How do I start a contemporary art collection? Is it a good idea to invest in contemporary art? Where should I buy art from? These are all questions which I am often asked, and to which there are no simple answers (of course, this is what makes art collecting so exciting). The art market is hard enough for the experts to understand, let alone anyone else, which can leave a lot of people feeling intimidated or overwhelmed. So, here’s my introduction on how to start and build a contemporary art collection in 10 simple steps.

1. Go to galleries

Visit exhibitions, attend opening night previews (referred to in the art world as ‘Private Views’) and listen to artist talks. Get to know what you like, as well as what you don’t. Are you interested in landscapes or portraits, realistic paintings or abstract sculpture? In the digital world we see so many images online but it’s crucial to look at art in person where you can appreciate it as a tangible object. In Birmingham there are some brilliant galleries, all with their own specialisms: Argentea Gallery for contemporary photography, Reuben Colley Fine Art for paintings and fine art, and Grand Union for innovative practice and artists’ studios.

2. Attend auctions

These are a great starting point for new collectors. Auctions provide transparency, to some extent, because you can see what the rest of the market is willing to pay for a particular work. You can also do your research into previous auction history for the artist and art works coming up by using result databases, such as Artnet, Artprice and Blouin Art Sales Index. These will show you the typical value for an artist’s work, and you can see what similar works have sold for in recent years. Just remember to bear in mind variables such as size and medium as these can have a marked influence on price.

3. Pay by degrees

Each year thousands of graduate artists exhibit their work in degree shows. This offers a great opportunity to pick up art direct from an emerging artist (without commission from a gallery or dealer added on) and which could turn out to be a smart financial investment. Look for something that is unique, with a recognisable style. Many artists will invigilate the galleries so make sure you ask them about their work: I have found that it is the artists who can speak eloquently about their practice who ‘make it’ in the art world. Buying from degree shows, whether or not you turn into the next Charles Saatchi, is also a really good way to support the talent of young artists.

4. Visit art fairs

Art fairs are another fun way to get a feel for art and the type of work you might want to buy. Avoid being sold to and impulse buying at art fairs, where lots of galleries will be competing for your attention (and money). Instead, use it as an opportunity to discover artists which you hadn’t previously heard of, before then doing more research into them once you return home.

Annette Pugh's painting 'Garden Lake' on show at Reuben Colley Fine Art in Birmingham
Annette Pugh’s painting ‘Garden Lake’ on show at Reuben Colley Fine Art in Birmingham

5. Be discerning

Really get to know the artists whose work interests you. Robert Maconachie, an Art Specialist, with over 10 years’ experience of selling contemporary art, says: “Your experience of an artwork will be richer as you learn more about the work and the artist who made it. Go deep: read what the artist has written about the individual work/exhibition you are interested in and read up on what they are referencing in it. Also read what others have written. Look at past shows: most artists have websites with their exhibition history which will give you a broader view of their practice. Also pay attention to the group shows they have been included in, which will give you an idea of how various curators have thought about their work and might lead you to discover other artists.”

6. Buy what you love

Jennie Anderson, Founder and Director of Argentea Gallery in Birmingham, reveals: “When buying a single piece of art my advice is pretty obvious – buy what you love, irrespective of whether it matches the sofa! People underestimate the power of art to affect wellbeing. Living with a piece of art that you love has a profound effect on mood.  I have a very large photograph of a fish by a Japanese photographer that I adore. It’s just of a fish and a bamboo mat, nothing clever or unusual, but its sparse composition and muted colours are very soothing to the eye and calming to the mind; it lifts my spirits every time I see it.”

7. Do your due diligence

Most collectors are aware of the need for this when purchasing older works of art but when buying contemporary art it is equally important to take precautions. You can request a search of the Art Loss Register’s database to discover whether an item has been registered as stolen, missing, subject to a dispute, or reported with authenticity issues. You also need to physically inspect the art, and can ask for a condition report to ensure that the work has not been damaged. If the artist has a catalogue raisoneé check to see if the work is included in it. Make sure the paperwork is in place, such as a Certificate of Authenticity from the seller. Finally, ask for full provenance details, which details the ownership record of the artwork in question: uncovering its history should trace the artworkall the way back to the artist, showing whether it has been included in any exhibitions, auctions and which gallery has held/sold it before.

Sophie Hedderwick, 'Young Dancer Aged 14:3', UV cured ink on brushed aluminium, 100 x 70 cm
Sophie Hedderwick, ‘Young Dancer Aged 14:3’, UV cured ink on brushed aluminium, 100 x 70 cm

8. Buy the best

Value is found not only in the artist, but in the quality of a given work. Ask yourself if the artwork you like is consistent with the artist’s style and whether it is a first-rate example of their practice. Even the most talented artists have bad days in the studio! I remember a tutor at university pointing out a poorly painted hand in a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, so look closely at the details. If you can’t tell, a knowledgeable art adviser will be able to help distinguish between good and bad art by a particular artist.

9. Or something symbolic

Something you can easily check for it whether the artwork has features, such as symbols and motifs, which make it instantly recognisable as by that artist. For example, a drawing of a shark by Damien Hirst made £4,500 at auction because it symbolises the formaldehyde-floating creature which brought the artist fame in the 90s. Similarly, earlier this year a study by David Hockney was sold for £6 million at Sotheby’s. The high price reflects not only the characteristically bright colour and style of Hockney’s landscape paintings, but the fact that it was also included in Tate Britain’s major retrospective of the artist and painted in preparation for a larger scale work that belongs to the National Gallery of Australia.

10. Start small 

Henrietta Lockhart, a Fine Art Consultant at Reuben Colley Fine Art, reflects on her personal experience: “Collecting art may not be as expensive or as daunting as you think.  I began collecting in a small way, buying work by local artists.  The first time my partner and I bought an original work of art we felt quite excited – we were giving ourselves permission to become art collectors!  Since I’ve been working at Reuben Colley Fine Art, I’ve enjoyed helping other people to build up their own collections.  Whatever your budget, don’t be embarrassed to go into a commercial art gallery! At Reuben Colley Fine Art you’re always welcome to look around, regardless of whether you want to buy. Don’t assume that everything will be beyond your budget.  If you have just a few hundred pounds to spend, signed limited editions are a great way to begin your collection. And for under a thousand pounds, you could bag a small original painting by an emerging artist.  If you fall in love with a painting which costs more than you can afford straight away, most galleries will allow you to spread the payments over time, so an original painting worth several thousand pounds could be paid for over a couple of years.  Artworks can give pleasure for a lifetime, and taste is entirely subjective, so the most important piece of advice is: buy what you love!”.

To sum up

Don’t bank on a making your millions from art: in the art market prices go up…and down…and up….and down again. Contemporary art remains the most volatile market, which means investing is no simple business. Mixing your portfolio with a variety of artists is a good idea. Careful consideration and expert advice is also key. Most important of all, however, is buying art which you will love to look at, and from which you will continue to find interesting and intriguing as you live with it.

With thanks to Robert Maconachie, Henrietta Lockhart and Jennie Anderson for their contributions to this blog post & advice on buying contemporary art. The featured image of an exhibition shows Tamas Deszo’s series ‘Notes for an Epilogue’ which was displayed at Argentea Gallery in 2016. 

Looking for more information on where to buy art in Birmingham? I’ve written a guide on 14 of the best places, from auction houses to art fairs, here. 

Good luck starting your contemporary art collection!

Ruth x

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