How to Be an Art Collector on a Budget
Unless you’re a well-connected millionaire living in a big city, art collecting might seem impossible.
It’s not. Experts say it’s actually common to start small.
Nowadays, high-quality art can be found in all kinds of places: local art festivals, online, artist studios or even at college or university student artist presentations. Once you figure out what kind of art you’re drawn to, and decide upon on how much money you’d like to spend, you can start selecting pieces to own across different mediums.
In the meantime, consider these expert tips regarding how to be an art collector on a fixed budget.
Think About Why You Want to Own Art
There’s a big difference between collecting art as an investment for down the road, owning it for enjoyment and just trying to find something to hang above your fireplace. Understand why you want to collect art before you move forward.
“Are you trying to put together great décor for your home or office?” asks Beverly Solomon of Beverly Solomon Design. “Or is the goal to collect art to make money over time?”
Your Goals Don’t Have to Be Mutually Exclusive
“It is important to know that you can like art that is not valuable and you may often decide to buy art that you literally hate because it is a great deal,” said Solomon.
In collecting art for profit, you are buying autographs, not art, she says.
“A scribble signed by Picasso is worth more than the most beautiful painting by an unknown artist at your local art show,” she said.
“Buying a piece of art from the local art scene can both support an artist and bring you a great deal,” said Liz Lidgett, CEO of Adore Your Walls, an art advisory service that works with clients across all kinds of budgets.
She adds: “Keep your eyes open for local art fairs, university art shows and even local coffee shops. These are all places where you can buy directly from the artist without paying the up-charge that a gallery typically adds to the sale price. While traveling, buying local to that particular city also gives you the perfect souvenir.”
For another option, check out charity events and arts-based fundraising, says Andrew Thornton, creative director of Allegory Gallery.
A good cause can equal good artwork at an affordable price.
Try Estate Sales
If you want to spend a bit more than the bare minimum, but you also don’t have thousands of dollars to put toward an item, art publicist Erika Ashley recommends visiting estate sales.
“Estate sales that are run by families without the help of a professional estate sale company are great finds for you as a buyer, because the family often undervalues works — especially large paintings, because they want to get rid of the pieces,” she said. “Make sure to ask for a certificate of provenance if you’ve found something special.”
“I buy art almost exclusively at estate sales, because not only can you find unique art pieces, but the prices on these pieces are often better than you would find on prints at retail,” said Darcy Segura, a buyer and seller of vintage furniture at The Eclectic Den in Texas.
Also, Try Auction Houses
Ashley also recommends discovering art and buying it through local auction houses.
“Because the works aren’t going to be at a Christie’s or Sotheby’s valuation, even if you get into a bidding war with someone for a piece, you’re likely to get it at below market value,” she said.
When looking for artwork, Thornton says small-scale options can be a nice way for new collectors or collectors with limited space to acquire affordable pieces.
“Smaller pieces are often less expensive, but small pieces don’t have to mean less style,” Lidgett said. “Purchasing several works by a favorite artist or even multiple artists to create a gallery wall can give you the same impact as one large piece. There are also great tricks like a small piece and a large mat and frame that can take up the same amount of visual space but for less money.”
Seek Out Up-and-Coming Artists
Instead of focusing on big name artists, Thornton suggests looking for younger artists who are just starting out, particularly those still in art school or about to graduate. Most likely, their work will be more affordable since such artists are at the beginning of their career.
“Visit the BFA and MFA graduating exhibitions and sales at your local college or university,” said Ashley. “The work of up-and-coming artists is generally less of an investment than established artists, and their works have a high appreciation value in the market as they’ll be exhibited more, win prizes and end up in museums and galleries as their careers progress.”
She adds: “Do some research before you get to the school about the students in the exhibition. Google them and see if they’ve won awards or gotten press coverage already — those are the artists whose work you’ll want to pick up as they’re already starting to receive art school validation.”
Use Layaway or Pay in Installments
A little known industry secret: like many other big purchases, you can actually use a layaway plan or pay in installments for artwork.
Professional artist Diana Stelin says gallerists are always happy to assist new potential clients, and often have some wiggle room in their retail pricing, so you can always ask for installment options or negotiate a deal if you’re paying on the spot.
This approach works well for those interested in buying the best they can afford, rather than the first thing available, says art appraiser Helaine Fendelman. That way, you can select an expensive item but make the cost reasonable with payments spread out over a long period of time.
Reconsider the Frame
“Framing can frequently be more expensive than the piece of artwork itself,” said Lidgett. “Custom frames can be critical for conservation, but if you’re not worried about that for your piece, then purchasing a ready-made frame is much easier on your wallet.”
She adds: “A great in-between can also be purchasing a frame, but having a mat cut for the piece by your local framer. The mat makes the entire piece look custom, and you can always have it framed later on as your budget allows.”
Buy, Sell and Trade What You Already Have
Solomon says one way to buy art involves selling and trading what you already own, which allows you to find great values at yard sales, resale shops or directly from a specific artist.
“Over the years, I have literally traded a load of junk for art, diamonds and other collectible treasures,” she said. “Like any other investment, the profit in art is made on the buy side. If you buy art at a great price, you will usually make money on the sell. If you pay too much on the buy, the odds are against making much if any profit.”
Reach Out to a Professional
Of course, budgeting to collect art means different things to different people. Some may view spending $100 on one piece as a maximum amount, while others may decide tens of thousands of dollars is just fine.
For those on the higher end of the spending spectrum, Ashley usually encourages enlisting the help of a professional who can catalogue, manage and help take care of art.
“Depending on the medium of the artwork, it’s possible that you’ll need to rotate your collection out, and you want to have something fabulous to replace the piece with,” she said. “Drawings in particular are quite fragile, as chronic sun exposure can damage the work. You’ll want to make sure you work with a professional who can give you sound advice about how often to rotate out your collection, how to store it, and help you identify when it’s the right time to put a work back on the market.”
Above All, Focus on Buying Art You Love
“When beginning to collect art, it's important to go for what speaks to you, and buy what you love,” said Stelin.
Spend a little time figuring out your style and preferences by visiting museum exhibitions, art galleries and art shows, and then simply trust your gut — because when you see certain pieces of art, you’ll likely feel some sort of emotion that signals your interest, curiosity or appreciation.
Rely on that versus only picking up art that’s popular or “supposed” to be valuable.
“While it might be tempting to pick up the latest toast of the town, look for pieces that you love and ignore the hype,” said Thornton. “Good artwork is not defined by a price tag.”