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How to Start Collecting Art (Without Breaking the Bank)

Couple looking at artwork in a gallery.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

While it’s the 7-figure sales that make headlines, you don’t need to be a Russian oligarch to collect art. Anyone can do it. Here’s how.

Art is for everyone, not just the rich. That’s why so many great pieces are displayed in museums and galleries. It means that everyone can enjoy the works of Picasso or Warhol or DaVinci. But, if you like art, you probably want to own a few pieces of your own—even if only to decorate your home. Let’s look at how to get started, especially if you’re on a budget.

Learn What You Like

Collecting art is a personal endeavor. While you might like things that are in vogue, you shouldn’t mindlessly follow trends. I adore mid-century street photography, particular the work of a couple of French photographers, but they’re not to everyone’s tastes. Before deciding what to buy, you need to learn what you like.

MoMA is one of the best art museums I’ve ever been to.

And, the only way to do it is to view lots of art. Go to every gallery and art show you can. Follow artists on Instagram. Read books on art. Read books by artists. Just immerse yourself, and see what sticks. My interest in photography led me to Henri Cartier-Bresson and that, to Elliott Erwitt. Go down rabbit holes—and love it.

Then, once you know what you like, you can start to buy.

Ask Questions

The best way to learn more about art is to ask questions whenever you can. Go to opening nights in galleries where the artist will be there. Pepper them with questions about their work and their influences, especially if something they’re doing speaks to you. Do the same with gallery owners: they’ll happily walk you through their entire collections, a lot of which will be for sale.

Buy Things You Love

Do not start collecting art as an investment. Seriously, don’t.

While some people made a lot of money buying Jeff Koons’ work before he was Jeff Koons, they are few and far between. A lot more people have purchased works by unknown artists hoping that they’d found the next Koons. They hadn’t.

The golden rule when you’re starting is only to buy works that you love. The kind of thing you want to come home to after a rough day, look at, and feel the weight lift from your shoulders just because it’s hanging on your wall. It doesn’t matter if the artist gains international acclaim and the work on your wall is worth millions of dollars—or toils away in obscurity. You still have something you love.

Also, look for things that have a personal story that you connect with. Maybe collect a few pieces from local artists. Or, collect some from artists who work in a medium you love or whose work reflects one of your interests. If a work means something to you, it doesn’t matter what other people think of it. My mother’s favorite print is one she bought because it reminds her of her mother. It’s beautiful, but the personal story is what makes it all the more special.

Consider Prints and Editions

Original artworks by established, successful artists are very expensive. Even unique works by lesser-known, local artists can easily be in the thousands of dollars. If you’ve got the budget for that and you find something you love, awesome! But for a lot of people, editions are more accessible.

When an artist creates a work, they will often release a limited number of prints or pieces, say 500. Each one sold is usually numbered and, in smaller editions, signed. The artist is promising that they are only ever going to sell 500 (or however many) and that’s it; they’re not going to flood the market with another 50,000 in three years if they end up really popular.

koons rabbit

By buying editions, you can get works you love from artists you love. Even stuff by big-name artists like Jeff Koons can be (relatively) affordable. For example, the Koons silver rabbit sculpture seen above is from an edition of 500, and it’s up for auction as I write this. The estimate is between about $2800 and $4000. That’s a lot of money, but Koons is one of the most prominent artists of the last few decades. His sculptures are on display in the most prestigious galleries in the world.

koons plate

If you had to own something by him, you could even look at something like this coupe plate from an edition of 2500—yours for about $700.

jack hickey painting

And that’s talking about one of the biggest names in art. For smaller, local artists, editions are even more affordable. Jack Hickey is a critically acclaimed Irish artist. A print from an edition of 10 is for sale by a gallery for about $320. He’s probably never going to have as much international acclaim as Koons, but he’s certainly not a nobody in the art world. If there’s a smaller artist whose work you love, you’ll probably be able to afford something of theirs as an edition.

Where to Buy Art

Art is sold in two main ways: through galleries and shows, and at auction.

Buying direct from a gallery or at a show is simplest. Really, galleries are just regular stores. If there’s something you like, pay up, and you’ll walk away with it there and then. Of course, you should never take the listed price as gospel. Use a service like Artnet or the Art Sales Index to check what price similar works by the same artist are selling for—and don’t be afraid to haggle.

Art auctions are the other big way to buy art. You can place bids in person, over the phone, or, increasingly, online. The biggest thing with an auction is not to overbid. Do your research, set a maximum price, and stick to it.

While there’s a lot to be said for buying art in person at gallery shows and auctions, you can also do it on the internet. Sites like Artsy, Artnet, and Paddle8 list both artworks you can buy immediately and upcoming auctions.

Have Fun

Art collecting is meant to be fun. Don’t overthink things or worry that a piece you love isn’t a sound investment. If you think it will look good on your wall and you can afford it, then go for it. Stressing about who the next big thing will be is for billionaires and art insiders.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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