How To Start An Art Collection

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How To Start An Art Collection

Words by Ms Susannah Butter

22 March 2018

A beginner’s guide to buying fine art without necessarily spending a fortune.

There is satisfaction in acquisition, a fact we probably don’t need to tell you. Whether it is clothes, watches or cars, collections are a source of pride, a projection of the self. Nowhere is this more the case than when it comes to art. There are as many reasons to collect art as there are art collections. The Medicis, Mr Leonardo Da Vinci and Mr Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart all amassed impressive bodies of work as part of a drive to foster a creative society. Later on, collectors such as Mr Paul Durand-Ruel bought the Impressionists’ work to make sure they could survive (indeed, Mr Pierre-Auguste Renoir said they couldn’t have survived without him). Ms Peggy Guggenheim discovered Mr Jackson Pollock when he was a lowly carpenter at the family gallery.

Owning a piece of art should give you a rush of delight. Art is a pursuit driven by feeling, so the right piece will not only lift your home (and your Instagram feed), it will make you happy. Committing to just one piece of art can feel overwhelming for the entry-level collector. However, if you think of it as part of a body of work, it sets you free. Collections are by definition broad, so you can buy that print and later on complement it with an oil painting, or trade them both in for a bronze. Even the most prolific collections started small, so take a breath and let our experts guide you.


Ms Michelle McMullan, who works in the Impressionist and modern art department at Christie’s in London, says the most common mistake is to rush. “Often, I see people who start building a collection quickly and within a few years they are already selling the first thing they bought, once they are confident in their taste,” she says.

Most galleries allow clients to borrow paintings and try them for size at home. Ms Tanya Baxter, who runs Tanya Baxter Contemporary, an art advisory and gallery that handles works by Messrs Salvador DalìAndy Warhol and Marc Quinn, compares collecting to buying a property. “You should be buying at a comfortable level with an overall view of what you want to achieve,” she says. “So, it’s important to see if you like it before committing.”

Even if you are buying as an investor, you will have to live with the painting, says Ms Sarah Monk, head of the London Art Fair. It should spark more joy than looking at your bank balance. “The core motive should be wanting that piece,” she says. “You want something that provokes a response in you.”

Mr Charlie Phillips, who runs Eleven Fine Art in Twickenham, southwest London, says: “Don’t buy a work of art if you’re going to wonder about its financial value every time you look at it. The art market is the biggest unregulated market in the world. There is no such thing as a sure thing.”


“Buy with your heart, but think wisely,” says Ms Zoe Klemme, Christies’s co-head of day sale, post-war and contemporary art. This means looking across different disciplines. The best collections are broad and if you look beyond paintings you could get a bargain, says Ms McMullan. “A Picasso painting might cost millions, but you can buy Picasso ceramics for £1,000,” she says.

Mr Murray Macaulay, Christie’s head of prints and multiples, recommends prints as entry-level pieces. “Prints remain the art world’s best kept secret,” he says. “Serious works can be acquired for under £10,000. David Hockney and Joan Miró are popular at the moment.”

If you are set on a blockbuster name, look for minor works. “A drawing is a great place to start because you can see the genesis of a larger, more important work,” says Ms McMullan.

You will be up against stiff competition – bigger names are more popular with advisors to collectors. Mr Phillips says he was recently at an auction at Sotheby’s and the man next to him was bidding on a work by Mr Gerhard Richter. “He turned to his consultant and said, ‘Who is that artist again?’”

If you want to spend less, Ms McMullan recommends “looking for their contemporaries, whose styles are similar but they didn’t rise as high in art history. The Belgian artist Emile Claus is similar to Monet, but half the price. If you like Surrealism, look abroad. Czech Surrealism gives you more for your money.”

Once you have the work, galleries will recommend ways to present it. Ms Baxter provides hangers. “We recently flew one to Oman to hang a huge painting commissioned specially for our client,” she says. “Then he went to Gstaad and got a day’s skiing.”


Go to as many auctions, private galleries and art fairs as you can. “There’s always a wide selection at auctions because it hasn’t been curated for one particular person, so you get to see a good mix,” says Ms McMullan. “If you are searching online, websites such as, and are more reliable and have good selections. Sotheby’s stages a number of online sales, where prices start at £100. It also holds special sales of contemporary art, curated by leading figures in other industries, where estimates start at about £300.

Mr Charles Saatchi remembers he bought Ms Cindy Sherman in her first exhibition, a low-profile group show he went to simply out of curiosity.

Make friends with gallerists. “Once we learn what you like we can recommend items and keep people in the loop,” says Ms McMullan. Ms Baxter likes to take her clients to key shows to educate them and looks out for pieces they might be interested in.


“Provenance is key,” says Ms Klemme.

At auction houses and art fairs, everything should have been vetted by specialists. Look for a catalogue resumé or, with dead artists, the list of their estate. Ms McMullan issues a note of caution about buying on the internet. “I often hear from people who think they have found a bargain on eBay and it turns out to be fake,” she says.

The contemporary art market is healthy, but Ms Baxter warns, “You want to make sure the artist you are buying is solid and doesn’t disappear. As long as you are buying artists who have been well researched, it’s safe. When we sell blue-chip artists we will provide pages of provenance – the last five years of auction prices, estimates coming up. If they are mid-career or emerging, we will show the number of years they have sold and at which level.”

If you are buying photographs, check how many editions have been produced to see how rare they are, says Ms Jude Hull, Christie’s head of sale, photographs. Messrs Wolfgang Tillmans and Richard Learoyd are sought after at the moment.


Don’t accept the first price you are given. “There is always a conversation to be had with gallerists at fairs,” says Ms Monk. “They are open to supporting collectors.”

Check a database such as the Blouin Art Sales Index to see what similar works cost. If you have your heart set on something but need support, schemes such as the Art Council’s Own Art offers interest-free loans up to £25,000 for buying art.

If you don’t get the first piece you bid for, you are entering dangerous territory. “When you lose out at an auction, there’s a real desire to get the next piece you bid for, so don’t get too carried away if you can’t afford it,” says Ms McMullan.

Going over the price limit doesn’t mean you’re being ripped off, though. “The guides are just that,” says Ms McMullan. “If they say £5,000 to £8,000 and you go over, it doesn’t mean you have paid too much,” she says.

“I’ve seen people get carried away,” says Ms Monk. “Auctions create that call to action. You feel you must have it."

Just make sure everyone is on side. Ms Baxter has seen people pay over the odds. “We want clients to come back and build collections, but we don’t want them to get in trouble with their wives or husbands and be banned, so it has to be thought through,” she says.

It doesn’t have to be for ever. Collections are fluid. “It’s all right if your taste changes,” says Ms McMullan. ”You can sell things on in a few years, and get rid of things to buy other items that work with the mix.”

Works of art

Illustrations by Mr Paul Reid