We canvass a selection of leading specialists, gallerists and dealers for their advice on making that first foray into the contemporary art market
The ways in which contemporary art is being seen, sold and shared is in a constant state of flux. The traditional commandments for new collectors — buy what you love, scour galleries and museum shows, read up on the artist — still stand, but, as our panel of leading specialists, gallerists and dealers confirm, there are also other key tips that first-time buyers can benefit from.
‘I always tell clients you buy with your heart but your brain has to come into play,’ says specialist Zoë Klemme, Head of Sale for First Open. ‘That means taking ownership of a piece by knowing where the momentum is and buying with a strategy. For example, you might want to set a maximum bid before you buy at auction.’
‘Remember that buying art for your home means that you will live with it every day,’ says Dina Zhang, a First Open specialist in Hong Kong. ‘It is important, therefore, to select works that please your eye rather than buying as an investment.’
Works from different decades and by artists with markedly different styles can comfortably co-exist in the same space. ‘A well-curated art collection can reinforce the style and tone you’ve chosen for your home, whether it’s opulence, drama, or bright show-stopping colours,’ says Zhang.
Seasoned collectors are always on the lookout for major works by established artists, and while these may remain out of reach for the collections of mere mortals, there are more accessible works. An artist’s early drawings, for example, represent a fantastic starting point for anyone wishing to own a work by a famous name. Also, certain motifs remain incredibly important to artists, recurring throughout their careers and becoming an essential part of their visual vocabulary. When buying, consider going for works that capture some of the most distinct elements of an artist’s practice.
‘In simple terms, provenance is the record of ownership for a work of art,’ says Zoë Klemme. Did an important collector own the piece? Has it been exhibited before? These factors will play into the work’s price, so keep an eye out for this information in the sale catalogues.
Embrace technology. ‘There’s a much more open feeling among younger artists and collectors,’ says Klemme. ‘It’s easier to gain access and understanding about contemporary artists thanks to social media platforms, and the way we use imagery today has affected the way we collect art.
‘It sounds basic, but a great way for collectors to learn about artists is by using hashtags on Instagram. You see lots of images — who has posted them and where they have been posted from. Virtual reality has become engrained in contemporary art.’
‘Now the trend seems to be for African art,’ says Seattle-based gallerist Mariane Ibrahim. ‘I’m told the next big thing will be minimalist contemporary art from Korea. Trends are advantageous because they expose people to works they haven’t seen.’
‘One of the best things about major art fairs,’ says Stephen McCoubrey, co-curator of the UBS Art Collection, ‘is that they offer a fantastic learning experience and a great place to pick up new ideas. There’s nowhere else like Art Basel Hong Kong for seeing so much Asian art in one place, with Southeast Asian galleries such as Nadi and Arndt providing a really interesting window on the Indonesian scene. You may know an artist, but their new body of work can be wildly different in form and function. We’re now starting to see this in countries such as South Korea and China, where formal abstraction has no background.’
Collectors should be paying attention to the structure surrounding the artist says Viviane Silvera, director of On Art, a contemporary art tour. ‘Are they with the right gallery? Are they with an influential dealer who will get their work in the right shows?’
‘Art is a bit like wine — seductive and about getting merry — but also in the fact that the higher enjoyment comes from the subtlety and development of one’s palate,’ says Toby Clark of the Vigo Gallery in London. ‘You need to take the plunge and also to make mistakes. When starting out, making a mistake on an emerging artist is not such a big deal if you love the work.’
Try to find an artist before they are subjected to a deluge of hype, argues veteran art dealer Guy Sainty. ‘Too many people in the contemporary art market still wait to buy things when they’re at the top of the market.’ Another common mistake is in how collectors regard their buying. ‘Never think of art as an investment, but be sure your money is well spent. The two considerations are quite separate,’ he says.