Issue Number: 92
To buy or not to buy
Louisa Buck – author of a new book on owning art – offers her top tips for collecting contemporary art, just in time for the Frieze Art Fair
Subodh Grupta, Untitled 3, 2005 Once an elitist activity reserved for a well-heeled, maverick few, collecting contemporary art has firmly entered the public consciousness. London is now a global marketplace second only to New York, with a flourishing array of galleries selling the very latest in today’s art in both the East and West ends. Meanwhile, this October, the organisers of Frieze, London’s annual four-day contemporary art fair, are confident that visitor numbers will exceed last year’s 47,000. Though only in its fourth year, Frieze, which produced a turnover of £33 million in 2005, has already become an institution in its own right, generating a week-long art festival throughout the capital and spawning a range of satellite events – most notably Zoo, a complementary fair for young galleries and artists that takes place, as its name suggests, among the cages of London Zoo.
Yet, at the same time as it enjoys this high profile, the art market remains shrouded in mystique for the vast majority of the public. Ironically, the multitude of purchasing options opened up by the current art boom has, if anything, made this process even more confusing. For anyone wishing to buy contemporary art – whether on a large or small scale – engaging with the art world in general and the contemporary art market in particular, continues to be perceived as an intricate and intimidating experience, involving scary white spaces, snooty gallery staff and a general raised eyebrow at anyone who is not clad in black and spouting art jargon. However this need not be case. If a few basic steps are followed, collecting contemporary art can be challenging without being terrifying.
1. DO THE HOMEWORK
Collecting art is a specialist activity and, as with any major purchase, it is important to do some research ahead of time. Go to as many galleries – both public and commercial – as possible. Look at both historical and contemporary art: concerted looking trains the eye and enables informed choices. It is not enough to declare, ‘I know what I like’. Good collectors know why they know what they like and can articulate it.
2. USE THE INTERNET
Looking at art is an immediate, physical experience and art should not be bought by jpeg. But the internet provides a useful research tool, since most good galleries – and many artists – have websites which give an idea of the range and type of work on offer. Remember that what is on the gallery walls at any given time is only a fraction of what is actually for sale. The internet is also useful for checking prices, either through a specialist website such as Artnet.com (which requires a fee) or via auction house sites.
3. GET INSTITUTIONALISED
Public galleries and museums are an invaluable resource for the aspiring art buyer. As well as the art they show, they also offer programmes of talks and events that are usually public. There is no quicker way to be taken seriously in the art world than to join a patrons group of a public institution: depending on level of affiliation, it can provide invitations to exclusive art events and give access to curators, artists, private collections and everyone who is anyone in the art world.
4. GO TO ART FAIRS
Big fairs like Frieze provide a total immersion in the international contemporary art world. Although the art may not look its best crammed into gallery booths, the fair offers a chance to see who is showing what. It is also a place to talk to major dealers who would normally be hidden away in the back rooms. But unless you are serious about buying, do not do this during the frenzied first two days of a fair. Smaller fairs such as Zoo are also useful for scouting up-and-coming artists and making contact with younger galleries.
- 5. AUCTION HOUSES *
These are useful for gathering information on artists and their market as all hammer prices are in the public domain. Buying at auction is a straightforward commercial transaction. However, it is also less personal than establishing a relationship with a gallery, the quality of work can be mixed and the majority of young and emerging artists will not be available at auction. Be aware that there is an additional buyers’ premium to be paid of about 20% of the hammer price on every lot. VAT is also charged, but only on the buyer’s premium for works that remain within the EU.
6. DON’T HAGGLE
As the art market is unregulated, the pricing of works can seem mysterious. It is always best to be straightforward in asking the price of a work. Check if VAT is included. The issue of discounts is a delicate one. It is generally acceptable for a collector to discuss the price of an artwork if they know the dealer and also the market for a piece. But there is a fine line between negotiating and haggling. Many dealers believe that a discount should be offered rather than requested, and then only once a relationship has been established with the gallery.
7. DON’T BUY ART TO MAKE MONEY
While there are huge profits to be made, those buying art for financial gain are widely frowned-upon. Any art buyer is also expected to make a personal investment. The art world has finely-tuned antennae for those who put financial considerations before a genuine enthusiasm for the art itself. Even the most hard-nosed artist or dealer resents seeing their artworks appreciated only in terms of accruing value. The art market is notoriously unstable.
Frieze Art Fair, Regent’s Park, London (020 7833 7270; www.frieze.com
), 12–15 Oct; Zoo Art Fair, London Zoo, Regent’s Park, London (020 7723 0285; www.zooartfair.com
), 13–15 Oct
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