DECIDING WHAT ART TO ACQUIRE: What is a good investment that will give me lasting pleasure? Or… How do I start building a great public collection?

How do I start collecting?

If you’re a non-profit college or institution, start by meeting with your stakeholders and creating a Master Plan for your collection.  You can look on any search engine for sample art collection master plans for your type of institution.  Remember:  all great American public collections started as the result of a few committed stakeholders.  The National Gallery had Paul Mellon; the Metropolitan Museum had J.P. Morgan.  At your institution today, you have a powerful collection-building tool they did not–the IRS deduction for fine art donations.  Speak with your tax preparer for more information, and start making a Plan!

An individual Collector may start with a spontaneous art purchase that surprises everyone including themselves. Or a Collector may build a collection in a careful, methodical way. There is no wrong way to collect. For most Collectors, collecting is a joyful—sometimes obsessive—hunt, which often reflects the interests and personality of the Collector, and enhances that person’s pleasure in day-to-day life.

This hunt can be fun. Most experts recommend you start by looking at local museums and exhibitions in galleries. First, look to learn what you like. Look at the best – if you don’t live in a major city, visit museums in the cities nearest to you. Get to New York to see the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. See the Art Institute in Chicago. Visit the National Gallery in Washington, DC. America has some of the finest public museums in the world. See them in real life. A work of art directly experienced as a three-dimensional object is radically different than a flat reproduction of an artwork on a computer screen. Collectors treasure direct experience.

When looking in places where the art is for sale, some advise leaving your credit cards at home in a water-filled container you’ve put in the freezer. Because it’s very hard to make an impulse purchase when your credit cards are locked in a block of ice.

How do I know what I like?

Philosopher Alice Koller said she learned what she liked by observing whether she smiled when she walked toward something. I have also heard it said that you should pay attention to your breathing. If your breathing stops, don’t buy it. You want art that encourages you to keep breathing.

In much the same way, there is a popular myth that when you fall in love, that person “takes your breath away.” I advise that if you have that experience, run quickly in the opposite direction. There is a difference between the instinctive perception of danger and the perception of love. Many confuse the two.

Emotional responses are quick, and feelings change. You can love something one day and be uninterested in it forever after. That’s why, if you’re spending your hard-earned money, it’s a good idea to re-visit art many times before you buy it. You want to spend your money on something you’ll enjoy looking at for a long time.

How do I find art that’s both a good investment and that will give me lasting pleasure? Six points to consider…

1. Good—and Great— Art Collections usually develop from the personal interests of the owners. So, what interests you? It’s OK to say you do not yet know. Part of the thrill of collecting is the joy of exploring, learning about yourself and about art.

Sometimes interests are predictable, sometimes not. For example, the actor Sylvester Stallone has an amazing collection of art related to boxing. His breakout film was Rocky, a movie about a boxer. Barbra Streisand is famous for her many talents as an entertainer, and she is also admired for collecting almost everything, and choosing the finest quality. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a postman and a librarian, lived on her salary and spent his salary on art. They put together the greatest collection of contemporary American minimalist art in the world. Leonard Nimoy, better known as Mr. Spock on the TV show Star Trek, had a great collection of art about naked people. Etta and Claribel Cone, two sisters from Baltimore, liked modern French art and amassed one of the greatest collections in the United States.

2. Know what NOT to buy.

You don’t have to buy everything you like. You can like something and not want to live with it. You can like something for five seconds or a day without wanting to make a lifelong commitment to living with it. That’s why it’s good, if you like something, to come back another day and look again. Keep looking until you feel good about the idea that you would enjoy looking at this art over a long period of time. Watch your enthusiasm grow or fade before committing your money to a work of art. Respect that feeling.

Look at art more than once–especially if it’s an auction purchase. If you go to an auction and that’s the first time you’ve ever seen the object you are bidding on, you’re taking a pointless risk. (Bear in mind that unlike in the movies, auction houses usually show a picture of the work, not the work itself, in the auction room when you are bidding.) Every reputable auction house sets aside several days prior to the auction when lots for sale can be inspected up close by the public. Your job, as a responsible buyer, is to carefully look over lots that interest you. That includes taking the painting off the wall and looking at the back. I always look at least twice through auction lots. If you have questions about the condition and authenticity of the lots–and you should–get help from experts to find out what you need to know. Also: read condition reports generated by the auction house. They can point out problems you miss.

3. The one that got away…

But the gallery salesman says that if I don’t buy now, it will be gone when I get back.

Yup, they say that.

In your life, there have probably been missed opportunities. You may regret things going as a far back as high school. Or before.

If you are in a gallery, and you aren’t sure the work will be there if you come back to look again, ask the salesperson to put a hold on it for you. An honest salesperson will probably do that. Your job is to be respectful, and say you’ll let the person know in three days, or whatever time limit you agree to. Keep that promise, and visit the work often. You work hard for your income. Don’t squander money succumbing to high-pressure sales techniques. If you still don’t know after a few days, let it go. There is always more art, and something will capture your fancy in a more compelling way. Not-acquiring a work of art can be as valuable a learning experience, as acquiring art. And it’s much more cost-effective.

The art world is largely an old-fashioned, non-modern industry, governed by standards and traditions that have not been updated significantly since the 1700s or so. Unlike the Hermès Birkin handbag which has a waiting list, art usually does not fly off the walls, unless it’s in the Bubble. (See the entry on the Bubble. Never buy art in the Bubble.)

4. You develop the skill of choosing art well.

Buying good art involves interpreting two reliable resources: your own response–intellectual, emotional, physical and perhaps even spiritual–to a work of art, and the research you do. You develop these skills over time, with practice and effort. See the section on how to start collecting.

5. But X says this art will soon be worth millions! I can get it for nothing!

If an artist is on an internet “hot list,” do not buy the artist’s work. Like a stock tip you read about, or hear about at a bar, an art “tip” should be interpreted as a warning signal to stay away. If you respond to that nonsense by purchasing art, you are speculating, which is doomed to failure.

6. Your first art purchases will eventually look to you like your first art purchases.

No one is infallible, at least in my religious tradition. You learn about art you like as you live with what you buy. So, guess what? You’re going to make mistakes! How these mistakes often differ from those in everyday life is that art collecting mistakes teach us, help us hone our knowledge, and make us better and more joyful collectors.

One reason to hire someone to help you figure this out is that an honest art expert can help your early art purchases be purchases you will not regret. Kind of like in Dante’s Inferno, Virgil was a guide? It’s good to find a Virgil. Likewise, Dumbledore was a guide for Harry Potter. Find a Dumbledore.

Q.  I found a great art advisor.  No offense, but it’s not you.  The person charges a commission that seems really reasonable.  Is five percent a reasonable commission?

A.  No offense taken.  But please be careful:  Like in the financial services industry, you want an advisor who is a fiduciary, meaning that the advisor puts your interests first.

If an art advisor charges you a commission, the person what’s called a “conflict of interest”  —  the person would want you to pay a higher price, so that the earnings they pocket gets larger.

If a person bills you at a flat rate, or by the hour, there is no conflict-of-interest.