Collector's Notebook: Informed Collecting

My own interest in collecting and Western art began on a cattle ranch in Montana where my grandfather had built a study we fondly referred to as the little house. The inner sanctum held a vast assemblage of Western art, Native American artifacts and cowboy and cavalry antiquities. More than anything, I recall my grandfather’s passion for his pieces, and his zeal for collecting.

As I grew older I realized why he collected. It wasn’t for prestige or profit, but for the pleasure it afforded him. Arguably this is the most fundamental principle of collecting. Our efforts should reflect our fervor for art, our love of the work itself. Doing so will assure that our lives are enriched, our horizons broadened, our surroundings beautified.

In the art world, focusing on aesthetic value doesn’t preclude the possibility of market gain. Buy what you love; the fruits of your labor may pay monetary dividends in the future, but to count on it would be foolish. No matter what your motivation, there are ways to “successfully” build and enhance an art collection. Whether you are a beginning buyer or a seasoned connoisseur, here are eight important points to consider when acquiring and collecting original works of art.

Get Smart, Stay Smart

1. Acquire Knowledge

Become an educated buyer by examining and interpreting a vast amount of artwork. Visit galleries, museums, private dealers and other collections. Attend art auctions, shows and forums. Undertake a course of self-study in art and collecting. Subscribe to the leading trade periodicals and read art literature such as reference books, monographs, raisonnés and catalogues. Become familiar and comfortable with valuations. Entrench yourself in the middle of the fine art world.

2. Specialize

Through your experience and education, you can develop a collecting focus with your personal tastes serving as the roadmap. Becoming a specialist in one aspect of the field is the key to successful collecting. Specialties are numerous; perhaps you will choose to collect according to artist or school of artist, subject matter, geographic area, specific event, time period, genre, style or medium. One serious buyer I know assembled two distinct collections: classic and contemporary wildlife paintings housed in Wyoming, and Modern art in Chicago. For the new collector, concentrating your efforts will produce an expertise and allow the buying process to begin immediately. And for the seasoned connoisseur, narrowing the focus will refine and enhance the collection.

3. Buy the Best

Ask any art dealer what to buy and immediately they’ll tell you to “buy the best.” Next ask your art escort to explain quality. This requires thoughtful explanation. Is aesthetic quality and beauty defined by the collective consciousness of the community of gallerists, experts and collectors? Or is it “your” personal best, meaning “I know what I like”? The answer, I believe, is somewhere in the middle. Look for works with the highest aesthetic merits with relevance to subject matter, composition, light work, color, texture, value and even framing, all of which will impart a lifetime of pleasure for you, the viewer. For historical works, attach further consideration to rarity, condition, dating and provenance. Train your eye to learn the difference between paintings that are mere décor and paintings that are worth holding on to.

4. Find Contenders

There are three questions every art collector should ask themselves before making a purchase. Most significantly, does it move you? Any painting worth considering should elicit a strong emotional response that heightens the senses. Dare we compare the experience to falling in love? Next, is the painting fairly priced for a comparable work? This will require some objective thought and analysis on your part since all works of art are unique pieces. And finally, does the subject of interest fit your chosen specialization? If you can answer yes to all three questions then you have a serious contender. Use these three criteria to size up a painting in the heat of a buying moment.

5. Tie the Knot

Slow yourself down; resist the urge to buy when nothing of quality presents itself. This is a common mistake new collectors make in order to fill the walls, and they tire quickly of their purchases. Once knowledge has been acquired, a specialization developed and a prospect located, you’re ready to purchase with confidence. Say, for example, you visit a dealer’s showroom and out of the back a newly acquired oil by Edgar Payne is presented, in perfect condition, in the original frame, with exhibition stickers attached to the back, divested from a generational family collection who originally acquired it from Payne himself. It’s the pack horse scene of the Sierra Mountains you’ve always wanted. Now is the time to act decisively — seize the moment. Rarely, if ever, will we get a second shot at these once-in-a-lifetime paintings. Knowing when to tie the knot is critical.

6. Buy from a Variety of Sources

Acquire your art from a variety of sources that includes galleries, auctions, private dealers, museum sponsored sales, invitational shows and artists. Each has its advantages and disadvantages that you will come to know. Make sure you’re buying authentic works by professional artists, steering clear of reproductions and hobbyists. Seek out and patronize established dealers with longevity in the business. Spreading your purchases around will help in building a fully developed collection.

7. Manage the Collection

Serious collectors manage all aspects of their art collection. These functions are as critical as they are many: tracking details of purchase, sales and trade, properly hanging and lighting, insuring and storing artwork, documenting conservation and restoration. Collections are also researched and promoted, and tax implications considered. Your walls are full but the collecting impulse is still there — now what? Upgrading, divestiture and trade can be beneficial activities to the ultimate growth of a collection.

8. Borrow the Dealer’s Touch and Artist’s Eye

My foremost recommendation to building an outstanding and valuable art collection is to utilize the assistance of an experienced and knowledgeable professional. Nearly every important collection — whether private, corporate or institutional — is built and shaped with the help of qualified guidance to navigate the arts market. The importance of this relationship cannot be understated. You will come to find many artists have substantial collections of their own. Lean on them for advice and direction, and borrow their artist’s eye for looking at the world of art.


Curtis Tierney is the founder and proprietor of Tierney Fine Art in Bozeman, Montana. Prior to opening his gallery, Tierney served as Director to a prominent American Gallery specializing in classical masters of the American West. A fourth-generation Montana native, he understands the West intimately.

Tom Ferris, born and raised in New York City, has been living in Montana and photographing Yellowstone and the surrounding area since 1979. Ferris is also an archival photographer for the Montana Historical Society.

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