Expert Answers to Common Questions from Art Collectors

Artwork Archive | December 14, 2020

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

From buying art to bequeathing it, here are 6 frequently asked questions about art collections, answered by experts.

Collecting art is a journey. It goes beyond just the purchase of the artwork.

Art collecting seems like a straightforward journey. But once you start, you'll realize it's filled with unexpected twists and turns. You'll feel like Odysseus—facing a long, wandering odyssey of challenges.  

To help you navigate the process, we asked art professionals what questions they get asked the most by art collectors. And, they generously gave their answers.


What can I do to clean my paintings safely at home? 

There are few safe ways for art collectors to clean their own pieces without intervention from a conservator—if any at all. Many attempt to brush off dust with a feather duster (which they assume is light and cleans delicately) or with a soft rag. This doesn't work. As a paintings conservator, I see feathers from dusters and pulled threads from rags stuck in impasto, or worse, having pulled off the tips of impasto, all the time.

If you think your painting looks dirty or affected by smoke/soot, or if you have noticed spider or insect activity, I recommend taking the painting off the wall and sending quality photos (both overall and close-ups) to a conservator, along with measurements and information about the painting's location in your home.

Cleaning on one's own is always dangerous since cracks, flaking or tented paint and friable or powdery pigments are not always readily visible to the naked or untrained eye. If you try cleaning by yourself, you might brush off flakes of paint or disturb loose pigment. 

Answered by Elizabeth Burton, independent paintings conservator and co-founder of a mental health and arts non-profit, The Perception Project


How do I find out more about an object in my collection?

There is a wealth of free information available via the internet and the library, including databases with articles, archives, and physical books. Start by looking to see if there is a catalogue raisonne about the artist. There you can find basic information about the object and its provenance. Start with IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research). For provenance information, go to the Getty Provenance Index Databases. There are many projects in place with institutions to digitize archives so that they are more accessible to researchers. And if you have not already done so, do a basic Google search on the object, artist, medium, or type of object which may appear in credible scholarly sources that are accessible online.

Answered by Kate Chimenti, Account Manager at Insurance Office of America


Should I buy art as an investment or just get something I really like?

The old adage is key: buy with your heart… BUT use your head. Buying what you love does not dismiss you from doing your homework.  

Although the most important consideration is how the art makes you feel, you should consider each work as a potential asset that can at a minimum, at least retain its value. So, undeniably, the more you know going into a purchase, the better you can assess the value of that piece.

So back to the question: buy something you really like but combine your emotional connection with a well-informed decision that mitigates the risk of your investment. That way, you’ll have something you love to look at every day that maybe, just maybe, goes up in value down the road. 

Answered by Julia Wehkamp, co-founder of One Art Nation (1AN)


How do I protect my art collection?

This question is actually two-part. Art collectors want to make sure that their collectibles are both physically and financially safe. How do you protect the value of their collection? And, how do you ensure that the collectibles are physically preserved? 

The answer lies in proper planning.

Let's break it down:

  • First things first, make sure that your collectibles are properly insured by keeping values up-to-date and adding or removing works that you have acquired or sold. Engage an independent and accredited appraiser to value your art and collectibles.
  • Have a good visual inventory. Photograph your artworks and store the images along with other provenance information in an online collection management system like Artwork Archive.
  • Save documents and records both physically and digitially. Maintain invoices, past appraisals, condition reports, etc..
  • Have a rolodex of qualified art professionals whether it be independent appraisals, art advisors, trained conservators, high-quality framers, shipping and storage, etc.. You want high-quality, vetted independent art professionals caring for your collection. 
  • Have a disaster preparedness plan for your collection. Damage doesn't just happen from natural disasters. One of the biggest sources of loss is from broken water pipes. Also, schedule periodic physical condition checks by an art professional. Learn more about hazards to your art collection.
  • Communicate with your trusted advisors--wealth managers, CPAs, attorneys.  Make sure they are aware of your collections, so they can provide sound advice and planning for the financial preservation of your tangible assets

Answered by Shanna Hennig, Southwest Director at Winston Art Group


How should I think of selling my art as an estate at the end of my life?

Building a collection can provide a lifetime of joy, but where it goes in the end can be a rushed, fraught decision. Children and other inheritors often end up with artworks they know little about and may not appreciate. Because art requires storage space, there can be a deadline to move the works along which prevents them from holding their full value. In the best case, collectors while still active with a rolodex of contacts should identify where each painting will go—to a descendent, to a museum, or to be sold.  A solid archive at least provides the inheritors with clues on where to start by knowing where each work was acquired, where it was exhibited (before or after purchase), and even just the name of the artist who made it. 

As a dealer who has carefully selected all the works I have handled, I appreciate being given the first go at a collection my gallery has shaped. As a service to our collectors, we often help their children identify the works they have, introduce them to museums that might be interested in gifts, tell them which works we will take on consignment or purchase, and direct them to other dealers or auction houses where the works might now sell. An organized list of paintings with their details and images expedites this process for both us and the collector’s estate.

Answered by Emily Lenz of D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.


What should I keep?

This question comes up often when handling an estate–whether you're planning your own or handling one passed down to you.

Usually clients are torn between what they think they “should” keep versus what they want to keep. The answer is surprisingly simple. The person, or persons, who have been given the responsibility to hold the family history has the authority to determine what best represents the story being kept (Hint: it isn’t everything). Having a “committee” of family members weighing in on what is important, or keeping everything because that’s what you received, is what leads to clutter, stress and frustration.

Yes, there is a good and basic “system” of exactly that–making “piles” of items, either physically or in pictures. Then you can choose to give others some say if they want to claim the items you plan to not keep.

But there are those items that are particularly difficult to know what to do with. And for those times it’s good to ask yourself these three basic questions:

  • Is this YOUR memory to keep? (Does it belong to other family members, like your kids?)
  • If you were not here, does the item tell that memory? Can it speak for itself?
  • Is it a memory that has relevance beyond yourself? Some things are person specific and that’s okay.

Answered by Terri Blanchette, Heritage Preservation Specialist and Owner of TimeSorters 


Can you appraise these items for me and then buy them from me?

No, I cannot appraise items and then buy them. The Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP) prohibit me from doing so. It would be a conflict of interest for me to appraise your items (tell you what their value is) and then offer you money to purchase them. 

As a professional appraiser, my role is to be objective and without any interest in the items I'm appraising. When an appraiser is asked to appraise and then purchase the same items, this creates the incentive to purposely undervalue the appraisal to serve the appraiser's own interests with a lower purchase offer. This is unethical and not allowed by USPAP. 

I can only appraise your items, not buy them. 

Many people outside of the professional appraisal community do claim they can tell you what your items are worth and then buy them from you, and these are scenarios to avoid. Ask yourself, "whose interests is the person representing?  Theirs or mine?"  This is one of the many reasons why it is so helpful to work with objective, impartial professional appraisers.

Answered by Sarah Reeder, ISA CAPP, Owner of Artifactual History® Appraisal


How do I discover works by emerging artists, especially when we’re all remote?  

Gallery-hopping, fair-going and studio-visiting are probably never going to be the same, and that means adapting to new opportunities to discover artists and their works. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the virtual art fairs and virtual exhibitions that have been organized during the Covid pandemic, but the truly “emerging” artists who are not represented by a gallery are unlikely to be part of these shows. 

When a collector expresses interest in collecting works by emerging artists, I like working with them to learn about the themes, ideas and aesthetics they’re most excited about, and then providing a shortlist of artists and works, much like how I worked with collectors in pre-Covid times. Thanks to more online content from artists and galleries (especially artist-run projects posting on social media), I’ve discovered artists who I probably would not have come across in normal times by proactively seeking out artist talks, performances, exhibitions and initiatives that pique my interest. 

It also seems that everyone has become more accessible online and some amazing art discussions have happened through Instagram DMs and Clubhouse!  I’ve been able to provide collectors more information about artists and their bodies of work because of this additional content and increased accessibility.  Of course, seeing a work online is nothing like seeing it in person, so an in-person viewing or a “test drive” in a collector’s home is arranged before a sale is finalized.  

Outside of working with an art advisor, I recommend that collectors ask artists they’ve collected before for recommendations and that they connect with galleries, non-profit art spaces and artists through signing up for newsletters and following them on social media.  It’s also a great time to dig into museums’ digital content, Artwork Archive’s Discovery, auction results and art sales platforms to continue honing the “collector’s eye” and contextualizing emerging artists’ work.  

Answered by Melinda Wang, independent curator and Founder of MW Projects, a cultural production and art advisory firm based in NYC


Can you come to my home and provide values for my collection on the spot?

There is sometimes a false impression that appraisers are 'object whispers' who can see an item and, in an instant, accurately know its value. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple (although I wish it were!). A valuation worth your while requires time for research and market analysis, which usually happens back at the office.

However, sometimes clients would like a general assessment and guidance on which pieces should be appraised. In these instances, I recommend either sending your appraiser images or arranging a walkthrough consultation. Through these initial steps, we can help you select which property to focus on and determine how to meet your valuation needs best. 

Answered by Courtney Ahlstrom Christy, Owner of Ahlstrom Appraisals LLC


Experts agree that tracking your art in an online collection management system like Artwork Archive is the best way to safeguard your investment.

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