Buying art used to be the pastime of scholars and specialists; now it’s a badge of sophistication. During the week of the annual Frieze art fair in London, property developers borrow millions of pounds’ worth of art to hang on the walls of trophy flats in the hope of seducing buyers. The artworks are not included in the price of the property, but if you fall in love with the Damien Hirst spin painting above the sofa, no doubt you can negotiate.
Acquiring art, though, is not the same as collecting. Collecting is a complicated human impulse. It includes searching for, discovering, buying, sorting, listing or cataloguing, looking after, storing and, ultimately, showing the works collected. And this applies to everything from gulls’ eggs to Gauguins. Almost no-one sets out to be a collector. Most collectors begin with one work they fall in love with. It can happen on the spur of the moment, or after years of study.
Finding your niche is crucial. Thomas Kaplan, an American billionaire, bought his first fijnschilder painting after finding out that 17th-century Dutch art was unfashionable, and therefore inexpensive compared to other Old Masters. Now he has more than 2,500 works and is the biggest private collector of Rembrandts in the world.
Hone your eye. The art world is full of advisors, but nothing beats training yourself to see. A doctor I know goes with an expert to look at art every Friday afternoon. He has done so for over a year, and this year will visit the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel and the Munster Sculpture Project, the three biggest exhibitions of contemporary art in Europe. He has yet to buy a single artwork, but when he does he knows his decision will be based on a deep and personal knowledge.
If an artwork doesn’t pack a punch, it may be that it’s not to your taste. But it’s more likely to fall flat because it’s not special; it’s derivative, which means it copies another artist; or it’s simply badly done. The more work you do sharpening your senses by going to exhibitions, reading and thinking about art, the more deeply you will feel the impact of a true work of art when you see it.
Learn how artworks speak to each other. After buying two or three works of art, the collector begins to understand that art works don’t exist only in isolation. They are part of a dialogue, with the collector and with each other. George Ortiz built what many consider to be the best collection of antiquities in private hands because he was fascinated by what happened when the Hellenistic world came up against the Asian world and exchanged influences.
You don’t have to be a millionaire to begin collecting. Photography, prints and multiples (individual works that are reproduced in editions) are all cheaper than oil painting or fashionable video installations. So is decorative art, works that are useful as well as beautiful.
Go to auction houses, and focus on the day sales rather than the fancy evening sales. You don’t even need to leave your desk. Online art auctions are increasingly popular: Sotheby’s launched them in 2012, and last year online sales accounted for a fifth of the lots they sold. Away from auction houses, seek out “affordable art fairs”; most big cities have at least one a year. End-of-year degree shows at art schools, where students can show their best work, are also an excellent way of discovering great new talent that has yet to become fashionable and expensive.