Posted: Thursday, 18-02-2010
The more art costs, the more respected and established the artist should be.
For example, would you buy $25,000 car off of a show room floor, no questions asked? Would you buy a $300,000 house by standing in the yard, looking at it, and deciding that it's exactly what you want? Of course not. You read about the car, ask people who own it how they like it, compare prices from dealer to dealer, and so on. You tour the house, carefully inspect every room, find out what kind of neighborhood it's in, have the house inspected by a contractor, and so on. In both cases, you want to know what you're getting before you spend your money and the same should be true for art. With a work of art, this process begins by evaluating basic facts about the artist like those mentioned above.
* The more books and catalogues that list, mention or discuss the artist, the better.
* The more significant the publications that include the artist, the more important the artist tends to be. A five-paragraph listing in a major international artist dictionary carries more weight than a similar length listing in a local artist directory.
* The more mentions the artist has in a given publication and the longer those mentions are, the better. An illustrated chapter about an artist is better than a chapter without illustrations is better than a paragraph is better than a sentence.
* The longer the artist has been creating and exhibiting art, the better. A 55 year old artist with accomplishments dating back 30 years tends to be more collectible than a 55 year old artist who's only having his second show.
* The greater the number of exhibits, awards, and other career accomplishments that the artist has, the better. Keep in mind that descriptive ramblings about an artist's majestic brush strokes or mastery of color may sound great, but flowery language is pretty much meaningless unless it includes factual information. Never confuse facts with fluff, and, in the art business, there's no shortage of fluff.
* The more significant the collections that own the artist's art, the more important the artist tends to be. When museums own the art, that's always a good sign; major corporate collections are generally good for an artist to be in; private collections only carry weight when the collectors are known and respected in the art community. A painting in the collection of the Countess Esmiralda of Stregovia, for example, may sound impressive, but the distinction is only significant if the Countess is recognized for the quality of her collection.
* Artist listings in scholarly, non-biased publications are preferred over those in commercial publications. Always be wary of books and catalogues published by special interests, no matter how lavish they may be. For instance, if you are shown a glamorous ten-pound coffee table book about an artist that's published by the gallery selling the art, but you don't find that artist listed in other standard art reference books, this could mean that the artist is considered famous and accomplished only at that gallery and nowhere else.
* The more people who recognize the artist's name and have good things to say, the better. The more qualified these people are and the more respected they are in the arts community, the more you should value their opinions, especially when they have nothing to gain if you buy the art.
Question number two-- "How important is the art?"-- is answered by looking at as much art by the artist as possible, familiarizing yourself with the range of that art, and learning how to compare the art you're interested in with other art by the artist.
Begin by having the seller show you a selection of the artist's art, either firsthand, in print, or from photographs, and from all periods in the artist's career. When that's not possible, find out where you can go to see this art. Knowing the full range of an artist's work helps you understand each individual piece in its proper context. This is why art galleries have shows and inventory multiple works of art by the artists they represent. The more pieces they have on hand to show you, the more they can teach you about the art.
Next, thoroughly inspect the art you're interested in. In addition to the front, look at the back, sides, edges, signatures, dates, any writing that's on them, any labels or stickers you find, frames, construction, everything. Have the seller explain all these details. This exercise is not only fascinating and educational, but it also gives you greater insight into what the art is all about and, incidentally, how much the seller knows about what he or she is selling.
Ask the seller whether the art is original or reproduced by mechanical means. This question is especially important with limited edition prints. Many limited edition "works of art" are little more than digital or photographic copies of originals that are produced not by the artists who sign them, but by commercial publishing companies. Believe it or not, many signed and numbered serigraphs, lithographs, and digital images like giclees, fall into this category. The only thing original about these "copy prints" are the hand-applied signatures.
Some publishers take reproductions to the extreme. New Erte editions, for example, continue to be released even though the artist died years ago. Now that's the sign of a great artist-- one who can still produce art even after he's dead. So remember-- when you're looking at a limited edition, always ask whether it's a reproduction or an original and get the answer in writing. If you happen to like the way an image looks and you don't mind that it's a copy print, go ahead and buy it. But if you want to collect original works of art, collect ones that are entirely created and produced by the artists themselves. Reproductions of originals, by the way, no matter how limited or beautiful they are, are among the least important and collectible examples of an artist's work.
Assuming the art you're interested in is original, find out whether it's "major" or "minor," that is, whether it's more or less significant when compared to other examples of the artist's art that you've been looking at. Is it closer to the most complex, detailed, labor-intensive, high-end pieces that the artist is capable of creating, or is it more like a two-minute pencil sketch done on a three-by-five card? Keep in mind that major pieces tend to be more valuable, more collectible, and fare better in the marketplace over time than minor ones.
Determine whether the art you like is "typical" or "atypical." Have the seller tell you which subjects, mediums, sizes, and styles the artist is best known for producing and that collectors prefer the most. These pieces are referred to as typical. All artists also experiment, go off on tangents, and create unusual or one-of-a-kind items that they're not that well-known for. These pieces are referred to as atypical. Unless you're a sophisticated collector who wants examples of everything that an artist has ever created or produced, stick with the typical and save the offbeat or unusual works for later.
Find out when in the artist's career your art dates from. All artists go through periods or phases where their art is more or less inspired, competent, appealing to collectors, and important in relation to their overall output. Experienced collectors, of course, prefer the best art from the best time periods. Learn what that means for your artist and how the art that you're looking at stacks up in comparison.
On a bit more of a sophisticated level, determine whether the art you're looking at has any unique original qualities or whether it's a re-do of styles or subject matters that have been produced over and over again for years. Some artists specialize in versions of art that's already been done because they're good at it, people like how it looks, and it sells well. One artist, for example, advertises himself as "a living artist who paints like a dead one." In other words, he highlights the fact that he paints like artists painted decades ago.
From a collecting standpoint, art with unique or original aspects tends to be more collectible over time than art that imitates or borrows heavily from other styles of art. Experienced collectors prefer buying works of art that reflect superior creative abilities. They patronize artists who continually evolve in their careers and dealers who represent those types of artists. If, however, you prefer art that copies famous styles of the past, then by all means collect it. Remember that there is no right or wrong art.
Lastly, make sure the art you're looking at is in good condition and built to last. I was once in a gallery that was showing an artist who does reverse paintings on glass. The paintings were beautiful, but would they last? I had the dealer show me several pieces from the back so that I could see whether the frames and backings were adequately shock resistant. I wouldn't want to buy one of these $5,000 pictures, accidentally bump it, and have it chip or crack because it's not well protected.
The answer to the third question-- "What is the art's provenance, history and documentation?"-- is determined by assembling all incidental information about the art. This is like writing the biography of the art from the moment the artist completed it right up to the present day.
You do this because good documentation and provenance increases a work of art's collectibility, desirability, and market value. Good provenance in the art world is similar to a good pedigree in the pet world. A painting that was exhibited at an important art show, for example, is more collectible than a similar looking painting that wasn't; a sculpture that won a prize is more desirable than a similar sculpture that didn't; a watercolor that made the news because of its controversial subject matter is more interesting than a similar watercolor that didn't. If art you are interested in possesses any such characteristics, you should know about it.
Begin by asking the seller to tell you everything he or she can about the art you like. Find out where it's been, what it represents, how it came into being, who's owned it, whether it's been exhibited, won awards, or been pictured or mentioned in any books, catalogues, articles, or reviews. Has it ever been discussed in print by experts or by the artist himself? Does it commemorate special events either within or outside of the artist's life? Are any interesting stories associated with it? These are the types of questions you should ask. The answers are often
entertaining, enlightening, and just plain fun.
Whenever the art is by a living artist, ask the artist to tell you about it. If the art is for sale at a gallery and the artist isn't available, ask the dealer whether you can make an appointment to speak with the artist either in person or over the phone.
In addition to what people tell you, put together as much physical documentation as possible from printed sources such as those mentioned above. This includes copies or photocopies of entries in publications that mention the art, certificates or statements of authenticity, and, whenever possible, signed statements from the artist and/or dealer detailing what they've told you. The art is the picture; the documentation is the caption.
At all times, keep truth separated from fiction. Gossip, third-party suppositions, and hearsay do not qualify as provenance. Make sure that everything you're told actually happened. When a story cannot be conclusively proven with concrete tangible evidence, don't take it seriously.
Suppose you're thinking about buying a 19th century painting with a mountain in it. The dealer says he heard that Teddy Roosevelt's plumber's grandfather once owned it. He also says that the mountain is Mount Shasta and proves it by showing you photographs of the mountain taken from the same angle as is depicted in the painting. The first statement is conjecture and must be proved in order to be taken seriously; the second statement is fact.
And now for the biggie-- question number four-- "Is the asking price fair?" This is not so much a question of what the art might be worth at some point in the future or whether it's a good investment. Nobody has those answers. All you want to know is whether it's priced fairly today. This is a question that must be asked because, like any other goods or services, art is sometimes overpriced.