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How to go about buying art

Probably the first thing to determine is the kind of art that you respond to.

For me, I like art that is stimulating, art that challenges me, art that I respond to differently at different times. This typically this means abstract art, to me.

For you, it may be entirely different. This is fine. In an earlier article, I discussed how to determine what kind of art you like. Regardless, I feel that one's response to art is primarily a visceral, emotional, gut thing, something that is personal - there is no right and wrong. It tends not to be a mental thing, and is not determined by what someone else suggests, be they a friend, another collector, or even an art consultant, though these people may be able to provide guidance and narrow your focus, once you know what direction you want to go. Others' opinions can be valuable, just don't let them do all the work.

Acquiring art can be a very participatory experience, in fact, or vicariously, frequently this is part of the motivation for buying art; you "participate" in the career of the artist. First of all, unless you are buying art from the "secondary market," art that has been previously owned, you are making a tangible monetary difference to the artist. Secondly, when the artist has gallery exhibits or museum shows, there is a certain sense of pride that frequently comes with ownership.

I don't think that buying art as an investment is a good idea. When you do so, you are buying with someone else's aesthetic in mind, and this deprives you of the primary reason to acquire art.

The primary reason to buy art is because of the personal relationship one has directly with that work of art. This may be difficult for a collector to verbalize. It frequently is or approaches a spiritual response (don't read spiritual as religious).

I once had a fascinating discussion with a friend about how one responds to something that is "greater" than oneself. (This is definitely the kind of art I look for - something that I aspire to comprehending - something that motivates me - and still leaves me wondering - wondering in a positive sense.). He felt that when most people see or experience something they perceive to be greater than they are, they feel compelled to demean it, lower it to their level or lower, and in the art world, I have often heard people say, "hey, my kid could have done that."

My advice: challenge yourself - push yourself to go beyond where you are aesthetically. I once bought a work by Ed Moses because I hated it and had to get in touch with why. I had such a significant reaction to it, that I needed to explore my feeling further. I ended up liking it a lot and shortly thereafter sold it.

Which brings up another point. Don't assume that when you buy something, you are going to live with it forever. I have been selling art for over 20 years and very few people come back to me asking me to resell something for them. This surprises me. Once I have lived with a work of art for about 5 years I discover that I am no longer looking at it. If I am not looking at it, it certainly isn't doing me a whole lot of good, in which case it is time to part with it.

When buying the artwork in the first place, there are a lot of questions that are appropriate to ask (see below), one of which should be, "what are you going to do for me, if some day I tire of this piece of art and want to sell it?"

What drives the art world, or at least my part of it, is relationships, my relationships with the artists I work with on an on-going basis, and the collectors. Good relationships are predicated upon honest, straight-forward communication. It is an error to assume that you know more than the art dealer with whom you are speaking. You may in fact know more, but don't assume it until you have sufficient proof. You can learn a lot by asking questions.

Try to avoid buying art from someone you probably will never purchase art from again. Buying art on vacation, especially from a gallery that caters to tourists can be a scary proposition.

So much of the art world is based on faith and trust, believing in the aesthetic and opinions of the dealer you are buying from. If you don't like that person, buying from them seems ill-advised.

Fair questions to ask a dealer:

  • What is this painting (sculpture) about?
  • Why is this worth as much as you say it is?
  • Can I see a resumé?
  • What is this artist's track record?
  • Can I get a discount? (this is almost the norm these days)
  • Can I pay over time? (lots of people do)
  • Will you deliver it for me?
  • Will you install it for me?

I am sure that there are more appropriate questions. I hope that you email me with your thoughts and reactions. Perhaps together we can make this a better essay.

KLEIN ART WORKS    400 North Morgan Chicago, IL 60622    (312) 243-0400