How to Start an Art Collection – An Ultimate Guide

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Street Art / Inventory at OPEN WALLS Gallery, 2017

Art collectors are a peculiar bunch. Often perceived as elegant, wealthy people, with substantial connoisseurship of the art they collect, they appear to have a certain status in society. Whispers and hidden gazes follow them around the openings, while their collections are veiled in secrecy until they decide to lift this cloak. In truth, art collectors have everything in common with collectors of any other kind. What makes them stand out is their love and dedication to art, often a defining factor to their public personas.

An unpretentious art lover might feel fairly intimidated when names of Francois Pinault or Ileana Sonnabend are thrown around. But, the truth is somewhat different. Both Pinault and Sonnabend had to start from somewhere. Surely, advantages these renowned art collectors had at the beginning existed, but who’s to say that a contemporary collector doesn’t have something else. We live in the digital era, a time when everything and everyone is one click away, in an endless sea of information with the easiest, most direct ways to connect in our hands. Times have changed and so did the path of an art collector.

Our Ultimate Guide to Starting an Art Collection will show all the basic and not-so-basic steps every aspiring art enthusiast should take in order to accumulate a significant a meaningful collection.

Programs are the key of art education rights, evidenced by collections from the american library

Famous Russian Avant-garde collector, Georgij Costakis in his Muskovite Residence, 1973 – Image via fwf.ac.at

Art Collection – A Proper Definition

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, art collection is defined as “an accumulation of works of art by a private individual or a public institution.” This term is usually connected to the notion of a museum, but also to the idea of a large, historical collections. Collections of contemporary art certainly fit the bill, as the past two or three decades have witnessed the appearance of multiple private foundations and museums, all of which grew from private collectors’ endeavors.

The difference between a museum art collection and a private art collection is in the manner they were gathered. Museums have often accepted many endowments, while purchases are made considering the art historical facts and significance of particular works. Private collections need not have any of that. They are generally reflective of the art collector’s personality, their taste and preferences when it comes to art. Hence, private collections are more personal, even if they eventually do grow into exhibition institutions.

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Eli Broad Collection of textiles – Image via broadmuseum.edu

What is Art Collecting?

Collecting of art is frequently described as a labor of love. It is not and should be not a “job”, nor a chore. Therefore, there is a crucial difference between only purchasing art and collecting it. Buying art is not an organized, nor a planned activity. It’s shopping, essentially, something an aesthete might do for fun, to fill that empty wall at home, or as an impulsive purchase.

Art collecting, on the other hand, is something else entirely. This is a planned, prolonged activity of gathering and accumulating artworks, all of which are connected to a particular thread. Art collecting is an effort done effortlessly, an investment into the future, a testament of an individual to the cultural history of a certain kind. Even if a well-rounded art collection becomes incredibly valuable in terms of money, its cultural value will most certainly always feel priceless.

So, going from one piece to the next would be a mistake. The goal is to build a collection and this undertaking is not something reserved for the privileged few anymore. True, art collecting was indeed historically associated with the rich, especially with royalty or successful industrials. Today, this is no longer the case. Many of the middle-class commoners have built wonderful art collections over the years, only because of their own dedication. To be fair, smart choices and good planning also played a role, and perhaps – a bit of luck.

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Boros Collection – Image via travelandleisure.com

Find Inspiration Among the Great Collectors

Easier said than done, this might seem, especially knowing (or assuming to know) the extent of funds available to the one Francois Pinault, for example. Many other famous art collectors come from the industrial and business circles as well, confirming their success in business. Thanks to enthusiasts from those companies, today we have foundations such as Prada, Würth Art Collection, Strabag Kunstforum, Sammlung Boros in Berlin, or the Foundation of Peter Brant. One of the most recent grand enterprises was certainly the opening of The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the supreme legacy of Eli and Edythe Broad. Even celebrities have given in to the art fever and we know that Leonardo DiCaprio and Steve Martin are respected as savvy art collectors as well as actors.

What can an “ordinary” art lover with a little bit of disposable income do in such a company, we might ask? Actually, a lot!

One of the most inspiring couples to testify to this claim are definitely the Vogels. Known also as “proletarian art collectors”, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel have dedicated their lives to art collecting. A night clerk and a librarian used the wife’s income to cover the living expenses and the entire husband’s income to purchase new art pieces. Over time, they have become friends with some of the most important art figures of the 20th century, while their collection is often marked as one of the most important post-1960s art collections in the United States. They lived frugally, perhaps even too much so, but they can serve as role models to all the aspiring art collectors out there.

There is no excuse for the lack of funds, not when art is the priority!

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Fondazione Prada, Milan – Galleria Sud

The Essentials to Starting an Art Collection

So, without procrastinating further, let’s get down to business. What are the very essentials an aspiring art collector must know?

One of the most basic and the most universal claims, found in almost every interview or statement given by an art collector to the public is this: If you don’t love it, don’t do it! Thinking that buying art can get anyone rich is likely not to take anyone anywhere, because art collecting is more than money accumulation. Obtaining new artworks because they are moving, significant in any personal way, in harmony with the taste of the buyer are the right reasons to engage. This is the very groundwork of a collection, the substance which gives it voice and makes it stand out as important.

After accepting this credo, it’s critical to find a focus. It can be any type, technique, subject matter, or period of art. Different people collect different things, from American Art to European portrait, from museum pieces to what would look good in a white cube gallery. An area of interest must be clearly defined.

In order to determine this, an art collector must have a mission. For example, if you are interested and amazed by contemporary minimalism, then this should be the primary focus. But the mission would further define the collection by delineating a period, geographical area and if applicable, technique. If somebody then poses a question – What are the representative works of German Minimalism created between 1980 and 2000? – your collection should be the perfect and complete answer. A collector must therefore be aware of all the common threads connecting a particular area of interest, from the very technical, to the contextual and cultural influences that made particular artworks appear.

Effective research and continuous learning will help every collector decide what to collect, enabling them to pick out a single work that will be relevant to the entire group. Building a collection is hard work, a lifelong study enriched with discovery – a fulfilling adventure that cannot be done in a rush.

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Francois Pinault Collection at Palazzo Grassi in Venice – Image via FB page

Collecting Street Art

One of the most exciting movement in contemporary art is certainly Street Art. Some might even call it a period, while others see this name as a designation for something grander. In any case, Street Art encompasses many smaller movements and actions, all of which are inherently tied to the outdoors. If we compare this phenomenon to some of the historical art movements, we might find more than one similarity with the early avant-garde. Avant-gardists of the early 20th century were considered extremely progressive for their time, often delving in actions unaccepted by society. This parallel is found in various contemporary Street Art actions, from culture jamming and adbusting, to urban interventions of different kind. Another similarity is that avant-garde movements were powerful agents of social change, not unlike Street Art today.

The contemporary movement in question has been on the rise in the past two decades, but it has not yet entered the highest end of the market. This makes it generally more affordable and a very smart collecting choice. Even if famous art critics are deliberately ignoring Street Art at the moment, this creative manner is here to stay. Populated with high numbers of talented artists, we might even think that the art history of the future might save a prominent spot for what is considered marginal at the moment.

Knowing this, an art collector who feels natural proclivity for Street Art might find another motive to delve into the matter. By purchasing and collecting art from the artists active in the street, one is not only an art collector, but also an active supporter of the movement fighting for a better tomorrow. Options on what to support are many – buying photography will support photographed street actions, buying studio works will allow the artists to continue their unpaid street practice, buying small-scale pieces will help sustain a greater activity. Collecting Street Art is therefore more than just stacking objects. It is an ethical matter, an act of participation and an active extension of support towards those who dare speak out on behalf of many through art.

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Street Art / Inventory Exbhibition at OPEN WALLS Gallery, 2017


Regardless of which type of art you decide to collect, here are the six tips on how to enter this world without making too many beginner mistakes.

9 Tips to Master the Art of Collecting

Now that you’re determined to become an art collector, there are several steps to take. They can and should be taken in parallel and perpetually. Keep in mind your preferences and in time, your eye will become trained to recognize quality and value. The background or previous activities of the artist are generally not important. What is important is the work of art you are considering, the way it was executed, its content and its message.

As a beginner, it is better to look into the primary market. Studio purchases are a good option, but as you will see, so is having a good art advisor. Secondary market should serve as an educational platform in the beginning, although good opportunities might appear there. An art collector with little experience will know how to recognize them.

Educate Yourself

Education is the most important, unavoidable step if you are to embark on the collecting journey. Learn about art as much as you can, focusing on your special area of interest. Go to museums and exhibitions, visit private venues and foundations to get inspired and to better understand how the great minds of the past had done it. Places like the Frick Collection in New York, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, The Phillips Collection in Washington DC, Foundation Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Fondazione Prada in Milan, or me Collectors Room in Berlin are all museums that have grown out of private collections. Ask yourself – what do they have in common? What defines their collections?

Further the educational adventure by attending curated tours and lectures. Become a regular at art fairs in your area and go to every relevant art event available. Many major cities across the world organize gallery weekends and open studio days, occasions to uncover contemporary gems.

Throughout this experience, you will learn a lot about the current market, about the price levels, artistic expressions of the moment, techniques and general opinions. Season the educational trip with reading. Major art history books and some of the latest theories on art provide an additional insight into the art world, while art critics from newspapers and magazines might give a hint on what is worth the attention. Always stay informed – there is no such thing as an over-informed art buyer!

It’s All About Connections

Same as in any other business, it’s all about who you know! Connect with as many art professionals as you can. Talk to gallerists and artists, even befriend some if possible. This way, you will always get the scoop when it comes to your area of interest. If you can, connect with other art collectors, both experienced and new and share knowledge. This might feel like the most intimidating task, but in reality – art professionals love to converse about their work. Remember – they are art lovers too.

Set a Budget and Stick to It

When you are feeling comfortable with your focus, taste, and knowledge, it will be time to actually make a purchase. For this, you will need to set a clear budget. There is no point in overspending in the beginning, it’s much better to be smart about buying.

For beginners, paintings might be a tad pricey. Therefore, it’s not a bad thing to start with buying prints or photography, affordable works on paper or even collage. Depending on the scale and format of the work, a masterpiece can come at a very good price! Buying smaller and cheaper artworks will allow a novice collector to experiment, which is an important part of their collecting evolution.

Still, don’t be too close-fisted! Gallerists and artists know which work is worth more in terms of artistic value and it might be a good idea to spend on that. In time, better pieces will only gain value, while the cheapest ones will probably remain where they are – at the bottom of the ladder.

Remember – a meaningful collection will have small and big artworks executed in different media and it will remain coherent in concept and span.

Find Out Where to Buy Good Art?

Depending on your area of residence, places to buy art may vary. Go to different galleries, talk to art dealers and visit as many studios as you can. Studio purchases might not always be an option, but when they are – take advantage. Go to art fairs, both the high-end and the entry-level ones and seek young, exciting and affordable art.

Auctions might be a good place to learn more about the auction market, but they might be a better suitable playfield for an experienced buyer. Don’t shy away from the top art venues, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. And definitely steer clear of shady venues, such as cruise ships and friend’s friends with no viable expertise.

Browse the Internet Freely

Online art buying is certainly a contemporary trend. With big platforms, auctions and galleries making their offer present on the web, it’s easiest than ever to make first contact with the art you might be interested in. Still, before the first purchase, it’s best to see the piece live.
Still, Internet is a great research tool, while Instagram has proven itself as one of the most dynamic media when it comes to posting and buying contemporary art. Therefore, follow the artists and galleries you like, keep an eye on collectors from your pool (they love to share their new acquisitions), and keep your digital agenda full!

Find the right art advisor

The best way to buy art is to find an adept gallerist to help you curate your collection. Art advisories are many and they come in different forms, while their fees might not be all too high. It can be worth it having a professional to help out seek and evaluate new art. This way, you will establish trust and feel more comfortable directing your money towards art. Make your wishes known, but you will learn a lot from communication with an experienced professional.

Document Everything

A neat archive of an art collection is almost as important as the art selection. Proper documentation will one day make all the difference – it can make the appraisal much easier and contribute to the overall value of the collection.

Make a file for each artwork and fill them with all the related documents. Write down details of purchases including anecdotes, describe the seller and add biographical data and any catalogs of the artist you can find. Any stories from the artist on how a particular piece was made are also welcome, along with all the dates, exhibition history or features. Even if these stories don’t make it into a book (and often they could), they will add to the character of the entire art collection.

Mind the Authenticity

Certificate of Authenticity is the crucial document you must insist on every time you purchase a piece. Usually, they are provided by the dealer, but at times, an artist can make a signed statement as a confirmation that a particular piece was made by them. Without this certificate, it is hard to prove the authenticity of an artwork, even if the artist is still alive. Further, save all the receipts and relevant written and printed materials you get. If you can make photographs of the purchase with people present – do it. Keep all catalogs, brochures and reviews about an artwork on file, along with printed web pages (they might disappear), and description of the condition.

Organization Will Make Your Life Easier

One of the biggest problems art collectors encounter is storage. As your collection grows, you might run out of wall space. Therefore, it’s good to think ahead and designate a space in or outside of your home where you can store art. There are institutions that offer art storage services, but they are often very expensive. A space that is safe, dry and equipped with suitable shelves will be good enough to start with.

Regarding the organization of art in your home, allow yourself to play with it. Don’t just hang it up – curate an exhibition! And make changes on your walls once in a while – you will want to do this as your collection expands.

View the American library programs online and search conservation info. Shot art as a family

Street Art / Inventory Exbhibition at OPEN WALLS Gallery 2017 – a place to start a street art collection

Think about the Future

Assuming that your art collection is something that you never intend to part with, it is still a material legacy you will one day leave behind. In this regard, it’s important to think about the future. Planning and documentation will help you keep track of your art and prepare your heirs on how to behave once they come into possession of your pride and joy. Define your wishes in a separate document, but don’t forget to document and catalogue everything.

Finally, an art collection should be built to last as a fruit of sheer love, a testimony of commitment and a memento of an accomplished life.