On Buying Art

For NighthawkNYC’s 2nd Anniversary, I decided to share some thoughts based on my experiences buying Art over 3+ decades. I hope they’re useful. My thank yous for year 2 appear at the end. 

Everyone should have something that speaks to them on their walls or in their space.

It could be something personal, something from your past, or, it could be a piece of Art. If you find both lacking in your space(s), I hope you’ll think about changing that and seeing what it adds to your life. If you choose something personal? You’re on your own. If you would like to try a piece of Art? I’d like to share my experiences and thoughts about it with you, for whatever they’re worth.

Todd Hido “Untitled #7910,” from “House Hunting,” 2012, seen at AIPAD, as I mentioned, here. It only took me 2 trips to see it to buy it. It’s me, right? Click to enlarge.

Of course, you could make something yourself. Most people take photos, so it might be worthwhile to get them all together and go through them and see if you have one you’d like to print and display. Or, you could create something from scratch- a Drawing, a Painting, a Sculpture, or…? While almost no one is a brilliant Artist right away, if you’re determined to create something that speaks to you and you feel proud enough of to display? With a bit of work, you might surprise yourself with the results. But, if you decide to buy something, there are some things to consider. Since I don’t know how much readers might be looking to spend on Art, I’m going to take the big picture view of it, to include as many cases as possible. If you haven’t bought Art before, it’s probably something you don’t want to rush right in to. While there could be a virtually endless amount to learn if you want to do this on a “serious” level, there are some essential things to keep in mind when you’re starting out that I think also apply to those with experience buying Art.

Of course, setting an amount you’re comfortable spending of your budget is essential. It’s too easy to spend over your means on Art and that might well mean having to sell it quickly, usually at a loss. I’ll call this budgeted amount “$X” since it varies by person. Once that amount has been determined, over many years, there’s one thing I’ve learned that, as far as I’m concerned, comes closest to being THE #1 “Rule” for buying Art-

ONLY BUY WHAT YOU LOVE.

Buying only what you love establishes your philosophical approach to buying Art. There’s a number of reasons I recommend this approach, most importantly the long term satisfaction with your purchase. If you love something, you’re going to enjoy it more than something you don’t, right?

Should I buy it? Umm…What is it? Is it Art? I think it’s actually an air vent for the 8th Ave Subway under it until some clever fellow decided to try to sell it for a cool 1.2 million. Maybe he was kidding? Well? I’ve been known to laugh at asking prices, too.

Of course, any time you spend more than a few hundred dollars on something, the investment aspect of it comes into play. Before you buy, look at comparable examples of the Artist’s work and see what they have sold for and when. After you buy the work, you should continue to do this- how often is up to you. But, in terms of buying Art purely because of what it’s value may be in the future? That’s an unknown. NO ONE knows what’s going to happen to Art prices in 5 years, or 50 years, or 200 years. Therefore, this can’t be your main reason for buying Art. Plain and simply, buying Art primarily for investment purposes is nothing but a crap shoot. The Art market has gone up and down during my lifetime, something that those who have only been in it for the past decade of rising prices can’t imagine. IF, heavens forbid, the Art market tanks, again…No. Not “IF.” WHEN the Art market tanks, again, and the piece you own becomes worth less than you paid for it, you can still get real value from it by enjoying it, IF you love it.

“Cos I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love.”*

They’re a bit more “bullish” on the “Art market” than I am.

I say “When the Art market tanks, again,” because the historical data shows that it’s VERY likely to happen. Sooner, rather than later. NOTHING goes up for ever- not even NYC real estate. Across the board, Art prices are as high right now as they’ve ever been. I look long, hard and generally fruitlessly to find any Artist who is “undervalued” today, and that includes many Artists who are not even in major museum collections yet. Is this sustainable? Very possibly not. Will prices go higher? Maybe. Will they go A LOT higher? I’m not convinced. I’ll put it this way- Right now, in my opinion, in general, there is far more risk that prices will go down than there is the chance they will go a lot higher (an increase of 40%, or more).

As strange as this might sound to say, I also believe that the Art market going through a substantial downturn might not be a bad thing all the way around. Yes, there will be a ton of pain. Many Art galleries and some institutions will no longer be with us, and many jobs will be lost. Many Artists will turn to other fields of endeavors. I may not have anything left to write about. None of these things are good, and I don’t want any of them to happen. Yet, it might also return some semblance of sanity to the Art market. If the investors are out of Art, only Art lovers will be left.

Ok. So now that I’ve gotten the negativity out of the way (i.e. the risk), let’s get back to why you want to buy Art- because you love Art. In the end? I think that people will always love Art. Some/many/most of them will want to have some in their spaces. Those are the people I’m talking to here. If you buy Art you love? Your risk is less than someone who buys it as an investment. As an Art lover, the good news is that even now you don’t have to spend a fortune to buy Art. There is Art for sale at every price imaginable. Set a budget and you’re good to go.

Whether you should, or shouldn’t buy something will rarely be this easy to know.

If you’re buying Art today, or in the future, here are a few things to keep in mind-

First, educate yourself as much as you can about the Artist, the piece, the medium it’s created in (Is it a Painting? A Drawing? A Limited Edition Print? Or…what?). Does it appear in any book on the Artist? If so, what does the author say about it (description, dimensions, year created, size, etc.). Does all of this match the piece you’re considering? If so, this is good, but it may not completely close the question of authenticity, forgery, or being “right” I’ll get to in a moment. The second part is to educate yourself on the Artist’s “market”- what is their work selling for. Selling for. Not what people are asking for it. What are people actually paying for it. People are free to ask whatever they want for it (like our friend with the air vent, above). But? ANYthing is ONLY worth what someone is willing to pay for it. How do you find all of this, and more, out? You have to dig.

Going up to dig. Once a week I climb these stairs to The Strand’s Art Book Dept on the 2nd floor. More often if I’m really stumped.

Second, is it genuine? This is a very sticky question that, unfortunately, rears it’s head in almost every Art transaction- or, it should. I will say that it seems to me that forgers seem to focus on Artists who have a certain status, and a well-paying market, but you never know. Pieces that are “not right” in some meaningful way (they’re damaged, repaired, mis-identified, stolen, “sketchy” is some other way, etc.) are more common in my experience, but it varies by Artist. You want to know you’re getting what you paid for. What does the Artist’s genuine signature look like? What are the telltale signs of his or her style, and on and on. Is it an original (one of a kind) piece, or is it a limited edition? If it’s a one of a kind- is it signed, dated or titled? Does it appear in the Artist’s Catalogue Raisonne, or other authoritative guide? If so, does it match the work in the picture of it? If it’s a Limited Edition- How many copies are in the edition, how many “Artist’s Proofs” are there, and what was the Artist’s involvement in making the print, are some of what I’d need to know. You may never get to be expert enough to replace the opinion of a real expert but it’s your money and you should know as much as you can about what you’re buying. I stay away from pieces that are not signed by the Artist. Why? Though they are, generally, (much) cheaper, I want to have that connection, and it means less chance of a forgery or an unauthorized edition. I also stay away from prints that are “open editions,” because, in theory, additional prints can be created indefinitely, and the larger number there is of anything out there, the less valuable it generally is1.

I KNOW this Raymond Pettibon Owl sketch & signature are genuine because he drew them right in front of me. “Obtained directly from the Artist,” is, also, the best provenance there is, though the hardest to get.

Third- What condition is it in? You may need an expert’s opinion on this, and you should get one if the work is over 50 years old or you’re spending substantial money on it, but you should look it, and whatever supporting documentation the seller has for it, over carefully yourself. If he doesn’t have it? That’s likely a deal breaker. I think you want to get in the habit of getting complete documentation for the Art you buy which may include a receipt, the provenance, a letter of authenticity from an expert or someone personally involved with the Artist, a condition report, and an appraisal for insurance purposes. Learning the terms of, and some of the ins and outs of the various mediums (Oil Painting, Acrylic Painting, Watercolor Painting, Drawing, etc) will help you and help you understand what the experts tell you. Old paintings may have been subject to restoration, cleaning, or even additional painting added to it by others, and these are very sticky waters for any Art buyer- even museums2. If you’re buying a piece that is already framed, it is possible the frame is hiding damage that could materially effect the value. At some price level, it becomes imperative the work be examined unframed, and the seller may, or may not, be willing to do this.

Pettibon, again. Very rare among Artists, his work is pretty easy to examine unframed at his shows, but any buyer of it should immediately take it to a framer. A view of part of the final room of “A Pen of All Works,” at the New Museum, includes work he created right on the wall itself!

Fourth- Who am I buying this from? What is their background and area of specialty & expertise, and is this Artist in that area? What is their connection to this piece, and to the Artist? Do they represent the Artist, or their estate? What is the provenance of the piece? I will not buy a piece without a known provenance, and ask it be spelled out in writing by the seller. Why? Whoever buys this piece from you will ask you for it, and it helps assure me the work is not stolen, and lessens the chance it’s a forgery (even knowledgable and reputable dealers, as well as museums, have been duped by forgers). How knowledgable is the seller about this specific work, and it’s condition? Anyone who knowingly withholds information about damage or something “not right” with a piece is not ethical, and shouldn’t be in business. But? They’re out there. It’s happened to me. They’ll claim they “missed it,” so? Buyer beware. What’s the return policy if something turns out to not be “right?” Ideally. you want to buy from someone who stands behind what they’re selling and what they’re saying about it. There are an unlimited number of people and places selling Art these days. I’m not going to recommend any one. (Oh, and for the record, no one sponsors me). However, I will say that I think if you’re buying Art for the first time, go and look at it in person. Buying Art online that you’ve never seen in person is hard for an experienced Art buyer, very hard for an inexperienced one, and something I highly recommend you avoid. For one thing you can’t get the full effect of the piece, in my opinion, from a photo, and you can’t assess things like condition and damage anywhere near properly enough from one. Terms vary by seller. Look over them closely before you commit to buying anything from anyone. Learn to develop your own terms- what you require and what you won’t accept regarding payment, paperwork, returns & refunds, authenticity, condition, etc. If you see something that doesn’t sound reasonable, or is against your terms, walk away. Keep in mind that where limited edition prints are concerned there’s a chance you can find the same item being sold by someone else, especially if it’s less than 10-15 years old.

Almost every window in this Photo is of an Art gallery on West 26th Street, which is full of them from 10th to 11th Avenues, as are many of the adjoining Chelsea streets.

It’s vital to get out there and look. Books and the internet can provide information, but there’s still no substitute for seeing Art in person, as I said, especially when you are forming your tates. Even if nothing is being offered for sale (as in a museum show), you’ll learn something every time you look. See what’s being shown and how your feel about it. Gradually, your tastes will come into focus. Wait until you get “that feeling.” You know- like when you fell in love. If you don’t? Keep looking, enjoy what you see, and learn about it. Another thing that’s become apparent to me is that I like Art that says something different to me every time I look at it (as I’ve mentioned in prior Posts). This has become an essential element I need to have in anything I actually buy because I’m going to be looking at it a lot for, hopefully, a long time. While I have never bought a piece I didn’t love, as in other types of “love,” I find it’s the piece you can’t live without that may be the piece to buy. Keyword- may be. Obviously, many other things are more important to life than Art- Shelter, food, health, and those things effecting survival come way before one gets to the point of considering buying Art. Art adds to and enhances life. But, no one ever died from not having Art, as far as I know. (Though, some people who live without Art may not be living!) So? Wait until you find a work that gets inside of you and won’t let go.

Looking is hard work. Quick- What do you see? A rabbit facing right, or a duck facing left? From Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” as reprinted in Errol Morris‘ superb “Believing Is Seeing,” which I recommend to everyone who looks at Art.

Fifth- What other expenses am I going to incur buying this piece? Tax, shipping, framing and insurance are the most usual ones. Packing and appraisal (which you may need for insurance if the value rises above what you paid) may be others.

Professional Art handlers and movers may be needed to handle large, heavy, delicate or unusually sized pieces, like these seen here during an installation earlier this year at Metro Pictures. Doing it yourself may risk damaging it. Damage= lower value.

Deinstalling Richard Serra’s “For John Cage” series at Gagosian last year. Hopefully your needs won’t be this involved.

Also, once you buy a work, you are then responsible for “curating” it- keeping it in as good condition as you bought it to maintain it’s value. If you are considering having a work framed? Go to an established pro who regularly does work for museum and gallery shows. I only use City Frame, in NYC. I have used many other framers and since I don’t believe in being negative here, I’ll simply say, call Corinne Takasaki at City Frame if you want something framed. They’re the best I’ve found. No. I don’t get a cut from them for saying that. If you’re buying a work on paper that is from before the days of acid-free paper be aware that you’re going to have yellowing to deal with over time going forward. Consult an expert about what this might entail before buying it.

The first stage of framing at City Frame. A photo about to be measured.

Sixth- So, if you’ve bought what you love? Hang it and enjoy looking at it each time it comes into your view. If, after time has passed, you’ve decided to part with it? Selling is a subject for a whole other Post (or 10). I will say this, though- In general, it takes time to sell Art for what it’s worth. I mention it now because it’s something to keep in mind. BEFORE you buy something. You should ask yourself- IF, and when I decide to sell this, what are my options? One thing many people fail to realize is that new & largely unknown Artists have one market- the dealer who represents them. Most likely, you are buying their work from them. When it’s time to sell it? They may well be your only option. They know the Artist’s market and his/her existing collectors. They’re going to take a piece of the sale price to do so. How much varies by dealer, but it’s something to keep in mind. Auction houses may not accept the work of Artists who don’t have a proven track record of sales. You can search for this online and it’s something you should do before you buy a work that costs more than $X (unless you’re prepared to lose this money). I applaud people who buy the work of “under-known” Artists because they love their work. You are helping that Artist survive, and make more Art. I’ve been able to actually buy Art directly from the Artist, which you might be able to do before they sign with a gallery to represent them and handle their sales. It adds a personal element that’s hard to forget, and hard to equal.

Christie’s, Rockefeller Center. The big auction houses rarely sell the work of Artists who aren’t “established.” On the other hand, living Artists don’t get a percentage of re-sales of their work at auction (though most auction houses get paid by both the buyer and the seller). Look! They have their own flag (center)!

ALL of this being said, you don’t need to spend a fortune on a piece of Art! Art is available at almost any price you can mention. Just remember everything I’ve said above still applies, and that buying even relatively inexpensive Art may require some of the additional expenses I mentioned earlier, or others I didn’t. Everything I’ve said is based on my own experiences over the past 30 some years. I make no “warranty.” This is by no means meant to be “advice” or a “complete guide.” In my opinion, there is no such thing.

It’s a good thing I don’t have one of those stencils.

Another thing I’ve learned from looking at a lot of Art is that I will never own 99.99% of all the Art out there in the world. I’ve come to terms with that. Sure, I want to take Hopper’s “Nighthawks” home and hang it here, though that’s incredibly selfish. Yes, I see things every time I look that I think about buying (with varying degrees of seriousness). But? That’s ok. I’ve learned to use shows as another room in my home. It’s like if I go to a show often it’s a bit like living with the work on display, which is kind of fun-and? It’s as close as I’ll ever get to really doing that.

I still walk around this show in my mind. “Nasreen Mohamedi” at The Met Breuer, 2016

25 visits was easier than getting one of these home. Ai Weiwei at Lisson Gallery, 2016

Another important consideration in buying Art that you love is timing. As I’ve mentioned, I believe the Art Market is (at, or) near a peak in value. As a result it becomes extremely hard to find Art that is “undervalued.” Far more Art is “overvalued,” in my opinion. Of course, there is no way for anyone to really know what Art is going to speak to, and be valued by, future generations. We can only make assumptions. One of those is- “If it’s spoken to people for x hundred years, why won’t it continue to do so?” Another is, “They’re not making any more Vermeer’s.” So, yes, supply and demand is always the key element. And that brings me to a final point. While “Contemporary Art” has a certain “sex appeal” that comes with being new, as I touched on earlier, most new Artists don’t have an established market. This is very, very risky, in my opinion for anyone buying their work for more than $X, which, apparently, many people are doing. It seems to me that most people, especially those new to buying Art, would be better off buying the work of Artists with (long) track records, which also allow a wider ranger of selling avenues, if/when the need arrises.

Henry Taylor & Deana Lawson shown together at this year’s Whitney Biennial, where they were among the “stars.” Being included, means it’s too late now to “get in at the bottom,” on either, but it’s still no guarantee either will “make it,” and their prices will rise substantially the next 20 years, since both are still in “mid-career.” Therein lies the rub, and the risk, in buying the work of good Artists who are beginning to “make it.” Are you now paying for the quality of their work, or it’s future price potential? At least the Artists get paid.

Going back to the Master of Delft, it’s hard for us to realize that Vermeer lived in obscurity after his death for many, many decades (like Van Gogh lived during his entire life).

Yes, that really is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at MoMA, or as close as I could get to it. I often wonder what Vincent would have made of his incredible popularity now.

It’s quite possible “another Vermeer” is out there waiting to be discovered right now. Carmen Herrera, who’s now 102 years young(!), had only one major show (in 1984) before being given a solo show at the Whitney Museum LAST YEAR (2016)!

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight” at the Whitney Museum, January, 2016.

With all the Art that’s been created in just the past, say, 300 years, I think it’s a virtual certainty that someone major has gone over looked. So? If you get good at this, you go to see enough Art, know what to look for, and you have your eyes open? Who knows what you might find!

But? Don’t buy it if you don’t love it.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, of The Beatles, published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Two Years! This Post marks the Second Anniversary of NighthawkNYC.com. I can’t let it pass without saying “Thanks!,” first to Sv for pushing me to start it, to Kitty for research assistance above and beyond the beyond this past year, to all the fine people I’ve met who work in the galleries and museums I haunt who have answered questions, shared insights, helped, and especially for putting up with “him, again,” to all the Artists who have spoken with me this year, and everyone who has taken the time to check out the 150 Posts I’ve done so far. Thank you! Oh! And I almost forgot- to my two fine feathered friends, aka “The Birdies” of “On The Fence.” For those who have wondered “What the heck?”  They represent the random voices I hear commenting at shows, though, unfortunately, only I am to blame for what comes out of their mouths. Don’t worry- No actual Birdies were harmed in the making of that series. But? Their Photo has sure taken a beating!

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. I’m not speaking further about buying Photographs in this Post. From what I’ve seen, and learned, this year, that is a whole other topic.
  2. If you want to get an idea of HOW sticky it can get, or you want to see how world-class experts work, check out the Rembrandt Research Project’s controversial findings on all of the Master’s Paintings, here. Well, the ones they accept as being by the Master, himself.