Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Erik's Super Easy Guide to Buying Art - Annotated for newbies


The View from the Edge of the Universe has this hilarious and dead-on-balls-accurate "Super-Easy Guide to Buying Art." It also got picked up by Todd at From the Floor, who treated it sorta straight (given the guy he is I wouldn't want it any other way).

[800 KB Adobe Acrobat file]

The one problem is, that despite its accuracy, if you didn't take artspeak 101 back when you were in (or at least attempting to do) university, then you could be lead astray just because you lack the necessary vocabulary to understand certain things.

So I figured, without Erik's permission, by the way, that like Martin Gardner I could annotate his guide to buying art. That way everybody could get in on the fun, and it wouldn't be so darn exclusive.

First off, there's this phrase "fallen in love with a piece of art." Don'tcha forget it. If you've been married more than twice, or you're estranged from your mother, you are not allowed to purchase any art. You obviously don't know jack about your emotions. When the man says "love" he means "LOVE." And despite what you might know about Robert Indiana, that ain't it.

Second there is the dicey question of what exactly is a "Major Museum?" In a nutshell, it is a museum that has been in existence for more than 50 years. (Sorry Getty). It needs to have more money than you can imagine, or in other words scads of cash (Sorry Whitney). It needs to be in a city that has a population of more than 10 million (Sorry Chicago). There are other factors at work here, too. If anybody else in the artblogosphere wants we probably could knock together a list of Major Museums, I'd be most interested in seeing the list, but there ain't but a dozen of them in the world.

Third, "key figure in art history." Umm, not to belabor the obvious, but an easy rule of thumb is if your mom has heard of the name of the artist, they are a key figure. If you get a quizzical look, or she scrunches up her face, they aren't.

Fourth, we come to the phrase "top NY or London gallery." Now just because a gallery is in New York or London doesn't mean that it is the top. Personally, I'd also add in Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and a couple of other international cities. But as Erik is stuck in Atlanta he's thinking in English. Being able to speak more than one language is infinitely helpful in navigating the art world. You also should be aware that no "top NY or London gallery" is going to refer to itself as "The Top." All of 'em still think that exclusion and exclusivity are key principles to follow in art. Don't be fooled by the presence of a 22 year-old receptionist in the micro-mini skirt.

Fifth, there's the phrase, "extensive auction history." I think Erik is referring to Christies and Sotheby's here. But it is possible with a little bit of work to track down information on auctions that happened elsewhere. I interpret this to mean more than 10 years worth of sales, or more than three auctions where similar work was available. But if you return to the original phrase "in love with the work." You can cut down on the time spent on research by counting how much money is in your wallet. If the price at auction is more, don't buy, and don't worry.

Sixth, what is a "decent museum?" These are the museums that want to be a major museum, but due to circumstances beyond their control, aren't. It also could be a museum with which you have developed a nice relationship. Here in Montreal, the Musee d'Art Contemporain would be a decent museum to me. If you're reading this in Houston, it ain't - although given the changes in the air, it might become one to Texans everywhere.

Seventh, by "several museums" Erik obviously means more than three. You know, something like four, five or six. If you read down to the entry for "potential star" they gotta hit three.

Eighth, art center group shows. There is a certain sub-sect of the art world where the artists themselves organize and exhibit their art and the art of other artists. These are called Art Centers, or Artist Run Centers, or Parallel galleries. Most universities have one, most cities have a couple, and there are quite a few way out in the boonies - because there are scads of artists who aren't entirely enamored of living in a big city. The better ones will have catalogues of their shows, the really really good ones will have absolutely amazing vernissages (openings for you foreigners), Most artists like a good party.

Ninth, "decent NY or London gallery or by a top gallery in another city." Again, avoid the micro-mini skirts like the plague. You're looking for personnel who know about the art that they are exhibiting, and can explain it to you. Some of them will publish catalogues (this is why museums are key, they almost always publish catalogues). If there is no catalogue, it ain't so bad, but those three page, four color, glossy fold out things that look like they could be used for selling faucets are a very bad sign. The gallery probably would be better off selling faucets.

Tenth, "Reviews or articles in several national art magazines or inclusion in survey books." Being from Atlanta, Erik is thinking ArtForum and Art in America. You can also include Modern Painter, Freize, and a couple of others, but then you'd be skewing yourself towards "international magazines" which are even better than national magazines. Here in Canada, Canadian Art Magazine is national, but because it's Canada it doesn't really cut it. Don't be fooled by magazines that have a circulation of under 10,000, even if they trumpet all over the place that they are distributed everywhere.

Eleventh, "developing secondary market." Code for being able to resell the art easily. Usually done at auctions, but it also can be through private sales or other means. One way to recognize that it is developing is simply by noticing the artist's name appearing in more and more places. If your best friend mentions to you that they heard something about the artist recently, that's a good sign.

One thing to realize in reading the "Super-Easy Guide to Buying Art" is that it is skewed towards viewing art as an investment. While this is all fine and dandy, and can make you extremely happy (and rich) you always gotta come back to the love. If you love the piece, and have enough cash that is good enough.

An easy way to tell if an artist is in the "earlier half of his or her career" or if they are in "the later half of his or her career" is to determine if the artist is over or under 40. Sometimes this doesn't quite work. Another way is if there are four or five or more digits in the price. Again this isn't a prefect way. The absolute most precise means is to determine at what age the artists started their career, then compare their age against the most recent actuarial tables and calculate if they are likely to live longer than they have already been creating or less.

Then, almost finally, there's that pesky question of "multiples." Basically if there is more than one copy of the artwork (like a photograph or a print) it's a multiple. However with recent advances in technology it has become possible to make Art that comes in many different sizes and mediums. Or in other words you might have a choice of something that is 24" x 36" or the very same thing at 48" x 72", or the very same thing as a poster, or on a collectible plate. Yes, those technically are multiples, but again if you don't love it, don't buy it.

Finally, don't forget to thank Erik for making the art world that much easier to navigate.

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