How Should I Buy Art?

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

Are you an art buying newbie, or have you done a little of this before? Or, maybe you have collected quite a bit of art already, and have even sold some of it on consignment through a gallery.

If you are any of the above, there are concerns you as an art buyer have, and they never seem to be addressed thoroughly by the places where you go to buy art. In fact, many galleries have gotten into the habit over the last half a century of making themselves look very exclusive, like a five-star restaurant whose head waiter tries to stare you down because you don't fit the look of their typical client.

It really should be the job of artists who make the work to help you the most. A few of us will do that, especially if we are the type of people who enjoy meeting you and getting to know a little bit about your ideas and feelings about art. But, a lot of people who make art find it hard to engage that way, because of shyness, confidence in their work, or a feeling that they can't adequately describe or justify what and why they make this art.

Nevertheless, as artists, if we want people to appreciate and sometimes buy our art. It is our job to help potential buyers understand what we make, how we make it, why we make it, and why it's worth the price we are asking for it.

Photographer Lawrence D'Attilio speaking about art.

I grew up around a professional artist, my father, who was one of the shy ones. He knew his work was powerful, original, and worthy of a lot of attention, but he expected people to figure out the importance of his art on their own. As I matured, I realized that I have to think of people who buy art as an audience of one, or in an exhibition as an audience of many. One can think of the art as the proverbial tree in the forest that makes no sound if there's no one to hear it fall. Art is also non-functional when there is nobody to look at it. Therefore, it is quite important that the artist, or their representative, immediately makes any interested person feel welcome, at home, and very free to express their ideas and feelings about visual things that appeal to them.

You know how you can walk into some boutique bookstore and for whatever set of reasons you immediately feel comfortable in that place, while in another one you feel like an alien on a strange planet. So frankly, it's my job to make you feel that looking around this art store filled with my life's work is a comfortable, familiar place to hang out and just enjoy not feeling any need to buy something. And if you choose to get something, it's also my job to make the process and the details clear, and be ready to answer any questions, while also encouraging you to express yourself freely (including being critical of things you don't like). I know that many people, including many artists, are touchy about criticism, but an established artist like myself with a productive career filled with periods of institutional recognition ought to be 100% confident of what they make. And I also ought to be completely open to the idea that people have different tastes, so they will be attracted to some of my work and not to other work.

Here are some concerns most people have either as newbies or because the business of buying online is relatively recent. Buying art online is really not that new, and it has become very popular, from the inexperienced to the very experienced. In fact, five years ago a British expert study pointed out that the worldwide market for visual arts being sold online had reached sixteen billion dollars! On top of that, the whole model of brick-and-mortar art galleries has fallen into great distress over the last fifteen years, and has accelerated to the point that only the largest galleries, selling the most expensive work, have a chance of surviving. Where have all the art buyers gone? It's a good question because the total value of all artwork sold around the world in a year has continued to climb since the middle of the last century. And the answer is that some of that money is represented by very expensive art being sold at extremely high prices, oftentimes over $100 million for a single artwork. Most of the rest of that is the online selling.

Although I have been a career visual artist since I was twenty-four years old, I did have two earlier experiences as founder and co-director of a gallery. My Bathhouse gallery was one of the first galleries to specialize in photography and selling it as fine art. Since I was an inexperienced artist, I did not try to sell my own work there. Instead, I used my connections to line up some of the most famous fine art photographers of that time. They were eager to do the exhibit with me, since my gallery was very attractive and large. At that time, hardly anyone in the world understood photography could be fine art too, which would mean that selling this work would be very difficult. I gave each photographer a large solo exhibit, and to make the selling of the work easier, kept their prices very low. In fact from today's perspective, knowing a single photograph has sold for $5 million, the prices I was selling art photographs for seem like a dream now.

Typically, just as I do, lots of artists sell less expensive work in fine art photography as bare prints on various materials. The low end is also characterized by prints that are smaller and have an unlimited edition, meaning that the artist can make and sell as many copies as they want. The more expensive work is often much larger, and the editions usually smaller, such as anything from twelve to as little as three. Clearly artists like me value the limited edition work at much higher levels, because those versions are going to be much more rare. You might also discover that established artists' prices may be higher than equivalent work by artists with far less experience, more limited resume, and history of their work. A lot of this has to do with the fact that established artists have already received a lot of recognition and prestige, and because of previous sales, know what the fair market value of their work is.

We artists also get caught between our typical social idealism and the need to make a living as artists. I really believe that people without much money and young people starting out in life ought to have the opportunity to live with top quality artwork too. That is another reason for smaller, low-priced artwork. People who can afford the larger limited edition works often have homes with the wall space to accommodate that size art, and quite a few rotate their ambitious collections by storing some of it.

There is an interesting sub note to this range of prices and the ability to afford a work of art. Some of the world's top curators and experts point out that they started their collecting when they were still in college and had little funds for the purpose. They were at an age in which they didn't care what their friends thought, they could just indulge in whatever they truly liked. Often those are works by emerging photographers rather than established ones. Works I collected as a young man turned out to be the starters for what came a great collection, which in turn often ended up as a named collection in a museum. For that and many other reasons, artists like myself, who have been through many years of this, hope to sell their low-priced-but-still-wonderful artworks to people who don't have much money. After all, who knows where that will lead to?

Sophisticated collectors may have only collected a small number of works that were moderately priced or even cheap. But with experience, they have become more familiar with their own taste and the type of art and artist they prefer. In one case, a Florida couple who were just public school teachers did exactly that over their lifetime. None of the works in their large collection had cost that much, because they were living on teacher salaries. But they enjoyed the process, learned a lot as they went along, and trusted their own instincts about what they liked. Years later that collection was donated to one of the world's largest museums where artworks from that collection have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people over the years. It's just so inspiring on many levels.

20x24" Framed Print
16x20" Framed Prints

Other collectors don't have much of a limit on what they can spend for an artwork. They are driven by different forces within the social culture. For example, a good many of them have achieved their fortunes in business, a process that has often depended upon the quality of the relationships they have nurtured in their lives. The people in those relationships have come to respect them as rational, practical leaders in the community. For that reason, a lot of folks in that category go to some pains to make sure that they don't disappoint the people who have come to respect them. In other words, despite the wealth, there is an obligation to make their lifestyle fit the expectations of them.

One of the more visible ways to note those expectations is how people surround themselves with one or more residences, their children's successes, and definitely their aesthetic tastes. Because many of their peers collect art, they will too. And their peers are likely to be people informed about how to evaluate quality of an art and its success as a deeper expression. Therefore, you can see that people hope to buy art that will not disappoint their friends and folks in other relationships to them.

Sometimes the value of the work also enters into the art choice equation. Even if it is demonstrable that the work is worth the money they pay, because of the fame of the artist or that artwork, or because it's an artwork that suits a certain common taste shared within wealthy circles, their acquaintances may question why they bought that artwork. You can see that in that situation people feel they must be sure about the current value and the possibility for the future value. Much like buying stocks, this type of art collector is somewhat restricted on the choices they can make, and often have to rely upon self-appointed experts to convince them to spend the money on that particular artwork. Of course many of the world's greatest collections have been built this way. In many cases the wealth involved was so great that the collector really didn't care what anybody thought and therefore bought what they liked. But over generations, a lot of new collections were put together either by consultants or art dealers, who like any wealth management person, will encourage their client to buy only those works that they believe are going to go up in value and/or are currently celebrated.

We established artists have long ago learned that we must create work that we're excited about, believe in, and love. We really can't let any other forces determine our expression, because though they may be popular, in the moment they are almost guaranteed to be of no use in the future. To put it bluntly we paint, sculpt, print, and photograph what we love and feel passionate about, giving us some reasonable chance that some of the work we produce will be wonderful.

So to put it simply, the only way you should buy art is if it's according to your own intellectual, emotional and spiritual feelings. It's a rare artist who won't tell you buy what you love.

I loved, then collected this rare portrait of Amelia Earhart in fashionable dress. I and my wife Pam later donated this artwork to a fundraising effort used to commission a new classical music composition, a concerto for tuba and orchestra.

Larry loved then collected this rare portrait of Amelia Earhart in fashionable dress. Larry and his wife Pam later donated this artwork to a fund raising effort used to commission a new classical music composition, a concerto for tuba and orchestra.
Amelia Earhart by Anton Breuhl

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