I need some help to spend money on art!
May 24, 2012 6:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I buy art?

I feel like this is a really bone-headed question, but I'm not sure how to ask about artwork I'm interested in purchasing when I'm not physically in the gallery that represents the artist.

I recently came across Barbara Probst's work and I've fallen in love and I want to own something by her. But I don't know what her work goes for or what is available or even what I should be asking when I email the gallery that represents her. Do I ask for a catalogue of available work? A list? I have no idea what I'm doing, but I don't want that to be made evident by my email. Artists/gallerists/art buyers, help me out!
posted by Felicity Rilke to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
OK, so I clicked your link to Probst's website, and from there I went to the "contact" section, which links to galleries that represent her in various countries. I chose the Murray Guy link, since I happen to live in the US.

On that site, you can view selected works. There's a link to contact the gallery regarding that specific work (not sure how that works exactly - maybe a custom subject line?). My guess is that you could start there.

I don't see any real problem with saying that you're new to art collecting and asking how one would go about purchasing the piece in question.

As far as I know, it's not like a car dealership where you have to go in like a pro or they'll take you for all you're worth. Art has prices. You find out the price, if it's something you can afford, you pay. And then you own it.
posted by Sara C. at 6:50 PM on May 24, 2012

I did that part (choosing the same gallery as well, since I'm in Canada). But not everything available is online and some selections shown may not be available. And there isn't one specific piece I'm interested in at this point (which is part of the problem, maybe even the main part).
posted by Felicity Rilke at 6:58 PM on May 24, 2012

Artist here. You could email the gallery and if there's particular work you like say that you're interested in it or and inquire about prices. Perfectly normal to do. Also normal to say you like something in particular - like the close-up portraits for example - and ask what else like that of hers is available. I have people contact me asking for work of a particular size, subject matter or color way not infrequently - it's a normal thing to do!
posted by leslies at 7:05 PM on May 24, 2012

I've bought a bunch of art, from very expensive to very inexpensive. I've been thru the gallery scene. Here's my advice.

You shouldn't be talking to galleries yet. Too soon. That's for actual buying. Right now, you want to learn everything about her work. This will give you a better idea of whether you REALLY want to buy her work, and what her range o is, so you're better able to decide WHAT you want.

So...first, pick up EXPOSURES, the only obvious work in print. Read every word. Look deeply at all the images.

Notice the three much more obscure, out-of-print, hard-to-track-down other catalogs referenced in the "Selected bibliography" section of her wikipedia entry. Get cracking on finding them, using bookfinder.org, and possibly european sources. It will not be easy. Enjoy the hunt.

Anywhere she's had a show probably has a catalog, and the gallery might retain copies of it. Try to round up as many as possible (not sure about the MOMA show, though....probably no catalog there). To define terms, "catalog" is usually describes a publication accompanying a specific show (it's not usually in distribution, e.g. amazon, outside the gallery hosting that show). Her "official" galleries may or may not have catalogs of some shows of hers which they didn't host, but probably not. Best to try to buy from the host galleries, or else the secondhand market. Many galleries don't like to mail stuff. You may have to recruit local help. Again, enjoy the hunt.

By the time you've done this research, hunted down a bunch of these catalogs, and read every page of Exposures, you will, congratulations, be probably one of the 1000 best experts on Probst's work. At that point, you'll know very well if you want to buy, and be much better qualified to key in on the right stuff from the right period.

You'll find that her "official" galleries charge by far the highest prices, but also offer the best selection and highest quality. Check there first (i.e. ask what's for sale, get sample images and prices). You don't need to act super savvy. No matter how many airs the dealer puts on (i.e. a whole lotta airs), the dealer's just a salesman, absolutely nothing more. Don't waste time proving yourself to her/him, just reassure them you're not wasting their time; that you have genuine interest. That's enough. And, having read EVERYTHING, and seen vast amounts of her work, you won't be fool-able. You'll know what's what, and you'll know what you want, and you won't buy second-rate work.

If you're not motivated to do all this work, then you may not be interested in her to be worth investing your savings in her stuff.

One other note. You MUST do a mental shift when you're looking at stuff to buy. Do NOT buy something because it looks "nice". You have to set a higher bar. Find something that would make you disconsolate if you were to not bring it home with you. You will LIVE with this work; it's like a marriage.

By way of analogy, there are lots of perfectly attractive, pleasant people who you meet in your day to day life who you don't (and shouldn't) marry, even though there may be no gaping reason NOT to. Same with art. If you have to ask yourself wether there's a spark, then it ain't there. Again: don't buy something "nice". Wait till you're jolted, excited, without THINKING ABOUT IT (unless, that is, you have tons of money and are doing this mostly to decorate. In which case, no problem either way).

Hope that helps.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:09 PM on May 24, 2012 [32 favorites]

BTW, it's quite possible that once you've rounded up all those catalogs and books, you feel you have enough of a treasury of her work already, and don't need to actually buy something. This is more likely with photographers, whose work reproduces so much better in books than painters and scultors.

So that's another reason to go on the hunt for publications!
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:11 PM on May 24, 2012

ambilevous - that's the ask price. Often has little to do with the actual sale price (may be higher, may be lower). Once Felicity is ready to buy, I'd recommend she buy a short-duration membership at artnet to see what actual recent prices paid have been at auction.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:13 PM on May 24, 2012

In that case, it couldn't hurt to contact the gallery, let them know you're interested in her work in general, and ask what is available. They may tell you "everything on our website". They may tell you "only these three pieces". They may email you a catalogue. It could be anything, really. You'll negotiate from there.
posted by Sara C. at 7:14 PM on May 24, 2012

I largely agree with Quisp, who offers tons of great advice. You should read and learn and look at the artist's work for a long time.

Galleries are funny things: they exist to educate and promote and on the one hand perform SOMETHING like the role of institutions like museums, but in the end, they absolutely ARE NOT such. Their real goal is to get that work in the best possible value-adding collections, and they will do so ruthlessly if they need to! (I say that as a former dealer!)

That being said, they want you to buy things.

You should also do a little learning about buying photography in general. Typically photos like these will come in an edition (something not too large; between 3 and 11 likely), and even (ugh) may come in an edition per size (so annoying, but some do this). Editions generally escalate in cost as they're sold through. So they may say to you "We have x picture in 4/7 and it's $3500 and y picture in 6/7 and it's $7000."

DEFINITELY don't look at auction stuff now; unless you're regularly in the art market, you should not be buying at auction, it's a terrific way to be unhappy!

As an example of buying photography... there's a photographer I've really liked for about 10 years. I've almost bought something three times. I missed a great chance last winter at the art fairs, when there was a new series; but I was short on cash then. So I just went to her gallery the other week, and now all the ones I liked (and could have had relatively inexpensively over the winter! Grr!) are all gone, and the remaining ones in the series are quite expensive, and I don't even like the remaining ones that much. So now I'm going to have to wait another two years for the next series, which I may or may not even like, and may or may not even be able to get in on.

BUT. I know enough to go to the gallery and say "Hi, do you have ten minutes to show me what's available?" That's what people in galleries do. (And if they give you a big bunch of attitude, you should likely leave. While it's true that galleries prefer known and big-name collectors, there's lots of the rest of us too. Cuz YES: as they famously said on AbFab, "You only work in a shop, you know.")

So it's a long and difficult process, is my point! Take it slow. If I *hadn't* been following along and paying attention in this example, I wouldn't know that there was work I like better than what's available now; and I wouldn't have known how the prices changed, etc. It really is a marriage, and you should never regret one of those.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:52 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You shouldn't be talking to galleries yet. Too soon. That's for actual buying.

Eh, I don't know. My dad's made a living as an artist for decades and he and my mom owned a gallery in Santa Fe for 15 years (where I worked for awhile out of grad school). Maybe they've always just been low on the snob-factor in their careers, but if someone emailed them asking about my dad's work (or the work of any of the other artists they represented), they would have simply sent them the relevant material about prices and availability, and then probably followed up shortly thereafter to see how serious the inquiry was -- but that's really that. Inquiries like that happen all the time. It doesn't -- again, in my experience regarding their gallery and my dad's other dealers -- trigger some relentless high-pressure sales tactics, nor does it mark the person doing the inquiry as a rube. It's just an inquiry -- the equivalent of someone walking in the door and asking a question.

As for prices: they were always open to negotiating prices, or things like shipping, discounts for cash, etc., within reason (gallerists and artists have to make a living just like anyone else does -- they want to sell, but they can't cut their noses to spite their faces. And running a gallery and making art is not, generally speaking, cheap).

If you're not motivated to do all this work, then you may not be interested in her to be worth investing your savings in her stuff.

Unless Felicity is interested in really high-end collectible stuff specifically as an investment -- which is mostly a mug's game, frankly -- I just don't buy this. I really see no reason for this to become an elaborate research project. There's certainly nothing wrong with being well-informed about an artist and their body of work, but my folks sold plenty of work over the years to people who simply saw a painting or photograph on the internet or through the window and liked it enough just to buy it. For many people interested in buying art, the main criteria pretty much boil down to two things: 1) Is it something you respond to and would enjoy looking at it every day? 2) Does the price fit into your budget? If the answer's yes to both, then it's a good deal.
posted by scody at 7:54 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I'm not worried about investment. There's just a few of her pieces that I would really love to stare at all day long. But I'm really happy to have the information at hand for serious investment buying, as well. This was extremely helpful. Thanks everyone!
posted by Felicity Rilke at 8:47 PM on May 24, 2012

The people at Murray Guy are very nice.
posted by garethspor at 1:50 AM on May 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just FWIW, my advice doesn't at all only apply to investment purchase. It applies to anything more than buying, like, an amateur print at a flea market.

Here are reasons why you should be an expert before buying art by a "name" artist:

1. Artists go through stages. You may find that a previous stage appeals to you more than whatever stage first attracted you, and/or whatever stage is most visibly on the market right now.

2. Certain stages are more popular than others, and thus more expensive. If you know a lot about the artist, you may discover a preference for a less popular stage, thus saving money.

3. If you're unaware of the scope of the artist's career, you will be that much more impressionable to whatever the dealer tells you. You would be trusting the dealer's expertise, which is never a good idea, because the dealer is a salesman, and salesmen always have an agenda.

4. By viewing lots of the artist's work, you'll acquire an instinctive eye for their touch. This will help you spot forgeries (a surprisingly large percentage of the art market is fake).

5. An artist's career is like a movie or a symphony; the various periods/stages constitute a large arc of development, and one can spot the segues where new ideas and methods begin to take hold. If you're aware of this arc, whatever work you eventually buy will be that much richer for you, because you'll have a sense of where it "fits in".

6. When purchasing, your familiarity with the artist's work will manifest as confidence with the dealer. Good dealers love passionate collectors who are really into an artist they themselves like, and try to strike relationships with them and do them small kindnesses. By contrast, they make their easy money on clueless newbies who buy art on mere impulse, who they'll never see again, and who are perceived to be rich (few poor people buy art on impulse). BTW, the surest way to look rich is to insist you're not.

7. Having deep knowledge about an artist also helps when selling (you think you'll own it forever, but you'd be surprised). And, for that matter, it helps in introducing the work to visitors to your home.

8. As I said in a follow-up, above, it may well be (especially in the case of photographers) that by owning a bunch of work in the form of books and catalogs, you'll satisfy your desire just with that.

9. It's good to learn, period. Especially before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars.

If you ignore this advice and buy now, and your interest in Probst continues, you may find yourself looking for more of her work in the future (this sort of pursuit is, as you'll find, unexpectedly addictive). In the course of that, you'll have picked up some of the knowledge I'm urging you to get now. And, if so, I can almost guarantee that you will come to be sorry for your purchase. You'll see that you were naive, jumped too soon (and without enough depth of knowledge) and wish you could have done it again with more knowledge. Of course, you can always sell it. But selling art is not a fast or easy thing, and you have no guarantee you'll get all your money back.

Of course, maybe you'll just get a nice print, hang it up, and be very very happy with it, and keep it forever. It's possible - though you don't know right now. If so, phew, you'll have saved yourself....what? Time spent learning about an artist you love, and viewing lots and lots of her work? Like that's a bad thing? :)
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:37 AM on May 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

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