Anybody can buy a piece of art to dress up a wall in their living room or spruce up a dull office space. But when it comes to collecting art, the process is a lot more purposeful, deliberate, and, unfortunately for newbies, a little tougher to navigate. Here, with a host of tips on acquiring pieces and curating a successful collection, L.A. art advisor John Wolf offers up his expertise to help guide art collecting newbies through the process.
Do Your Homework
The first step to successfully building an art collection is making sure to do an adequate amount of research before even getting started. "Look through auction catalogs from Sotheby’s and Christie’s," says Wolf, noting that the process will help guide your eye a little bit and give you get an idea of what the higher end of the market looks like. It also helps give you a better idea of what the contemporary art scene looks like on a wider scale. "The pieces in the catalogs are typically going to be higher-priced pieces, but from there, you can approach newer artists or mid-career artists that are less expensive having kind of seen what museum-grade works look like."
Have Some Goals in Mind
While Wolf is a fan of a diversified art collection, he does say that it's valuable to have some kind of direcion when setting out as a collector. In other words, you'll want to develop a clear concept of the kind of collection you're trying to curate before you start purchasing, so as to make sure that you are making informed decisions when you buy based on your longterm vision. "You've gotta buy what you love, but you should also have some kind of goal for yourself," says Wolf. "Maybe, for example, you're interested in Cuban art or African American art, so let that inform what you collect. Some people already have that desire, but you can also glean that over time."
Don't Be Afraid to Take a Risk
When it comes to acquiring pieces of art for your collection, one thing that often holds a lot of people back is a tendency to play it a little too safe. But for Wolf, the key to building a truly unique collection, which is really the ultimate goal, is being able to take a chance on the pieces that may not be the most mainstream or conventional. "It’s the risk takers who always create memorable collections," he says. "Because then it’s not just what everybody else has." One way to really do this, according to Wolf, is to dabble in different mediums. "The really good collections really do have a little bit of everything," he says. "You’ll see some people who don’t have any video; they only have photography or something like that. And that's fine, but I like to encourage people to think outside of their own personal comfort zone because a collection looks so much more rounded out when it’s full of paintings, but then has something unexpected like a sculpture."
Take Full Advantage of the Internet
An especially useful tool when you're not in a location where you can frequent live auctions, the internet has become a phenomenal way for people to engage in the process of art collecting from just about anywhere. It creates an easy way for new art collectors to do everything from look up information or resources to help with the process early on or actually go through and purchase online. "The internet has definitely helped democratize the process for people who aren’t in big cities," says Wolf. "You can be in smaller places and have access to seeing and buying art. It’s really helped build the art market, I think, for young people and new people who just don’t know where to start."
Consider Speaking with an Art Advisor
While he admits that working with an art advisor isn't always the best option for everybody, Wolf does recommend that every new art collector at least consider speaking with an advisor to feel it out. "It’s definitely important to have a conversation with someone to see if it’s a right fit," says Wolf. "There’s been people that I’m happy to work with temporarily, but then they realize they maybe need to do more homework before they work with me. And that's fine. Working with an art advisor kind of works best when somebody knows what they want. But I do work with people who don’t know what they want and I can help guide them, but it is hard if they’re coming in totally unsure."
Be Sure to Keep Records
One of the most crucial things to do when you purchase a piece of art for your collection is to make sure that you keep a record of that purchase, as this will essentially become a part of the piece's history and will be essential information down the road. "When you look at an auction, they’ll always list the provenance," says Wolf, "and that will use records to tell you where it was first purchased and then who has owned it since. And it helps confirm the validity and value." He adds that the process of keeping records is also incredibly beneficial when it comes time to hand down, or hand off, the piece to a new owner. "When you go to resell it or give it to your heirs or whatever, that paperwork and documentation helps the process out immensely."
Yes, it's important to collect the kind of art that you like. But when that starts to conflict with keeping yourself open to learning about new pieces that might not be your favorite at first sight, it can become problematic and immensely limiting to your collection. "When people quickly dismiss something just because they don’t like the aesthetics of it, or they don't like the color or something, that's a decision that's really coming from an uninformed place," says Wolf. "Once you start to listen and learn about why an artist made a work, especially if it’s conceptual, it’s like a light bulb goes off, and you realize how much you can appreciate it. I’ve looked at art before that I’ve thought was ugly or not interesting, but then once I learned about how the artist made it or why they made it, all of the sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, I have to have this!’ But you have to be willing to learn and willing to listen."
Buy What You Love, Not Just What You Think Will Be Worth a Lot Someday
When it comes to art collecting, there are a lot of people who tend to approach it with the mentality that their collection is essentially an investment that will pay dividends later on. And while that is the case in a lot of instances, Wolf says that it can be one of the biggest mistakes when collecting with those financial goals in mind takes precedence over collecting because you're passionate about it. "People always ask, 'Is the art I buy going to be worth more one day,'" says Wolf. "At the end of the day, if you’re buying one of the top ten at auction, then sure, chances are it’s going to go up. Or if you’re making good choices with someone like an art advisor, chances are that it will go up. But it’s not a science; it’s not an exact formula, so you have to just start with what you love first."