go to a reputable dealer. If you buy from the West End heavyweights, you will pay far more, but be assured of quality; if you go to an East End gallery showing young artists, it will be riskier but much cheaper.

    The basics

    With art, rarity (as well as quality) equals value. One-off originals are, therefore, more valuable than multiples, prints, copies or reproductions. Paintings, drawings and collages are usually one-offs, but sculptures often come in editions of nine. Prints (etchings, silkscreens, lithographs) are produced in limited editions; the smaller the edition, the higher the price. Make sure the item is signed and numbered. The same is true of photographs, but other factors affect the value. If the artist is dead, check if the print is vintage (made or authorised by him/her). If it is modern, check if it comes from the original negative in a limited edition; otherwise it could be a copy (produced in thousands from a print) and should be dirt cheap. Images taken with digital cameras can be printed electronically (in thousands by anyone); to ensure quality, some photographers produce hand-printed, signed limited editions.

    Reading matter

    ‘Art is an intellectual pursuit,’ says New York dealer Barbara Gladstone in ‘Owning Art’ (Cultureshock Media, £14.95). ‘It is not a handbag, it is not a chair. It is something else. So it is necessary to think, to ask questions and to understand.’ Published this week, ‘Owning Art’ is full of useful tips on how to look at and to buy art – from paying VAT, to making sure it fits through the door, to the challenges offered by different media.

    Art fairs

    Art fairs are supposed to be the user-friendly way to look at and to buy art, but the Frieze Art Fair has such a huge international reputation that it attracts the rich and famous from all over the world. It is really daunting – far too big and too busy to allow you to focus on the art. Treat it as a carnival – look rather than buy – and you’ll have a ball. Zoo, Scope and 06 – offshoots of Frieze – are smaller, cheaper and less pretentious. My advice is to start with them and, if you are hungry for more, visit the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park (Oct 19-22) where all the work on show costs less than £3,000.


    ‘In art,’ says dealer Ivor Braka (again in ‘Owning Art’), ‘everyone likes to think that they are their own expert, but you wouldn’t try to do your own operation on your hand – you’d go to the best in the field.’ Collecting Contemporary Art is a five-week course run by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in which collectors and art advisors share their experiences. Studio visits are also arranged. Next course: March/April. To reserve a place visit Fee £595.

    Art funds

    If you don’t want to risk your own taste – or luck – you can buy shares in an art fund, a company that buys and sells art for profit. Set up last February, V22 has 100 collectors and 28 artists as shareholders. Advisers include David Thorp, formerly director of the South London Gallery, and Thomas Rowland formerly at the Saatchi Collection. The fund specialises in work by young(ish) artists like Marcus Harvey, Harland Miller and Peter Jones, who are represented by good dealers or have work in major collections (the artists become shareholders and so benefit from any profits). The downside is you have to invest £20,000 (which gets you 800,000 shares); the upside is you get tax relief because it qualifies as a SIPP (self-invested personal pension). You don’t get anything to put on your walls, though, unless you lease it from the fund for a nominal fee (plus insurance). And if you fall in love with the work you can buy it after five years.;

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