How can I collect old, accurately represented painting on a budget?
March 17, 2012 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to start collecting art. I know, collect what you love - and I intend to. This is for my home, though if the pieces also have financial value down the road, so much the better. I really like older, typically Renaissance or Medieval portraits or action-filled landscapes (particularly those that feature animals (e.g. da Vinci's Lady with Ermine). As a non-expert with a budget of <$500-$2000, how do I go about buying interesting art without being fleeced?

I'd like to purchase paintings that are represented accurately - though my preference is older paintings with interesting stories (I like things that come with interesting stories, whether they're a poster my Mom got at her first the Who concert or paintings), I'm willing to purchase painted copies or modern work in older styles, but I'd like to know what I'm buying up front rather than get a modern reproduction being sold as an older original. How do I examine provenance (or ask for it), and is eBay ever an option? Are there any reputable dealers who specialize in lower budget artwork?

Thanks for any advice you might have. I've been collecting (a bit) since college, but it has all been current artists whose work I know and like, and I buy it directly from them!
posted by arnicae to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have had good luck by going to Festival of the Arts type shows. Even here in Oklahoma City, there are two shows every year. You get to know the local artists and occasionally out of town ones who show regularly.

I also have purchased from local niche galleries, such as the Indian artists gallery from which I purchased two Merlin Little Thunder oil paintings before his prices skyrocketed.

Good luck to you, half the fun is in the chase!
posted by francesca too at 9:05 AM on March 17, 2012

Original medieval and Renaissance paintings are going to be well above your price range. Prints are a possibility; there are still Old Master engravings and etchings available for under $2000, and less artistic prints (e.g. architectural views, city plans and cityscapes, and the like) can be had more cheaply. You can get a sense of what the market is like, especially at the higher end, by looking at catalogues from Sotheby's and Christie's (online; look for their archives of sold lots and search for the kind of things that interest you).

I'd stay away from eBay and the like until I had enough contacts among dealers to find out whether someone has a good reputation.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:11 AM on March 17, 2012

Yeah, this is a great opportunity to do some learning! The auction house catalogues (and online results, as brianogilvie points out) are a great place to start, and then actually talking to the sales people there is fun. That's their job! To get to know you, to recruit you, to help you learn.

You can also get to know curators in the field. You live in a big city, and that's immensely helpful, and also you should come to New York and get to know people there too. And you can get to know dealers, and find out who you like. Don't buy things from people you don't like.

My general advice is to buy slow. I get captivated by things immediately, but sometimes that feeling persists, and sometimes it doesn't. And I don't really care if I'm buying "garbage" if it's something that has some value to me. Although sometimes I do care. Heh. Even at some of the better art fairs, like the annual Park Avenue Armory show, I've had dealers present things to me as being certain things that definitely were not.

I always recommend that people find a niche to collect in, but that's not truly necessary. It just makes the learning easier. Once you learn all about the "lesser" work of the period (less valuable), aka paintings made by assistants of X and Y in the 1700s, or whatever, then you feel informed and competent.

And no, eBay is not really ever an option.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:39 AM on March 17, 2012

You might find someone to make you a copy of a medieval or renaissance work for your budget but it would almost certainly be from a reproduction of some kind and probably not very good anyway because a top copyist would charge more. Ebay is out because you cant examine the work beforehand and your guarantee of authenticity would be effectively non existent: buy a 'Picasso' and you'll only get your money back if you can prove it ain't a Picasso, which would be expensive, and maybe not then either. Prints by old masters are a good idea if you want something indisputably old and authentic. As suggested haunt the auction houses and look and learn.
posted by londongeezer at 10:27 AM on March 17, 2012

I bought an authentic Claude Lorrain print at a yard sale for $10. Because I'd been going to museums and galleries and auction houses for years, I knew what it was and snagged it.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:40 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go to some galleries, find something you like and is reasonably priced, and buy it .
posted by lobstah at 1:11 PM on March 17, 2012

Go to lots of galleries and ask about pieces you're interested in. Don't buy anything on the spot. Mull it over for awhile and see if you still think its worth it. Negotiations are possible, but not going to be huge.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:15 PM on March 17, 2012

Estate sales and yard sales are where you'll find bargains, if any. (Though by "bargains" here I am talking about prints, lithos, and 19th and 20th century paintings.)

Auction houses are rarely a place for bargains, but they are often a place for solid investment buys. A good auction house will include provenance papers.

Though to be frank, if your top price is $2,000 you'll need to find some new favorite art eras and themes. If I were collecting original paintings at that price point, I would either be focusing on Eastern European 20th century art or South American 19th and 20th century art, because those are both still somewhat undervalued. Even by unknown artists, signed and provenanced "landscape with animals" 19th century paintings from North America, the UK, and Western Europe go for well upwind of that price point.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:55 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sidhedevil, and not really sure why there hasn't been more mention of this here.

$2000 for art is... not a lot of money. Regardless of era, to be frank, though yeah, you are simply not going to get anything from or related to the Renaissance for that kind of money.

I know a little about contemporary art, have been involved with the art world in the past, and have friends who are working artists. Your average oil painting costs a few hundred dollars just in materials. When you add the artist's time (even if it's a copy of a more famous work, or a retiree who paints for fun), you're getting well into your price range just to own a legit painting in oil on canvas. If you started hanging out at art schools' open studio events, you could probably pick up some interesting work in your price range.

Other ideas for painting in your price range would be the upper range of cafes that exhibit original art, or the lower end of galleries that concentrate on very new artists. If you have a great eye and really know your stuff, this is probably the best way to "invest" in art collecting. It's also quite likely that this work will have a story behind it, because you will be meeting artists and having experiences that lead you to the work, as opposed to buying art that some scholar decided was Important.

Or you could branch out and decide that, really, you're more interested in collecting photography, prints/engravings/works on paper, artists' books, sculpture (within reason, this also gets very expensive very quickly), small installation pieces, artists' multiples, or the like.

I collect rock posters, which is a very affordable habit -- and a few that I own have gone up in value significantly in the few years since I bought them.

You might be interested in this documentary, which is about a couple (who I think were a librarian and a postal worker, before they retired) who became major art collectors starting in the 60's. As far as I know, they do not own any Renaissance paintings.
posted by Sara C. at 4:28 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Great advice here and thank you for supporting local artists.

I think the most important thing is for you is to continue to develop your own taste and ability to recognize and understand what you're seeing. Read, absorb the vernacular of appreciation and appraisal. Visit some museums and spend some up close and personal time with some well known or famous works. Get a feel for the patina, execution etc.

As Sidhedevil says, and I agree, the only place you're going to find any bargains is at estate sales and maybe yard sales. The great thing, though, is that if you really know what you're looking at you may be able to purchase some great art at yard sale prices. It happens all the time, but you have to be able understand what you're looking at.

(Definitely watch the documentary posted by Sara C.. It is very good and inspirational for both artists and collectors!)

Good luck and have fun!
posted by snsranch at 4:49 PM on March 17, 2012

You sound like a great candidate for exploring the world of artist-designed ex libris bookplates (which you actually can find on eBay). Real prints, each with a story behind it, surprisingly affordable.
posted by Scram at 3:05 AM on March 18, 2012

You might want to consider buying student work. Artists that are going to school, or who are apprenticing, would love to sell a piece.

I'm not talking about art colleges, but more like atelier type schools in the tradition of the French Academy, like the Grand Central Academy of Art in NYC, or the Academy of Realist Art in Toronto.

There is some incredibly good work being produced at these schools and others in the same vein; the best students go on to teach, and build a reputation, and get represented by galleries. Take a look at the student galleries, and see if there is anything that knocks your socks off. If there is, make contact with the student if you want to buy something (through the school, or by googling their name - a lot of them have websites / blogs). One or two grand can mean a lot to one of these students, and you'll end up with something beautiful to hang even if their career goes nowhere.

In any case, buy something you actually like. (duh)
posted by amcm at 7:08 PM on March 19, 2012

FWIW, I'd look to buy out of the Parsons, Pratt, and SVA MFA programs before whatever the "Grand Central Academy Of Art" is. I know a shit ton of people who went to art school in NY, and I've never heard of that school.
posted by Sara C. at 8:48 PM on March 19, 2012

... because it's so small. It's only dedicated students drawing and painting full time, instructed by successful exhibiting artists: no artist statements or liberal arts classes. It's a gross generalization, but BFA and MFA programs for the most part produce contempo-moderny stuff, including a lot of abstraction and naive, narrative, or literary forms of visual art. Smaller ateliers are dedicated to traditional figurative and representational work: more in line with what it sounds like arnicae is looking for. There might be some grad student at Pratt or RISD making kick-ass portraiture but you'd have to wade through a lot of other stuff to get to them, while ateliers are full of kick-ass portraiture.
posted by amcm at 2:41 PM on March 20, 2012

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