Sarah B. Cunningham: Top Tips for Art Collectors

July 24, 2012

Browsing a recent issue of a high-end antiques magazine, I came across an article on a well-known private art collection. The collector was described as “passionate” and “indefatigable,” and the collection as “encyclopedic.” Ok…that’s a lot of pressure!

It’s true that most collectors I meet have a passion for the art they seek and are armed with all sorts of tools as they attend to their search, but this process is one of learning and growth and should bring joy and satisfaction–not trepidation. Every collector starts somewhere, buys their first painting and the journey begins. As the owner of a fine art gallery, I’d like to offer a few tips and considerations to help get you started, or to affirm what you’ve learned along the way.

Know what you love and love what you buy.
You are buying art to hang on your walls, to live with and to enjoy…so love what you buy. This may sound like a simple thing, but love can be complicated! Figuring out what you love may take time and will evolve as your collection grows. My advice: get out and look, look, look–at museums, galleries, art fairs–you’ll know love when you find it.

Robert Indiana, Green Love, color screen print, 1996. Photo courtesy of Artnet.com

Become knowledgeable.
Start anywhere–the internet, libraries, museums, auctions, lectures at your local historical society–and learn about your favorite artists, genres and styles. Of course, today you can sit at your laptop with a vast universe of information at your fingertips, or you can walk to your bookshelf.

The Boston Athenaeum. Photo courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

Visit galleries and ask questions.
You can visit galleries and virtual art fairs online or find real exhilaration when you enter a brick-and-mortar gallery and discover a painting that speaks to you. The gallery owner or knowledgeable staff will be there to personally discuss the merits of the art. The more you ask, the more information you’ll glean from the visit…don’t be shy.

Photo courtesy of Walker-Cunningham Fine Art, taken at the Newport Antiques Show, 2011

Ask about the artists.
If you find a painting of interest by an artist who you are not familiar with–ask about the artist’s life and career. When were they active, where did they study? Is the artist known for a certain style or subject? What is the price range for the artist’s work on the market today?

Photo by Eric Roth for Walker-Cunningham Fine Art

Ask about condition.
For a work of art with any age, you can learn many details by asking about condition–what is the state of the canvas, paint or varnish surfaces, have there been any repairs or restoration? How about the frame–is it original, of the period or a reproduction? Do we know the frame maker? These are all good questions that should be met with thorough answers by a knowledgeable gallery staff.

Painting undergoing restoration at the studios of Anthony Moore Painting Conservation in York, Maine. Photo courtesy of Anthony Moore Painting Conservation

Ask about provenance and exhibition history.
I just received a call from a fellow who inherited a 1946 painting and still has the original bill of sale–signed by the artist. Very cool. Provenance is the history of ownership for a painting. Many galleries have confidentiality policies and will only give general provenance, but it never hurts to ask–and some collectors are very interested in where their paintings have been. Also, ask about exhibition history. This is something a gallery staff member will readily share.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

Take care of your art…for now, for later and for much later.
Volumes have been written about the care and handling of fine art. I’ll try to be brief. To reduce the chances of major issues, I recommend having any needed restoration completed on your paintings as soon as a condition problem is detected. We urge our clients to keep works on paper (especially watercolors) out of any direct sunlight or bright areas in the home. Light will damage and degrade both pigment and paper. Oil paintings are hardier when it comes to light exposure, but extreme changes in temperature should be avoided, along with swings in humidity (which wreaks havoc on wood panels). Chatting with your preferred gallery or art restorer will set your mind at ease if you have any questions on where to install a painting. To wax a bit philosophical, I like to remember that we are merely caretakers of these works–let’s keep them in good shape for future art lovers.

Photo courtesy of Alvarez Fine Art Services, Inc.

Understand the investment.
I am often asked about art as a financial investment. My answer is: buy what you love, first and foremost. Second, buy the very best examples within your budget. Ask the gallery with whom you are working to provide recent comparable sales examples and have a conversation about the general market for the artist today.  Art is a unique long-term investment: it affords the pleasure of enjoyment as it resides in your portfolio.

Final word: work with a trusted source.
If I could give one piece of advice among these many considerations, it would be to find art world professionals that you trust to give you good advice and to answer your questions. Build a rapport with a gallery owner or art consultant–it’s the best way to learn and to gain confidence in this gratifying process of creating your collection.

–Sarah B. Cunningham

Sarah B. Cunningham is owner of Walker-Cunningham Fine Art in Boston, a gallery specializing in American and European paintings from 1850 to the present.