Mary Fedden OBE (1915-2012) British still life with a vase of flowers and lemons on a table, sold for £11,000
For thousands of years, human beings have sought to create images of the things around them in a variety of mediums. From early cave paintings to magnificent 17th-century Dutch masters and controversial modern day works, our civilisation has been shaped, interpreted and understood through our art. The best and most fulfilling reason to collect art is because you love it. Theophile Gautier, the 19th century French art critic, called it “l’art pour l’art,” meaning “art for art’s sake.” On a purely aesthetic level, the art that you collect and love will be a constant source of pride and pleasure. But be warned: collecting is an addictive hobby and can easily become a lifelong obsession.
Edward Seago (1910-1974) British 'Winning Penants', c.1970, sold for £12,000
When you first decide to invest in paintings, you have two choices - buying purely for pleasure or buying for investment. The two reasons can often overlap, but the latter is an exact science and takes a great deal of research, dedication and, sometimes, risk. When buying for pleasure or purely aesthetic purposes, the golden rule is: buy what you like. The art market is a fickle beast and changes greatly over time. So if you are unable to re-sell a painting due to a change in the market, you’ll still own a nice piece that you enjoy hanging on the wall.
Pictures can gain in value over time, but they can also drop. Victorian oil paintings are a good example. In the last ten years, there has been a big drop in these, mostly affecting the lower and mid ranges. It’s not because they are any less attractive or well-painted, but simply because tastes, fashions and opinions change.
Buying paintings for investment can be a rewarding and profitable pastime. As you begin to learn and grow in confidence, your appetite for investing will increase. Before you know it, you will have amassed a good foundation on which to build your knowledge and expand your collection. In the early days, you should regard it in the same way you would gambling; it’s not without risk, and you must be prepared to make mistakes (lose money). However there is no better way to learn than from your mistakes.
Charles Brooking (1723-1759) British, ‘A British Man of War in rough seas off a rocky coast’, sold for £6,400
Before you even think about buying, you first need to spend some time on research. You may have already decided the type of art you are interested in, but spending time reading and learning about art will help you refine your interests. There’s a huge variety of genres, mediums and types of art to choose from. There are also many ways of collecting, including works by a single artist, works from a ‘school’ of artists such as Newlyn School, subject matter such as landscapes and still lives, locations such as those local to you and styles such as impressionism or cubism.
Often what you like is down to instant attraction; seeing something in a gallery or auction that speaks to you. Great pleasure can come from you analysing it, researching the artist or the movement, and working out why it spoke to you. Once you have decided on a style of art you like, or a particular artist then you can start to read and learn more about them. The internet is a great place to research and learn more, as are books, museums and art galleries.
Gerald Cooper RA (1898-1975) British 'The Woodcutters', sold for £12,500
Auctions are an excellent place to try your hand at buying art. Most salerooms will sell a variety of original paintings, from as little as £100 up to many thousands. At first, auction houses can seem like daunting places, but they are great fun, free to visit and anyone can attend. Learn to love them; they’re quite addictive. You can usually buy a catalogue which will have a description of each lot and an estimated price. Furthermore, they provide a useful source of information later on. Any reputable auction house will also have a full online catalogue with multiple images of each lot. Engage with the specialists and saleroom assistants, as they will often be delighted to impart their knowledge and answer questions. There will usually be a viewing period of a few days before an auction, when you can look around and see everything on offer.
Auctions have the unique ability to instantly put your finger on the pulse of the art market, as you can see up-to-date prices, what’s doing well and what isn’t. For example, after attending a few auctions, you might notice that mid 20th century British art is doing well, whereas dark Victorian oil paintings have less interest and more lots unsold. This enables you to build up a good idea of your local art market. Watch for trends and pay attention to an artist who’s pictures seem to be steadily increasing in price.
John Hubbard (1931-2017) American, 'White Afternoon, 1965, sold for £8,100
Art galleries and shops can provide a good source of information. You may be surprised at the difference in prices compared to auction houses, usually a lot more. Be a little more wary with an art gallery, as they will be keen to sell you whatever they have. Most galley owners are excellent and helpful, but some may just tell you what you want to hear. After auction houses and galleries, the third—and perhaps easiest—source of information is the Internet. Recently, many 'art price' websites, including Art Sales Index and ArtPrice have become popular. They record the prices achieved for all art sold at auction throughout the world, together with other useful information, such as artist biographies. You may have to subscribe, but what you get back in knowledge is well worth it.
A few examples of condition issues to look out for including a patch covering a hole, crazing or 'craquelure', and two repaired sections of canvas.
Spend some time inspecting the painting you are interested in before buying it. Ask to take it off the wall and check the reverse side and look for any labels or snippets of provenance. Condition is important and there are many things that may slip past the untrained eye. Ask the auctioneer or seller about the condition of the piece. This should cover any damage, restoration or other problems, then check it out closely for yourself. Once you have seen and handled many paintings, these things will start to become obvious. Small areas of damage, over-painting, restoration, problems with the frame are all things that can have a detrimental effect on value. Dirty oil paintings often just require cleaning to restore them to their former glory.
You can learn a lot from labels and inscriptions on the back of paintings.
You will often hear people talking about ‘provenance’. This is essentially the history of the painting. Genuine provenance is important and you’ll find great emphasis is placed upon it. The catalogue may state any known history, such as where it came from, who owned it and when it was previously sold. The back of the painting can also tell a story, with old labels, hand-written notes, gallery stickers and sometimes original artists’ labels. These details tell the story of the work and are an added attraction for a collector. Sadly, whenever an artist sells well, unscrupulous people will fake their work, and even the experts can be fooled. Fakes and forgeries are a separate topic, but buy from a reputable source and you should be safe. But use common sense, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
Henri Guillaume Schlesinger (1814-1893) German 'The Pet Canary’, sold £7,600
After investing some time learning what’s popular and what sells, you’re ready to make your first purchase. Don’t feel pressured to buy the first thing you like, as there’s no rush, so bide your time and wait until the right piece comes up. Let your heart guide you to the right piece, but then buy it with your head. You should also expect to be outbid by stronger buyers. Set yourself a price ceiling and stick to it. If you lose out on a piece, save your money and wait for something else. You should also be aware of the buyer’s premium, usually around 23-25%+VAT on top of the hammer price. It’s important to buy from a reputable source and one you’re familiar with; that way, if you have a problem, you have some protection. For example, if you buy a lot cataloged as by a certain artist and it later turns out to be a copy, then you should be able to get your money back.
Georges Bertin Scott (1873-1943) French 'George V In Procession', sold for £3,500
Collecting paintings is a real joy and there is a great deal you can accomplish. Indeed, many people make a living from buying and selling art. As your collection grows you may choose to sell some of your earlier acquisitions to make room for better pieces. The choice is yours. Amass your collection slowly, lovingly and enjoy it. But above all, remember the golden rule; buy what you like, because a thing of beauty is a joy forever.
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