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The Comprehensive Guide To Collecting Quality Art

There’s a point in life when we trade sneakers for stilettos or wing tips, or a studio apartment for a home with a patch of grass to call our own.

And yet, for so many, the art on the walls of the family estate might still be mass-market prints and art fair paintings made on an assembly line.

If so, it’s time to upgrade. It’s time to buy originals. It’s time to know the artists who created the works on your walls. You’ll need to splurge; perhaps as much as what you might pay for a vacation.

Sounds intimidating, right? It’s not, as long as you follow these steps from local art experts and take a few moves forward in your grown-up arts education.

Bonnie Clearwater
Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale
Photo by Gary James

Dive Into The Art World

Before buying a piece of art, first you need some education, says Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. “The most important thing for someone who’s starting to collect is to know what good art is,” she says.

That begins by diving into the local art world. Join museums and take exhibit tours with the curators, artists and experts. Tag along for trips many of the museums organize to visit art institutions elsewhere. Once you’re in, Clearwater says suddenly you’ll have an entirely new collection of friends, those who know and appreciate good art and can help educate you on what’s good. Soon, you’ll be talking about the newest up-and-comer from Florence or a trend coming out of Shanghai. “Join the art world, and suddenly the world itself becomes much smaller,” Clearwater says.

Photographer and art collector Francie Bishop Good says the key is to concentrate first on what interests you. When she was 13 years old, she bought her first work of art: a Picasso poster for $1. While far from the original art she collects today, it became the inspiration for her to create original works of her own. In the late 1980s, she and husband David Horvitz spent what they budgeted for art for the entire year on one piece, their first significant art purchase. Since then, they’ve become avid collectors, most recently seeking photos from the Civil Rights era.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to start collecting,” Good says. “Start by understanding what you love and educating yourself on it, and the confidence will follow.”

Sam Ruth
Sam Ruth, a Boca Raton art dealer and owner of skygallery.org

Do Your Due Diligence

Many first-time collectors will begin by hitting an art fair and snatching up a piece that catches their eye. And there’s a pretty good chance that later they’ll wish they hadn’t.

“People go to art fairs and buy something, they take it home and think, ‘Why did I buy this?’” says Mary Ann Cohen, owner of MAC Fine Art, which has a gallery in Fort Lauderdale and two in Jupiter.

That significant purchase you’re going to make should be completed only after you’ve done a boatload of research, according to Sam Ruth, a Boca Raton art dealer and owner of skygallery.org. Instead, subscribe to an art database like askART, an online resource that allows subscribers to search for artists’ auction records. “Right off the bat, for like $30, you can become a quasi-art appraiser,” Ruth says. “You at the least have a database of what you’re considering.”

Next, Ruth says, begin to understand the differences in the periods of art, and never buy something representative of a period that wasn’t created in that window. For instance, the modernism period ran from 1910 to 1935, so a piece painted in the modernist style in the 1990s will never be considered a serious piece of art.

As part of your research, you’ll also need to understand the provenance of what you’re buying, says Debra Onessimo, owner of the Onessimo Fine Art gallery in Palm Beach Gardens. That provenance should show a history of sales going back to the day when the artist sold it, and it not only shows that the piece is authentic, but it backs up the price you’re about to pay. Not all sellers will have such records, but Onessimo says the good dealers and auction houses will have detailed records.

“You need to work with trusted sources,” Onessimo says, “or you’re going to make costly mistakes.”

MAC Fine Art in Jupiter
MAC Fine Art in Jupiter

Get Into A Relationship

If you’re buying your first big piece of art, chances are you won’t be scouring auctions and galleries in far-flung places. That means you’ll need a professional art dealer working for you, says David Castillo, owner of the Castillo Gallery, one of only two South Florida galleries that shows at Art Basel Miami.

The key to hiring a dealer is to find someone who is more than just a business associate and instead someone who understands your personality and what you’re hoping to accomplish. “You have to have a rapport with that person who’s selling you art,” Castillo says. “You need to know they’re going to call you, not someone else, when that piece you’re looking for comes available.”

If you’re planning to buy something financially significant, Good recommends also employing an art advisor to take you to the fairs. The advisor will make up a plan of attack for the art fairs and then tag along with you, pointing out items of significance, talking you down from that potential spontaneous purchase, and then negotiating on your behalf.

Mary Ann Cohen
Mary Ann Cohen, owner of MAC Fine Art

Don’t Say The ‘I’ World

For many first-time art buyers, they go into it thinking it’s an investment that will no doubt appreciate over time. And the experts we spoke to say, resoundingly, that it’s a mistake to assume that’s true.

“A lot of collectors are concerned that what they’re buying needs to be an investment, but in a lot of art circles, it’s not even an acceptable conversation,” Onessimo says.

Sure, you can research a piece of art’s history and see a record of sales that have made a steady climb upward. But there’s just no telling that its appreciation will continue—or that the trends will last.

Those who ignore this piece of advice could end up unhappy with something they’ve bought for the wrong reasons, says Aleta Smith, wife of sculptor Geoffrey C. Smith and curator of his gallery in downtown Stuart. “If you’re buying something that you’re thinking of as an investment, then you’re making a bad investment,” Smith says. “Make your investments somewhere else, and then go buy yourself a piece of art.”

Debra Onessimo
Debra Onessimo, owner of the Onessimo Fine Art gallery in Palm Beach Gardens

Buy What You Love

The piece that you do end up buying, instead of an investment, needs to be something that brings you joy, something you’ll appreciate every time you look at it, Cohen says.

“Buying art becomes such a personal choice, and you need to fall in love with it before you’re ready to buy,” Cohen says. “People should buy what they want and what they really love, because it should sustain you day in and day out.”

It’s not always so easy to tell if that piece on a gallery wall will look as good over your fireplace, so Smith says to ask to take it for a spin. She says many galleries will allow a piece to be taken out on loan to see how you like it when the morning light from your kitchen brightens it up, or how your guests react to it at a holiday party.

Whatever you do, though, don’t buy art simply to match the couch or the bed sheets, says Good, whose midcentury style home is often filled with art that’s not meant to match the aesthetics.

“Art you love; art you love. That’s what you should buy, whether it matches your house or not,” she says. “Always go back to that simple principle: buy art you love.”

Sculptor Geoffrey C. Smith
Sculptor Geoffrey C. Smith
Smith’s downtown Stuart gallery
Smith’s downtown Stuart gallery