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10 Tips for Buying Contemporary Art

Buying contemporary art because you love it is easy—just buy what turns your crank, and forget about the fickle nature of the art market. You will hang or place your cherished acquisition in a place of honour in your home or office, and contemplate its form and meaning for year after satisfying year. It will be a conversation piece at meetings, functions and parties, and the cool factor is priceless. But if you would also like the art you buy to appreciate in value, it gets a little trickier. Here are a few pointers to consider:

1. Do your homework. Read. Talk to dealers, curators, critics and collectors. Don’t base your collecting strategy on ignorance, hot tips and/or impulse. Don’t think of doing the research as work—it’s actually interesting. And once you’ve done your homework, you can impress your friends at parties: “Did you know that Pablo Picasso once painted……?”

2. Be open. Work that is ridiculed today may be the blue-chip purchases of tomorrow. Look for work that is unique, not derivative. But in order to know if something is unique, you have to understand how it fits into a context. In order to understand its context, go back to Tip #1. Study the current trend but also the movements and styles that preceded it.

The art world, i.e. curators, critics, theorists, professors, etc., gravitate towards work that pushes the boundaries, not necessarily to shower praise upon it, but very often to react against it. Critics need something to write about--it’s their job, after all. And as they say, all publicity is good publicity. Negative reviews may in fact create a buzz around an artist’s work.

3. Buy quality. Look for work that is technically proficient. If a good idea is sloppily executed, it may not make the cut. The work might even physically deteriorate if it was produced with inferior materials. Storing and transporting it could turn into a nightmare.

How do you know if it's good quality or not? Compare with artists who work in a similar style. Get some opinions from other artists, collectors, dealers and experts. “Too bad it’s painted on newsprint,” could be a death sentence for a piece of art.

4. Be aware of education and pedigree. Where did the artist study? Who taught him/her? Is he/she related or connected to anyone famous? Can’t hurt.

5. Vary your collection. Buy some late-career, mid-career and early-career artists. Buy some blue-chip art, as well as some cutting edge upstarts. Like the stock market, blue-chip pieces can be expensive and have slower returns, but with fractional shares structures such as Fajao, high end art is now within the budget of many who were formerly excluded.

6. Avoid decoration. If you buy something because it matches the sofa, you are buying furniture, not art. There is nothing wrong with buying decorative art, but just understand that it, like your sofa, will not appreciate in value.

7. Look for challenging works. If the work is perplexing, intriguing, provocative, and/or not obvious in its meaning, it is probably more than mere decoration. It will grow on you as you try to decipher its visual code. It will have legs, and it will stimulate you for years to come. A painting of kittens will not do this for you.

8. Look for new media or new ways of using traditional media. Oil paint on canvas was a new idea 600 years ago, but it revolutionized painting. Making art from everyday objects was avant garde 100 years ago, but it is now the norm. Photography and video, as well as two and three dimensional digital art, may be the future. Invest now.

9. Track prices, exhibitions, reviews, awards and sales. Does the artist live in an art centre like New York, London or Shanghai? Where has the artist exhibited, who has reviewed his/her exhibitions, what do they say, and how have his/her prices increased? Who has bought their work—this is not fair, but if Brad Pitt bought three, it will add value. The world is not fair, and the art world is at times indiscriminately ruthless.

10. Get to know the artist, if at all possible. Go to his/her studio. Go to openings. Talk to dealers. Get a sense of an artist as a person. Is he/she sincere, dedicated, committed, and in it for the long haul? Or is he/she lazy, perpetually drunk, insincere and flakey? Some very good artists stop producing when marriage, family and financial concerns become preoccupations. Being an artist is not an easy gig with no money coming in, and so many pack it in when the going gets tough.

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If you buy an artwork very simply because you love it, you will never be disappointed. At the same time, if you buy what you love based on informed decisions, you will also never be disappointed, but you might also become significantly wealthier. As my mother explained to my sister when dear sis was being courted, “All other attributes being equal, a girl can as easily fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.” Mom knows best.

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