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Every industry has its own etiquette and the art world is no exception. Here are some basic dos and don'ts to guide you on your art collecting journey.
Do: Determine your priorities
What’s your motivation for buying a work of art? Are you looking to fill a particular wall space in your home or office? Is the art for investment purposes? Or maybe a little of both?
Many collectors report simply falling in love with a particular artist and the story behind a piece, but there can be other factors at play — and that’s okay. The art you acquire should reflect your unique situation and you should never feel pressured to purchase something that doesn’t fully resonate with you.
If you’re most interested in acquiring a major work that will appreciate in value, an art advisor might make sense to assist you in sourcing the best pieces by leveraging their network of art world connections. Figuring out what’s most important to you will save you stress down the line and allow you to focus on those things that matter, and ignore the things that don’t.
Don’t: Limit yourself to prints and multiples
Some argue that acquiring prints and multiples is the best way to affordably begin an art collection, but this advice is somewhat short-sighted.
While prints by well-known artists may offer access to bragging rights (“I own a Picasso,” etc.), there is no shortage of emerging artists whose original paintings or sculptures are priced affordably and which could also appreciate over time, allowing for even greater bragging rights later (“I bought a piece by X before they blew up,” etc.).
There’s also the argument that, by buying works from living artists, you’re more directly supporting the arts ecosystem— an altruistic bonus to building your art collection.
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Do: Set your budget beforehand
It’s recommended that you establish your budget prior to beginning your artwork search.
Depending on the scale of the work you’re after, shipping could run into the thousands of dollars, so that should also be taken into consideration. Some works, such as outdoor sculptures, may require yearly maintenance, so it’s advisable to get a sense of any associated costs that an artwork may carry.
Once you’ve decided on a price range that you’re comfortable with, do some preliminary market research. There’s no shortage of art marketplaces online with published prices to give you a sense of what types of pieces you can afford. You can browse Artwork Archive’s Discovery platform, Artsy, Artspace, 1stDibs, or Platform, just to name a few.
Don’t: Ask for an offensive discount or attempt to cut out the gallery
It’s perfectly fine to negotiate prices — to a point.
A discount of 20% or greater is generally reserved for major collectors or museums. Excessive haggling will reflect poorly on you and could land you a “do-not-sell” list if your tactics seem overly aggressive or just plain rude.
By extension, don't attempt to circumvent a gallerist and buy directly from an artist that they represent. Doing so puts that artist in a terrible position by jeopardizing their professional partnerships, and could also ruin your reputation among dealers, thereby negatively impacting your ability to buy works in the future.
Do: Request a condition report
Whether you are buying from a gallery, auction house or directly from an artist, it’s normal to request a condition report for the artwork you’re considering, especially for more historical works from the so-called “secondary market.”
While there is no universal template for condition reports, there are some general standards. For example, many condition reports will include a diagram of the artwork with notations of any markings, scuffs, knicks, or tears. Here is an example condition report from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
Depending on the value of the piece in question, it might make sense to pay for a neutral 3rd party to complete the condition report, although the cost of that service will likely be at your expense.
Don’t: Assume the artwork is signed by the artist
Some artists simply don’t sign their pieces, a fact which some collectors may not realize. An unsigned work can cause issues down the road, especially in the event of resale, so make sure you get confirmation that the work is actually signed, prior to purchase.
If the work is unsigned, then it's recommended to request either a Certificate of Authenticity (COA), signed by the artist, or a signature label, generally a sticker that’s been signed by the artist that is affixed to the reverse of the piece. These will not include the price of the piece but should list its title, the year it was made, its medium, and dimensions.
Some artist estates have ceased offering COAs, but, as long as the artist is still living, any reputable gallery should be able to provide a COA at the time of sale.
Do: Confirm the materials used
For paintings that are simply oil or acrylic on canvas, there may be no need to further confirm the materials used in an artwork. However, for “mixed media” pieces, it’s recommended to get a complete list of materials from the seller, for a variety of reasons.
Some materials may not age well or have a truncated shelf life that you, as the buyer, should be aware of prior to purchase. Multimedia works may include components, such as light bulbs, that will need eventually to be replaced — but what happens if said components are no longer being manufactured? Caveat Emptor.
Perhaps the most famous example of this situation is Damien Hirst’s “rotting shark,” entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which was sold for more than $10million in the early 2000s, despite its obvious decay.
According to an article published by the Tate, “In 2003, the formaldehyde solution of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was so cloudy that the animal within the case could hardly be seen. It was therefore not surprising that the dealer Larry Gagosian announced that the substitution of the shark should be seen in much the same way as the replacement of a broken neon tube in an installation by Dan Flavin.” Damien Hirst’s studio now offers to switch out any animal from the artist’s sculptures that is more than 10 years old.
If you’re unsure about any materials used in an artwork you’re considering for purchase, it’s recommended to get a second opinion from a professional conservator.
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Don’t: Confuse an original painting with a “hand-painted giclee”
Giclee prints are reproductions of original artworks. A hand-painted giclee is still a print and will never be as valuable as an original painting.
Read the fine print before you buy, especially if you’re only browsing online and can’t inspect the artwork in person prior to purchase.
Do: Conduct as much due diligence on the seller and/or artist as possible
Looks can be deceiving — especially in the art world. There have been many high-profile recent cases of art fraud, in which a seemingly reputable dealer has conned art collectors out of thousands — or even millions — of dollars.
Buying art from an established gallery or auction house will mitigate risks to a point, but even well-known galleries have fallen prey to unscrupulous actors. There are professional organizations, such as the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), that require ethical standards to be met as a condition of membership, and galleries or dealers belonging to those organizations will often be a relatively safe bet.
So do your research, but beware of red flags, such as failure to provide provenance documentation, or refusal to commit to an in-person inspection of the artwork in question.
Don’t: Be afraid to ask for provenance verification
Provenance is an important term in the art market, especially for secondary market works that have been previously bought and sold. Provenance is essentially the chain-of-ownership for any particular artwork that can be verified through past invoices and bills of sale, certificates of authenticity, or publications such as exhibition catalogues and catalogue raisonnes.
Provenance documents are not immune to fraud, however, and can be forged or otherwise altered. Therefore, it’s recommended to not only verify the authenticity of the artwork you intend to buy, but also the authenticity of its corresponding provenance records.
Do: Consider the scale and weight of the artwork
Some buyers — especially those who live in apartment buildings — may neglect to measure their elevator door prior to purchasing a piece. Such oversights can result in significant added expenses, such as the costs of un-stretching and restretching a painting, just to get it in the door.
If an artwork is made of concrete or bronze, make sure that your floor or desired location can bear that weight without needing to be reinforced.
If you already know where you want to install your artwork, let the seller know every detail of the space upfront — what the walls are made of, etc. — so they can advise you of any installation details you may have overlooked. Forewarned is forearmed!
Don’t: Expect overnight delivery
Art shipping often takes far longer than buyers expect, so be patient! Attempting to expedite the process by selecting a shipper who does not specialize in fine art transport may result in damaged artwork.
Some art shippers offer shuttle services, which effectively combine numerous art shipments at a more affordable rate, but these options will often require longer transit times, so be prepared to wait several weeks for delivery.
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Do: Confirm shipping and installation details prior to purchase
Have a granular conversation with the seller regarding how the work will get to you and — just as importantly — how it will be installed and by whom.
Here’s a quick list of the transport details you’ll want to confirm, in writing, before agreeing to buy any artwork.
Who is paying for the crating and shipping and how much will that cost?
Who is paying for insurance while in transit?
Will the shippers also install the art? Is this an extra cost?
What will happen to the crate (if there is one) — will the shippers dispose of it, or will you?
Don’t: Forget to add your new art to your insurance policy
As soon as you have paid the invoice, send it to your insurance provider and have your new piece added to your policy as quickly as possible.
If your homeowner’s policy excludes fine art, then you will need to acquire special coverage. To insure your art the right way, read this first.
A database like Artwork Archive will help you organize and keep track of all your fine art insurance information, such as insurance values, appraisals, and other reports.
Do: Catalog your art collection in a database like Artwork Archive
Cataloguing your art collection is a best practice that will protect your investment and make your life easier. Scan all of your collection's important paperwork and keep all your artwork documents in one place.
Here’s a list of the most important documents you’ll want when acquiring art.
Artwork Archive enables collectors to quickly and professionally organize all their artworks' details and images, as well as invoices, insurance forms, provenance records, condition reports, appraisals, contacts, and other important information.
For more advice for budding art collectors, check out this list of expert answers to common questions from art collectors or download this free e-guide for collectors.