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The 5 Questions You Need to Ask Before You Say, “I’ll Take It” to a Work of Art…

It’s easy to walk into a gallery and swoon at the sight of a work of art, but making the decision to buy it is complex. We asked an art consultant, a conservator, an attorney and an adjuster for the important issues to consider before making such a big purchase.

Question 1: Is it True Love or an Infatuation?

Even experienced collectors have made mistakes, so it’s a good idea to take a little time to ponder your reaction. You may want to consider how it fits into your existing collection; how and where you would display it; and if your gut tells you that the price is in keeping with the value of this particular artwork.

Annelien Bruins of Tang Art Advisory offers her clients a professional’s perspective without revealing her personal responses to the work of art.

“My job is to give them my professional opinion on the quality of the work they are considering buying. For example, an artist may have a number of works available but there may be only one or two that I think are worth buying—because the composition is better, the technique is better applied, it is more representative of the artist’s work, and the price is more appropriate.”

She recommends a "test run" with a work of art as a hedge against buyer’s remorse. Many galleries will allow you to take a work of art home for a few weeks. This is a good option before a major purchase. It will give you a chance to experience the work and determine if it’s true love or a passing fancy.

Gordon A. Lewis Jr., of The Fine Arts Conservancy, has more than 40 years of experience in the art world. He brings his conservator’s point-of-view to the ‘love at first sight’ experience of buying art. “Most art is bought because the viewer has a visceral reaction to it; it speaks to them, and they want to own it and live with it.”

Question 2: Is the Price Right?

Record-breaking prices for famous works of art make great headlines, but most of us will not be adding a Van Gogh, Caravaggio or Pollock to our collections in the near future. Prices for works of art vary widely and even the most experienced collectors need to do research when making a YES/NO choice.

Knowing the prices of works by the same artist, same school or similar style are just guidelines, but they are worthwhile checking in advance of a purchase. Expert art consultants and other art professionals are good sources for this kind of information. Pricing knowledge may temper your enthusiasm for a particular work when you discover that the price is too high.

Gordon Lewis acknowledges the challenge of determining the monetary value at the moment of purchase. This can be particularly difficult for new collectors. He suggests some scrutiny of the seller’s reputation because reputable art dealers are also art lovers and will endeavor charge appropriate, market value amounts.

“While there are many great and honest dealers in the field, there are also a number who, if they were not art dealers, would be selling used cars, or deeply involved in horse trading. If it is a lot of money, the prudent collector will ask his attorney to ‘vet’ the dealer—in other words confirm that the dealer is reputable with a sterling reputation. However, it must be remembered that even reputable dealers can be fooled and inadvertently pass along a piece which will turn out to be fake.”

Some dealers pressure collectors into buying on the spot with ploys suggesting it’s only available for a short time. This is a good indication that you should think before you jump.


Question 3: Is it the REAL Thing?

Authenticity is a huge issue in the art world. Famous fakes have turned up in prestigious museums and many collectors have been taken in by forgeries. The recent Knoedler gallery scandal is just one of many cautionary tales.

“There are two avenues which are pursued to verify a painting’s authenticity: scientific testing of the paint and the material upon which it is painted. A competent conservation scientist will sample them, test them and tell if everything is (or is not) consistent with the materials available at that time. Once this is done, an expert in the stylistics of the artist is consulted to give an opinion regarding the authorship of the painting.”

Allen Olson-Urtecho, of Fine Arts Adjusters, is adamant on the subject of determining authenticity with a combination of science, art and history—the provenance of the artwork.

“Art forgeries are the greatest problem of the Art World, some segments of the Art World are overwhelmed and flooded with fakes and forgeries. A Collector should ask about the three aspects of authentication: Provenance, Connoisseurship, and Forensics. The Collector should ask that these three aspects be answered for in a painting, and then to request an outside opinion or review. There are laboratories, foundations of artist estates, art historians, forensic experts, and others that may be helpful in answering questions of authenticity.”

Collectors are advised to get both certificates of authenticity and provenance at the time of purchase. This paper trail will be helpful to collectors seeking appraisals, buying insurance, or to making a sale in the future. This is the best possible assurance that you are buying the real thing and it is a good idea for purchases made both in the primary and secondary art markets.

“Buying art on the primary market simply means that the work of art you buy is coming straight out of the artist’s studio and has never been sold before. So you are buying it directly from the artist or their gallery. Still make sure you get your certificate of authenticity though; you need this if ever you wanted to resell the work. The secondary market pretty much encompasses everything else: any artwork offered for resale. So this could vary from buying an Old Masters at auction to purchasing a Gerhard Richter from a collector who owned it before you.” Annelien Bruins


Question 4: Is It in SHAPE?

The condition of a work of art—essentially its health—is a critical issue at the time of purchase. Damage reduces value and may add to your overall purchase cost, as you’ll likely hire a conservator to restore the work before you get to enjoy it.

“Even museums and dealers often are unable to understand condition, as much as one would like to believe otherwise. The best investment that can be made is to hire a highly experienced conservator to examine condition and offer other important observations.” Gordon Lewis

When buying real estate it’s location, location, location. In art, it’s condition, condition, condition. If you have any doubts about the condition of a work of art, consult with an experienced conservator prior to purchase. This may save you both money and heartache.

Annelien Bruins points to one advantage of a primary market purchase in the realm of condition. “The good thing about buying directly from the artist is that you have direct access to them in case there is damage to the work. If the artist does not want to restore the work, they will usually recommend a conservator who they trust with their work.”

Question 5: Is it Really Mine When I Buy It?

This may sound like a question posed by Dr. Seuss, but there are legal issues involved in purchasing a work of art. With so many contemporary artists “borrowing” images and creating mash-ups, it’s important to learn exactly what you are buying. Adam Russ, of Wasser & Russ, LLP, offers an attorney’s point-of-view on the complicated issues of copyright and art.

“Buying a completed work of art directly from the artist is less fraught with provenance and title issues. However, when buying from an artist a collector should make sure that the work of art is an original, that it does not infringe on any third-parties rights and that the artist has clear and unencumbered title to the work of art. The collector should also find who owns and controls the copyright for the work of art and whether or not the artist waives or retains any moral rights with respect to the work of art.”

Adam Russ advises art collectors to get as much information as possible about a work of art prior to buying it. The more complete the provenance and the deeper the understanding of the work, the less potential for legal problems down the road.

Count to FIVE and ask all your questions—then go home and enjoy the latest addition to your collection! 

Discover art consultants, conservators, law firms, adjusters and more on The Clarion List, the leading directory of art service providers with ratings & reviews: clarionlist.com