Is Fine Art Fools Gold?

When you read that paintings are being sold for millions of dollars, you may want to run out and invest in art, or you may talk yourself out of it, assuming that collecting is a game for only the very rich — people wealthy enough to buy Renoirs, Van Goghs, Picassos and Monets. But inexpensive works — photographs and prints that can be purchased for a few hundred dollars — often appreciate in value as an artist gains critical acclaim, like Baltimore-based photographer Connie Imboden, or just becomes popular, like LeRoy Neiman.

What’s the secret to acquiring a valuable collection?

The experts are unanimous: Don’t think of art as an investment.

Jan Howard, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, teaches a seminar for first-time buyers. She says “you should trust your instincts; buy not as an investment but because you love the objects.”

“Art is not a mutual fund,” agrees Diane DiSalvo, Director of Gomez Gallery. “Art is something to enjoy, that you want to live with.” She adds, “if a dealer talks about art as an investment, walk out the door.”

As my grandmother used to say, it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich boy as a poor one. By becoming educated about art, it is more likely that the works you love will also be the ones that appreciate in value.

So, how do you learn to recognize “fine art?”

“You must wash your eye with art and find what you respond to,” says DiSalvo. “The more you look, the more confidence you have in your own eye and intuition.” She advises consumers to visit galleries and museums, study publications that cover the art world like Art News, affiliate with museum groups and seek out respected dealers.

It also helps to know more than an artist’s last name. DiSalvo recalled a client calling her from another gallery saying that a painting by a certain artist was available for only $1,000. But it wasn’t the well-known artist, it was the nephew.

Working with people who are knowledgeable is also the best way to insure that you don’t end up buying one of those famous Dali prints produced after the artist signed blank sheets of paper.

Most gallery owners want to help aspiring collectors. “Our mission is to help educate our clients about art and what to collect,” says DiSalvo. She suggests following artists’ careers. “When you find an artist you like, buy the best work by that artist.”

A good place for collectors to start is with prints and photographs, since they can be purchased for under $1,000. Howard says photography is a strong market that is getting stronger. The internationally known Imboden, for example, has prints available for as little as $400, while some of the photographer’s most sought after works now fetch as much as $5,000. Howard adds, however, that it is less common for prints to be very valuable.

How do you know if you’re getting a good deal on a work of art?

Howard suggests checking auction records, shopping between different dealers and consulting museums. Buying art is like buying a car in that no one expects to pay the sticker price. Most galleries, especially those selling published works, like Nieman serigraphs, will offer significant discounts. Smaller galleries that work directly with artists and sell mostly originals or limited editions, are reluctant to haggle. DiSalvo says she will work with her customers when she can, but considers it “disrespectful” to the artist to reduce the price mutually agreed to by the gallery and artist.

Sometimes money can be saved by purchasing pictures unframed; however, once you go to the frame shop and see the prices, you may wish you’d kept the gallery’s.

Once you find something you like, examine it carefully. The condition of a work is critical to determining its value. Howard suggests looking at pictures outside the frame. Sometimes a work will fade over time if it hasn’t been in the appropriate light or may be damaged.

Collectors do sometimes sell their treasures, but then, DiSalvo notes, “you no longer have what you love.” And don’t expect to get the price that the dealer is selling the same piece for in the gallery unless it is in very high demand. Often, galleries will buy works back from their clients for something less than their retail price or accept a trade for another work. Otherwise, collectors can try to sell their pieces at auctions or through the classifieds.

“The worst thing is to buy things you think are cheap or think you’ll make money on,” says gallery owner Thomas Segal. “Not everything sells at auction or for the price you wanted.”