What I Would Tell My Collector Self 20 Years Ago

Artwork Archive | November 16, 2020

Image credit: Giulia May, courtesy of Unsplash

Lessons learned from years of working with collectors.

Ever wish you could go back in time and do something differently? Well, unfortunately, time machines don't exist. But, we can learn from past experiences, and make informed decisions for our future when it comes to our art collections!

Artwork Archive sat down with Courtney Ahlstrom Christy and Sarah Reeder, two appraisers, and co-editors of Worthwhile Magazine™, who work with collections of all sizes and types. We asked them to share best practices that would help art collectors in all stages of their collecting. This is what they had to say. 


Choose original works rather than prints in large edition sizes.

Original, one-of-a-kind works such as paintings tend to have a greater appreciation rate than prints produced in large quantities.  When you buy a painting, you add a unique work to your art collection instead of a print that could be part of many other collections. 

If you do purchase a print, it's a good idea to select an impression that was part of an edition of 300 or fewer impressions to help combat future depreciation from an abundance of supply (we have both seen edition sizes in the thousands in our work).


Identify collecting goals and regularly assess your collection.

It is useful to identify what you want your collection to accomplish, and if the answer is simply making you happy, we support that!

Articulating your collection goals, whether it is assembling a grouping of important works in a particular genre or creating an archive of a specific historical topic, helps provide clarity for future purchases. Professional appraisers and collection advisors can be valuable resources to consult on your collecting journey.

Every collection benefits from a disciplined collecting approach and a clear mission that guides new purchases. 


Stay curious in your collecting approach and be open to mixing in different artists.

If building a collection that functions as an asset is important to you, many of the same investing principles apply, especially maintaining a diversified portfolio that doesn't grow unbalanced. 

What might this look like as it applies to an art collection? You may want to consider exploring both established and emerging artists while building your collection and be careful about weighting a large portion of your collection on a single artist. 


Keep all documentation and paperwork associated with your purchases.

Paperwork associated with the ownership of art has become increasingly important. This chain of custody, known as provenance, is most robust when supported by factual evidence. 

Therefore, we recommend collectors keep copies of bills of sale or any other documentation pertinent to a work of art's legal title and exhibition history. 

Online art collection management systems like Artwork Archive help you wrap your arms around your collection and stay organized. 

It's one thing to collect the documents, but they don't do much good if they are forgotten in a junk drawer. It's important to have information in a safe place that you'll remember years from now— like a cloud-based database. Systems like Artwork Archive let you save these sources as attachments to an object record. Learn more about ways to document art in the blog post "Unconventional Provenance: Documenting Art Ownership in the 21st Century."


Keep an inventory.

After you gather all the paperwork, make sure to catalog details about each item in the collection. The inventory should describe the art so that another person less familiar with a work can easily identify it based on the information provided, even without a photo. Examples of details to include in the description are the following: maker/artist, title, medium/materials, creation date, region, signatures/markings, provenance, subject matter, condition, etc. 

We know that sometimes inherited or purchased artwork is accompanied by little information about its origins or even maker, so do the best you can—the more comprehensive the catalog, the better. 

Again, we recommend using a system like Artwork Archive, which helps you keep everything organized in one place—having record of multiple images and documents. 

Would you like professional help in cataloging your collection? Then consider hiring an appraiser to assist you in creating and maintaining a collection inventory. 

Whether you're cataloging your collection yourself or employing a professional, a cloud-based database like Artwork Archive will help everyone keep the important information organized in one place, and easily accessible if you need to share it for insurance, accounting, estate planning, etc. 


Take good care of your art. 

As appraisers, we really hate seeing art that has been harmed by poor storage practices, and condition issues also reduce value. 

Taking care of your art is an important responsibility of being a collector. Best practices include hanging art in locations where it is protected from direct sunlight and avoiding excessive humidity or temperature fluctuations through appropriate climate control. 

If you're already working with an appraiser, they can help assess if your art collection could benefit from changes to your current storage practices. They can also help refer you to a highly trained art conservator if certain pieces need conservation treatments.


Appraise your art at appropriate intervals.

Our clients are often surprised to find that most insurance companies recommend having an insurance appraisal update for their art collection every 3-5 years. This allows insurance coverage to follow shifts in the market that have occurred since the last update and make sure you will be sufficiently compensated in an insurance settlement in the event of a loss

Emerging contemporary artists in particular can experience rapid rises in their market, so having regular appraisal updates helps protect you from being underinsured.  If you work with the same appraiser over time, the updates generally cost less than the initial appraisal report since the appraiser is already familiar with your collection.


Stay up to date with art world news.

Reading art world publications (like Artwork Archive's blog and our magazine, Worthwhile Magazinecan help you learn about new emerging artists and be aware of coming shifts in the art market, as well as help you hone your artistic preferences. 

Staying up to date with art world news can also help you avoid risky purchases from controversial venues embroiled in scandal or of artists who are frequently forged.


Be cautious of certificates of authenticity.

In theory, a certificate of authenticity (COA) is a document that proves a genuine work. However, there are no regulations on how COAs are issued, allowing anyone to create their own version.

While a COA is intended to assure the buyer of the artwork's authenticity, you should be very cautious. These types of documents are only as good as the source. So while a reputable gallery or recognized expert is a guarantee worth having, most COAs hold little to no value. 

Instead, we recommend you retain receipts of purchase and as detailed a description of the art as possible.

Some specifics to request during a purchase include the artist's name, title, date, medium, signature, size, provenance, etc.. Make sure to get these details in writing! And always remember to consider the source of information before believing the facts given.


Engage with emerging artists and your local arts community. 

We believe that part of the enjoyment of collecting art is the community it fosters. At whichever level you're most comfortable, there is an opportunity to locally engage in the visual arts. It can be merely becoming a member at the nearby art museum and attending their events or visiting artist shows presented by galleries. A perk to meeting contemporary artists is that you may be able to acquire works by emerging talent while it is still affordable.

You can find emerging artists on Artwork Archive's Discovery platform. Search by medium, location and price.  

Another route is to volunteer with nonprofit organizations and spread the benefits of an art-filled life through civic projects. Your path into the arts community really can be a choose-your-own-adventure scenario. Such interaction will delight your senses and deepen aesthetic appreciation while simultaneously helping culture flourish in your own "backyard."


Listen to the old adage and "buy what you love."

The feelings that a work of art can evoke is something not to be taken lightly. When it comes to collecting, we strongly encourage a philosophy where emotional connection trumps a financial one. By selecting art based on personal taste, your subsequent enjoyment will likely sustain for years to come—an important characteristic when you consider purchases as a long-term investment. 

Unless your pieces are in storage, artwork is indeed a very personal commodity that lives with you. Wouldn't you rather continually gaze at art that pleases your eyes and stirs your imagination?

Another benefit we've noticed as appraisers is that themes naturally surface within a collection belonging to someone who followed personal taste rather than chasing the latest trends. After all, no one can truly predict the external factors influencing the market decades from now, but only you know your heart's content. 

Thank yourself twenty years from now, and have an online art collection management system in place. Check out Artwork Archive

About the Authors:  

Courtney Ahlstrom Christy is the owner of Ahlstrom Appraisals LLC. Based in Atlanta, her firm assists clients throughout the American Southeast with the valuation of fine and decorative arts. She is a Certified Member of the International Society of Appraisers with the Private Client Services designation and an Accredited Member of the Appraisers Association of America. Courtney can be found online at http://ahlstromappraisals.com

Sarah Reeder, ISA CAPP is the owner of Artifactual History® Appraisal and the Co-Editor of Worthwhile Magazine™. Sarah is the creator of the online course SILVER 101:  Quickly Learn How to Identify Your Sterling Silver and Silverplate to Find the Valuable Pieces and Sort with Empowered Confidence.  She is a Certified Member of the International Society of Appraisers with the Private Client Services designation and an Accredited Member of the Appraisers Association of America. Sarah can be found online at www.artifactualhistory.com and contacted directly at [email protected].

Courtney and Sarah are the Co-Editors of Worthwhile Magazine™, available online at https://www.worthwhile-magazine.com/

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