Santa Fe Favorites

How to Buy Art

Date January 2, 2010 at 11:00 PM

Author Aline Brandauer


Categories Community


There you are, walking through downtown Santa Fe, and see a painting you really like through a window. Now what? The sun is glinting off the designer sunglasses of a well-dressed older couple that are walking into the gallery while three scruffy looking young people dressed in tattered black gesture heatedly between them. A quick glance down at your clothes and those of your companion reveal that you look like neither group. Can you, should you, go in?

Having gotten inside the gallery, you look around and… see a lot of stuff that could be art, but this one painting still seems like a magnet. “May I help you?” asks a small woman with a plummy voice, as she looks, well, bored or, maybe, just waiting to hear what you’ve got to say as you stand there in your jeans and tennies.

“Ummm…,” say you and then flee.

This is not the scenario that we want to see! No! Empower yourself as a consumer! We’ll guide you through the process. Buying art is often seen as a slightly scary, intimidating activity. Snooty salespeople, pristine spaces, and arcane references can dampen enthusiasm. Everyone else besides you seems to know what they are talking about. And then there’s that sneaking suspicion that it might not be real art after all.

Amid Santa Fe’s art fairs and festivals, galleries and high-end boutiques, there are lots of things to buy—and some of it is art. Like wines and books, collecting art is a very personal thing. You need to know why you are buying in order to know how and what to buy.

There are three basic reasons to buy art. Most purchases are a combination of these.

If you are in the first category, as many of us are, we buy art because we love it. If you feel that something speaks to you, then that should be the key. Art that you will live with in your house needs to please you. Preferences are subjective and you need to trust your gut. It simply doesn’t matter whether it’s so-called good art or not. It is, however, often a good idea to try to articulate what it is about the artwork that draws you in. Having looked at art for many years, I can say that it’s a rare object that has staying power. Envision the piece in your place. How does it make you feel? What, if any, intellectual or political content makes your mind spin? How did the artist make the work? What materials did they use? If you are new to looking at or buying art then your passions and inclinations should guide you.

The second type is those who buy art as an investment. Very rarely does someone buy art simply to turn it around and make a profit. This sort of speculation is tricky and, actually, best left to professionals who have the knowledge, ability and connections to create a market for a particular artist or period or have the time to sit on their investment for a long time.

Collector Arthur Altschul, who created a superb collection of French Impressionists during the last century, used to say that he would always rather have the best picture by a lesser-known artist than the worst picture by a famous one. Everyone has bad days and there are many very bad works of art by good artists—just go to a famous museum, like, say, the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art and even there you will see things that are clearly weak. Like the stock market, the key to buying art as an investment is “Buy low, sell high.”

Finally, there are those who are trying to build a professional and/or complete collection in which there are examples of a whole range. This is typical of institutions and great amateurs. Another collector, this one of South Asian antiquities, who has promised his collection to a world-class art museum on the East Coast, has spent many years and much money in order to amass a representative collection of Indian and Tibetan art. He has also studied art history and has become a curator for the museum. He is a perfect example of the amateur or lover of art. His collection goes beyond his personal taste to encompass a scholarly and representative group of objects.

Another example might be the person who collects everything made by a particular artist or a finely-honed collection of a particular type of art. The first is, essentially, archival and scholarly. This is the collector who wants the weak with the strong in order to see the artist or period as a whole.

So, let’s get back to our potential art buyer. If you like it and want it—and can figure out how to pay for it—take a deep breath and take the plunge. You may be bitten by the bug and become a great collector (or just bring pleasure to your life!).