How to build a valuable art collection?

Essential guide for beginners

First of all, let’s define what is a Collection and how it is different to a random pick of unrelated pieces. Here is the clue in this word — unrelated. Group of objects become a true collection as soon as they are united by a certain feature or have a strong relation one to another. This link could be quite broad, as, for example, painting style, like Impressionism. However a good collection is always way more precise and focused. We’ll come back to that in a while.

So, if you think of becoming a collector you need at least to define what exactly to collect and stick to that subject.

You may say: «Well, I love painting or sculpture in general. Why couldn’t I just start acquiring various pieces that speak to me without any artificial limits?

Well, of course, you can go this way. You should just realise then that you are buying something mainly to please yourself and, say, decorate your dining room. However, this won’t have any significant value as a «collection». Even if you buy a Rembrandt, Boucher, one Monet and something from Richter and top it with a Koons. Yes, individual pieces will still retain their market value, but they won’t work together as a collection and this way exceed this value significantly.

Consistency is the key to success

And here I have to emphasise that building a collection is a hard, yet very rewarding work in which you would invest your time, knowledge and other resources, like, eventually money. If you don’t feel like going into that and dig down to this subject, then you should probably just happily buy pieces that you like, no matter if they are interrelated or not.

Those of you, who think that their passion for art and history is strong enough and sincerely want to become proud owners of some unique artworks, please, proceed down this article.

The first advice that I once received from a seasoned art collector was this: «You have to choose one very precise subject and become and expert in it». For example, if you like impressionists, then concentrate on the beginning decades of that movement and limit your ultimate target to masters from country or school. With impressionism that would be 1860’-1870’ years in France. What’s wrong with the masters of late 19th century or today’s impressionists?

Well, they may be more than great for decorative purposes, but had little influence on art history evolution and thus won’t increase value of your collection. And here goes another tip for you to remember — everything should be made in right time. Each fruit has its own season. Like there were myriads of artists in 19th, 20th and 21st centuries who were trying to paint in grand manner of their famous Old Master predecessors. However, what artistic problem were they solving? Those goals were already achieved several centuries before by actual pioneers of this or that technique or style. Everything like that made years after was just an imitation and didn’t have any significant impact on art history and, this way, value on art market.

So, to assemble a good collection, once you’ve chosen the style, concentrate on the best representatives of it, not later copycats.

Study your collectibles inside out

Here we come to another important point. How could you know who is good or bad? Who was the first and who followed? Well, now you have to study your selected period inside out. Become an expert yourself! This is the second reason for a collection to be focused — it is absolutely impossible to have an expertise across all art disciplines of all the times.

Let me digress for a moment and give you some hints on what subjects could be chosen for collection. I guess, a collection based on a group of artists from one country, one art school, one time period, one style — this is more or less clear.

However, you may, for example, choose an art style that was dominant some time in the past, like, say, Biedermeier, and collect all artefacts that belong to that time period in this style. A collection could then consist of not only paintings, but also furniture, decor, books and everything you could imagine from that were prominent symbols from that epoch. You would be amazed how interesting it could be and how far you could go! So, these kind of collections are focused on reviving the spirit of a certain time period.

Is it required to have only the best pearls of collectible items to form a good collection? You may be surprised, but not at all. Actually, two or three really great things are more than enough. However, they must be accompanied by a selection of simply good pieces that would make some kind of bridges between the best items.

To make it easily understandable let me illustrate it for you with an example with music. Imagine a composition comprised of loud accent notes only. Bam-bam-bam! You wouldn’t want to listen to it for too long ’cause it’s absurd. A good musical composition always has its highs and lows, linked by a neutral melody.

The same thing with a collection. To finally build an interesting one you only have to find several significantly valuable pieces, while all the rest should be neutrally good to make those best shine brighter.

Going back to our action plan. Now when you’ve chosen a subject of a collection you should understand where could you get those pieces from. And yes, define the budget.

I suppose, many of you may think — «of course, if I had a good deal of money I’d move mountains, but these is nothing to do in art collecting with a small budget». Naah. It is true only for those who want to build a collection, but do not want (or don’t have time) to invest in getting deep knowledge about the chosen topic. Then yes, basically the only way would be to hire an art consultant or go for well-known reputable auctions and buy art there. Be ready to pay a lot in this case.

Take a risk or stay on the safe side, but keep the trade-off in mind

However, that is, in my opinion, the least interesting path to becoming an art collector. Yes, you’ll invest heavily and buy quickly some good things. But I doubt if you would feel this satisfaction and reward that you get when you manage to buy something at a low start for very small money. By «low start» I mean small auctions and even eBay, if we are talking about antique pieces. And direct purchases from artists studios shall you collect contemporary masters’ works.

If you have a look at, for example, or current sales at no-name auctions you would see that many pieces start from as low as $50. Most of them wouldn’t even have a proper attribution.

That means, that if we are experts we have a chance to spot a real treasure and buy it for a ridiculous amount.

To be able to do that we have to become those connoisseurs and invest time in research, of course.



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Marina Viatkina

Art | History Writer & Collecting Advisor → | Founder of Smart Art — Art History Escape app →