To the uninitiated the prospect of buying fine art for investment can be as daunting as being asked to paint the Sistine Chapel or construct St Paul's Cathedral out of match sticks. A glimpse of the plush interiors of the major auction houses or trip to one of central London's sometimes intimidating galleries can give the casual visitor second thoughts about purchasing a piece of art. Alternatively the individual might be unsure about the value or authenticity of the painting or drawing they are proposing to buy, but press ahead with the transaction anyway on the principle that they may not know much about art, but they know what they like. And the gallery assistant has gone to all this trouble and seems to know what they're talking about, so it would be churlish to pull out now.
The best way to make the subjective practice of buying a piece of fine art is to be as objective as possible. In other words, to ensure that you get what you pay for, it is worthwhile learning a bit more about how the art market works and gathering as much information about the particular artist or style or period that you are interested in as you can. There are two principle ways of doing this. You can research the artist's output and historical significance in art books and exhibition catalogues or read reviews by local and national art critics, and you can look through the sales records available in most major public libraries and art galleries to determine how much their work goes for.
A natural place to start researching price would be with the seller of the piece you are interested in. Judge whether the artist has a track record of selling works of art similar to the piece you like for amounts comparable to what you're being asked to pay. A reputable dealer should have this information on file and be willing to discuss it with you; any reluctance to do so suggests that they have something to hide either about the piece or the amount they are asking for it. As an additional measure, it is worth reviewing the artist's general sales history over the past five years to determine that their price has remained consistent, paying particular attention to the average price fetched.
Once you have established the price that the artist sells for, the research you have done about their life and output should give you an indication of the significance, and relative value, of the piece you are interested in. Is the piece a typical or atypical example of the artist's output? Is it from the artist's mature period or an early work which indicates how the artist's mature style evolved (bear in mind that the majority of an artist's earliest pieces are usually in museums or private hands, so invariably sell for a higher than usual price when they come onto the market)? Does it have any special significance in the artist's life or interesting stories associated with it? Has it ever been discussed in print by experts or the artist themselves?
This investigation should also include uncovering its provenance, exhibition history and ownership history. As human beings require a passport to move from country to country, so do works of art, and the gallery should be able to provide you with the necessary certificates of authenticity. There are a number of areas to be mindful of, though, including the extent to which the individuals who authenticate or attribute the art to a particular artist are qualified to do so. Unless their authority is backed by some professional association with the artist, such as publishing papers in respected journals, curating museum or major gallery shows or having an extensive experience of trading in them, then their opinion is not worth a great deal. Alternatively they could be relatives, employees or descendants of the artist or have some form of legal or estate-granted entitlement to pass judgment on the work of art. And if the artist is alive, don't hesitate to ask the gallery to get in touch with them in person to confirm that the art is authentic.
A further issue to consider is whether the art is original or reproduced by mechanical means, because one of the principle ways art dealers make money is by trading in limited edition prints, where the artists only input in the creative process has been signing a digital or photographic copy of the original. A thorough investigation of the piece, combined with asking questions about it, should uncover this, with the added benefit of revealing how much the seller knows about what they are selling. When you are happy with the asking price and ready to buy, ensure you get a detailed receipt describing the art and its condition and including a money back guarantee to protect you if, at any point in the future, you find out that the art was not properly represented. This receipt should be in addition to the other documentation that the seller provides relating to the art's history, provenance and authenticity.
But before getting to this point, there's the issue of which places you should look to source the art. The first piece of advice here is to have a clear idea of the type of art work you want and set a fixed price above which you will not go. Having done that, it makes sense to throw your net as wide as possible and explore all avenues, with particular focus on the following three options:
o Auction Houses. This can include anything from the local auction house in your area to the big auction houses in London. Naturally, the more prestigious the auctioneer is, the greater confidence you can have in the authenticity of the piece of art, and the higher the price can go. Bear in mind also that auction houses use presale estimates, reserves, and opening bid amounts which should give you a rough idea of the amount the piece might go for, though when it comes to auction time, pretty much anything goes, so you should have your wits about you as you bid against experts in the field.
o Art Galleries. As has been previously mentioned, walking into an art gallery can be a daunting experience. But just remember one thing: all the gallery's show of respectability and wealth, from the good address to the soft furnishings and discreet light fittings, has been built from selling fine art to its customers. In other words, when you buy a painting from a gallery, you're paying not only for the painting but the well appointed environment which gave you the confidence to buy it in the first place. Also, as much as a good gallery may have the necessary expertise to tell you all about the painting you are proposing to buy, they also know how to spot an amateur collector and persuade them to buy a piece they are not a hundred percent sure about.
o Internet. While sites like eBay carry obvious risks about the provenance and condition of the piece of fine art you are thinking of buying, established, authenticated sellers have several obvious advantages to more conventional ways of buying art. Above all, of course, because there is no actual gallery space, you are not subsidising their rent when you buy from them. And once you have found a piece of art that catches your eye you can do all the necessary research about it in your own time without anybody standing over you attempting to influence your decision, in addition to getting a second opinion about it from anyone with access to a computer and the internet.
Of these options, buying art online is becoming the most popular due to the advantages outlined above. But which site to visit first to look into the kind of art that is available? Well, you could do a lot worse than to have a look through Artbank.com, the UK's premier fine art trading website, which has a tremendous variety of pieces on sale at all prices. These can be reviewed in the comfort of your own home to scale against a virtual wall and with reference to a colour chart to determine how they might look against various backgrounds. And if you particularly like the piece, you can also check out the other pieces the seller has for sale, all without the pressure of having anyone look over your shoulder. Paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures and ceramics are all categorised into styles and national schools for easy searching, or you can simply key in your favourite painter to see if any of their work is up for sale on the site. But don't despair if they're not, because Artbank will send you an email to notify you whenever a piece by them comes up.
The beauty of Artbank is that if there is a particular piece you like, you will be able to contact the seller directly to negotiate the price and arrange shipping and handling, because Artbank only charges a fee for using the site. There is no middle man like there is with auction houses and no part of the sale price is being used to pay the rent. In other words, Artbank is the best of both worlds, whilst also offering you the kind of choice and variety that no bricks and mortar gallery can compete with.
Whatever way you choose to buy fine art, though, always ensure that the art has the necessary documentation to authenticate it and is being sold in line with the current market value. Who knows, maybe you have the makings of being the next Peggy Guggenheim, but whatever your aspirations, have fun and the best of luck in getting the piece of art you really love!