Art Collecting for Beginners

By Peter Maddison
art collector and gallery owner

Becoming an art collector is a dangerous thing, it gets addictive.

I first started collecting art in 1980, I had just arrived in Australia and didn’t have much money. 

I saw a work that I had to have, it was a painting in natural pigments on canvas board by Australian artist Rover Thomas, the price was $4000, I couldn’t afford it.

I explained the problem to the gallery owner, I asked if I could make weekly payments of $100 a week, they agreed, that work is still hanging on my wall.

Some galleries are still happy to offer payment terms, but if not, there’s Art Money, Art Money allows you to spread payments over ten monthly interest-free payments and you can take the work home on the day you make the first payment.

The research element of collecting art is probably my favourite part of the process. Below I have described how to gather knowledge and come to understand the art market.

Art can be an investment, a store of wealth, your collection could possibly grow in value over time, it could also be worth a lot less, a capital gain isn’t my primary aim but it’s good when it happens.

So, let’s get down to the basics…

Where to buy art:

Galleries in the primary market:
The primary market is where a work sells for the first time.

Within the primary market, galleries specialise in selling the work of emerging artists, larger contemporary galleries that sell the work of mid-career artists, and the majors that sell the works of blue-chip international artists at the height of their careers.

The above galleries support their artists, exhibiting them at art fairs, entering their work into art prize competitions, and generally encouraging them in their endeavours.

These galleries often have works in their storeroom, remainders from previous exhibitions, so don’t forget to ask the gallery owner to show what they have in the stockroom.

Galleries in the secondary market: 
The secondary is defined by the work having previously been owned.

Secondary market galleries are often selling work on consignment on behalf of collectors, they also purchase works from collectors, and at art auctions, they traditionally sell older works, often works by deceased artists.

Secondary market gallerists are usually well informed and are often specialised in the type of work they sell.

Art Fairs:
Art fairs are a mix of the primary and secondary markets, they are the best way to improve your knowledge and see the most art in the shortest possible time, attend as many Art Fairs as you can, the key art fairs to attend in Australia are:

  • Sydney Contemporary
  • Melbourne Art Fair
  • The Other Art Fair
  • Affordable Art Fair
  • Antique and Art Fair, Sydney & Melbourne

Art auctions are another secondary and very occasionally primary market, collectors and secondary market galleries purchase work at these events and the primary galleries are often in attendance, bidding and buying to protect the value of the artists they manage.

Some artists sell their work directly through auctions. On September 15, 2008, Damien Hirst created art history and sold 223 new works at a Sotheby’s auction for USD 200 Million, he broke all the rules and bypassed the art gallery model.

By taking his new work directly to auction he cost his traditional gallerists millions of dollars in potential commissions.

Art dealers normally get very upset when a collector buys a work from a gallery and flips (resells) the work at auction, let alone when their biggest star artist bypasses them and sells directly to the collector.

The auction was a huge success and exceeded Sotheby’s and Damien Hirst’s expectations.

The art buying process has become a lot more democratic due to the internet and social media.
You can now buy directly from an artist’s virtual gallery/webshop, collectors can choose the art they like without the additional filter and commission of a gallery. 

The collector can communicate directly with the artist, watch videos of the artist making work, and discussing their philosophy behind the works. 

We can now see more artists.

We can see the plumber who trained to be a sculptor, the financial planner/painter who needed to earn a living after completing art school.

Many artists complete National Art School and cannot afford to be full-time artists, they get other jobs and create art in their spare time, they can share their work via Instagram, Facebook, and online galleries like Saatchi Art.

Now we can see the works of the artists who were unable to exhibit in a traditional gallery.

We can see them and we can buy their work.

No more commission 

This does mean a little more research work for the collector.

In the past five years, I have purchased more than 10 works via Instagram, Facebook, and artist web pages, without an issue.

Let’s get started

To improve your knowledge of the art world, I would recommend that you visit a lot of galleries and visit them often, keep up to date on the resale value of artists by attending auctions and following auctions online.

Art installations and exhibits in commercial galleries are typically only up for less month, every month you get the opportunity to see new art.

If you subscribe via a gallery website you will be made aware of new exhibitions and will be invited to openings, openings are not normally the best time to view art but often the best time to meet the artist and the gallery owner.

I normally try and visit the gallery before the opening night, I call the day before and make an appointment to preview the exhibition, that way I can see the exhibited works without the crowds and buy work before others arrive.

People say “Buy the art that you like”
I think you should also buy art that makes financial sense, do your research.

What to collect as a beginner:
Be selective and stay within your budget, fewer works of higher quality is the best way to go.
Despite what I said above, you should buy what you like, you’re going to be looking at it for a long time.

Prints are a good way to start a collection, small editions are more valuable than editions of 100 plus, Damien Hirst normally produces editions of 15, this makes them collectable at an affordable price point.

A basic hierarchy of art:

  1. An original, a one-off, it could be a sculpture, painting, print or any other form of art, it’s the only one of its kind.
  2. A signed and numbered limited edition, more than one, etching, bronze, photograph, print, or any other form of art, the smaller the quantity of the edition, the greater the value.
  3. An artist signed, unlimited edition.
  4. An approved estate edition, normally produced after an artists’ death by the official copyright holder and usually comes with a certificate of authenticity.
  5. An unsigned edition, prints, photographs, or any other form of art sold unsigned and in unlimited numbers, i.e. wall art and posters

Provenance is proof that the work is by the artist and its ownership journey to you, it’s very important, keep all your receipts of purchase. If the work has been published in a catalogue or book keep copies of the relevant documents.

Artworks are fragile, protect them:
Framing is sometimes perceived as a decorative process but its true purpose is to protect your art, if you have an oil painted canvas the frame will protect the edge, if it is a work on paper or a photograph it should be glazed preferably with art glass or similar and acid-free cotton rag boards should be used. It’s important to find a quality framer, asking art gallery staff is often the best way to find a professional framer.
Unless properly protected extremes in temperature, humidity, and direct sunlight will damage your artwork.

Final note

It’s important to have a world view, international art has an international market, Australian art really only has the Australian market, the Australian market is quite small.

When you travel overseas make sure you take the time to visit galleries and art fairs, do your research before you go.

Have fun collecting.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Peter Maddison
Art collector and gallery owner

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