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The (Budget) Wise Art Collector

by Barbara Nicholson Bell

   Buy only that which you like. Buy the piece you can live with forever, without thought of its investment value. If you like it, if it "speaks" to you, you will never regret the purchase regardless of its future value.
   For centuries, collecting fine art was the exclusive province of the wealthy. Patrons such as royalty, the Catholic Church, and successful merchants enabled artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rubens to survive and even prosper. Even into the 19th and 20th centuries, Sargent and Whistler depended upon the income from their society portraits to make other, perhaps more experimental, works possible.
  Of course, there were and still are many reasons to purchase artwork. One wants tangible evidence of one's travels, or a portrait to leave to one's heirs, or a place to spend one's wealth for the envy of one's peers. Or perhaps a monument must be erected to commemorate a life, a victory, or a god. Some art was educational, some whimsical. There was a direct bond between artist and patron in which the needs of each was met by the other.
   In the 20th century, collectable art became increasingly available to a wider market. Works by popular artists were reproduced as prints, posters made an artist's style familiar to the general population, and the availability of works on paper such as etchings, engravings and watercolors by famous artists enabled the middle-class collector to own works of art for his own home.
   Today's collector increasingly turns to collecting fine art as an investment. Even so, the wise collector follows the same primary guideline as has every notable collector before him: Buy only that which you like. Buy the piece you can live with forever, without thought of its investment value. If you like it, if it "speaks" to you, you will never regret the purchase regardless of its future value. Most of the well-publicized high prices realized in today's auction market are for works which may have been in a collection for over fifty years, so the seller "lived" with that item a very long time!
   Collecting affordable art, especially for the novice collector, often begins with works on paper such as engravings, etchings, posters, watercolors, or lithographs. My own collection of works on paper reflects several of my passions: France (especially Paris), my own watercolor and drawing hobbies, my Edwardian/Arts & Crafts decor, and my inherent Scottish thriftiness. Often these works are small in scale, and are within my budget as well.
   Every collection begins when you first see a painting or drawing that grabs you emotionally. You discover the artist's name, and you seek out other works by that artist. Now is when your homework begins. Start by going online or to your local library to research the artist. Learn the "school" of art or the time period within which the artist worked. If you understand the influences in the artist's life, you will have a better grasp of the meaning of the work you are about to acquire.
   Visit as many art galleries which specialize in that artist's work as you can. If that's not physically possible, most museums around the world have wonderful websites. Subscribe to any of several magazines and newsletters as possible such as Art and Antiques Weekly, both in print and online.
   Learn as much about technique as possible, whether it's lithography or etching, to be able to recognize good quality and identify damage or even fraud. Keep a log or spreadsheet noting the names of the pieces you acquire, the date, seller and price paid, and any repairs or re-mounting/framing you did. Keep receipts and any provenance information with your other important papers. Many antiques publications advertise excellent software for collectors which help you keep accurate records in an easy-to-maintain format. And, no less important, if your collection begins to represent serious financial value, adjust your homeowner's insurance with a rider which insures your collection at full value in case of loss.
   It's possible to begin your collection on a shoestring, whether with contemporary art or with the drawings or etchings of old masters. Once you begin it's very likely you'll become addicted - be careful, do your homework, but remember that the most important value of an artwork is in the heart of the beholder!
   There are excellent Web resources available to the beginning collector. For starters, take advice from these guidelines by the experts:

Fine Art and Fine Art's Buyer's Guide

ArtPrice.Com to search auction prices.

Investment.com's Collectibles

Art Arena

Art Collecting

The Better Business Bureau has advice on Art Fraud

   If you'd like to begin your research at some of the better websites that specialize in works on paper, I've found the following which deal primarily in 19th and 20th century American and European artists:


Abby Furey

Greggie Fine Art

Painting "Larkspur and Lilies" by Laura Coombs Hills 1859-1952

The author, Barbara Nicholson Bell, has been using the Web for research for some time, and has found some wonderful resources. It is her primary area of expertise and she enjoys being a contributor. She has a bachelor's degree in English, having studied with George Michael (prominent antiques expert and author of several books), and has years of self-study in antiques, art history, architecture, history, and collecting. She has been an antiques dealer for 5 years in the New England and Upstate New York area, and a collector for many years before that. Her areas of expertise include ceramics, art pottery, Chinese Export and European porcelain. Other pursuits include painting watercolors, gardening, photography, cooking, and golf. She loves to travel, and is nuts about France. She recently remarried and has moved to Alaska from upstate New York. Her husband and she look forward to the next chapter of their lives! You can read more of her work at Suite101


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