Gerard Curtis Delano (1890 – 1972), Evening | Oil on Canvas | 30 x 40 inches | Courtesy of Coeur d’Alene Art Auction

Collector’s Notebook: Where to Begin

Let’s face it: Collecting art is intimidating on so many levels. To begin with, where do you start? Galleries are an obvious place. But will you look stupid for asking questions? Will some pushy dealer pressure you into spending beyond your means? And how do you know if the prices they’re asking are legit?

Maybe art shows would be a better place to start, especially if proceeds go to a good cause. But who are those artists participating? Are they worth collecting?

Wait a second. What is worth collecting? Is art an investment or not? Or should you follow that old cliché and buy what you love? And if that’s the case, what do you love? Holy Monet! Where do you even start figuring that out?  

 Tip #1: Do Your Art Reconnaissance

First and foremost, you have to figure out what you want to collect. In other words, what do you love? For an answer, we highly recommend visiting museums. They are great places to “pretend shop” because there’s no fear that a salesperson will corner you and pry your wallet loose, making you pay for something you’ll regret. Think of museum visits as recon missions with the goal of educating yourself about art and art movements and discovering what tickles your fancy.

For example, perhaps you come face-to-face with a painting by Robert Motherwell and swoon. Great. This means you connect with Abstract Expressionism and bold statements. Your best friend, however, shrugs off Motherwell’s work as a bunch of giant inkblot tests, and heads straight for the Monets. Your friend is more of a romantic and probably wants to be surrounded by realism, so landscapes and still-life paintings might do the trick. Then there’s your buddy who gets lost in the wearable mixed-media “Soundsuits” of American artist Nick Cave or the vivid Japanese Pop art of Takashi Murakami; he is very much engaged in the zeitgeist and wants his art to be heady and provocative.  

Take a few afternoons to wander museums and make note of what catches your eye. While there, buy an art book or two so you can dig deeper into the lives of the artists that speak to you. And consider joining a collector’s group; your local museum should be able to point you in the right direction. You’ll get behind-the-scenes tours of museums, artist studios, and private collections, and can learn from like-minded folks.

 Tip #2: Plot Covert Gallery Visits

If there are galleries in your town (and trust us, there are), check out when the next organized event — such as a First Friday Art Walk — is happening. Jump into the fray and wander to your heart’s content. You’ll be out and about with a whole bunch of art lovers and a fair number of artists, too. This is where you want to eavesdrop. Listen for conversations about artists and artwork. Pick up handouts so you can go home and learn about artists. If a gallery has some art that you like, get on their mailing list so you know when their next shows are.

And, if the gallerist says it’s OK, take pictures of art that interests you. In fact, take two pictures: one of the art and another of the wall tag, so you leave with the artist’s name and other important details such as size and price.

 Tip #3: Find a Guide

Knowledge is indeed power when it comes to buying art. The shortest path to a solid education is through an insider’s brain. In other words, hire an art advisor. This may seem like a monumental task but, again, start with your local museum. Curators will know advisors and will be able to steer you in the right direction. Here, too, joining an art group will offer invaluable access to art advisors.

You want to learn about different mediums and techniques as well as art movements. There are a number of great books you can check into (see sidebar), and you should also consider taking a practical art-making class at your local college or art center. There’s no better way to understand techniques — and the true challenge of being creative — than by getting your hands dirty.

It’s also important to understand the business side of art — that is, how prices are set, how to work with galleries, how to commission art, and if it’s OK to ask for a discount. Look through past editions of this column for practical advice on all these topics.

 Tip #4: Don’t Worry About Asking Stupid Questions

Yes, we know you don’t want to look stupid — but there truly are no stupid questions, especially in the art biz. Here’s why: Artists are ahead of the curve when it comes to experimentation and new forms of expression, which means even well-seasoned art authorities are constantly learning.

Still feeling nervous about talking to artists? Here are some good questions you could ask:

Instead of “How long did it take you to do that?” ask, “Why do you use that medium to express yourself?” Here’s why: You’ll learn about how the artist thought through the process of making art and you’ll gain valuable insight into their personal connection with that medium.

Instead of “Why do you paint [subject matter/genre style]?” ask, “Is there a story behind this work of art?” Here’s why: Whether you know it or not, this is what you really need to know. What inspired a work of art could have been a trip or a conversation or an overflowing trash bin. The story, however, is a bigger, more intriguing conversation that will lead down paths you never thought possible and open a longer dialogue about art and art history as well as other topics you never would have known to ask about.

Instead of “Where did you go to art school?” ask, “Who’s your mentor?” or “What artists inspire you?” Here’s why: If you’re not an artist, the subtle differences in art schools won’t matter much. But almost every artist has a mentor. In learning about a mentor, you’ll learn about the intention of the artist because his or her mentor will have instilled rich advice about work ethic and aesthetic, how to make a living, and what true art is.

 Tip #5: Start Small, Think Big

We’re not necessarily suggesting you buy tiny works of art but, rather, that you start with artists who, like you, are emerging in the art community, with prices lower than artists who are well-established. Some excellent places are local art street fairs, custom frame shops/galleries, and galleries that boast “emerging” artists. You should be able to select some good work, provided you’ve done your homework by going through the previous steps. Consider buying work by beginning and emerging artists akin to the point where you are in the collecting game. You might just discover the next Picasso or O’Keeffe.  

Another place to start is in photography and hand-pulled prints. With a little knowledge about the process, you can find incredible works well within your budget — and, yes, they are nonetheless “original” works of art. (NOTE: Giclées, by contrast, are not considered “original art;” they are reproductions or fancy posters made by mechanical inkjet printers.) Hand-pulled prints require the artist’s hand all along the way. You’re looking for mediums such as “etching,” “woodblock reduction,” “monotype,” “serigraph,” and “lithograph.” Such work is not only about the image but also the process.

Print work and photography are almost always priced lower than paintings, for no other reason than that’s how it’s always been. Knowing this, you can start a collection with some rather big names for a fraction of the cost of one-off paintings. We’ve even heard of savvy collectors finding incredibly valuable hand-pulled prints in thrift shops!

“Collector’s Notebook” columnist Rose Fredrick writes a regular blog, The Incurable Optimist, where she covers the art market, collecting, and exhibitions, and presents in-depth interviews with artists, at

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