How To Work The Art Market

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How To Work The Art Market

Words by Mr Ossian Ward

5 March 2015

Interested in collecting, but intimidated to start? Let our man on the inside show you the ropes.

The world of contemporary art is glamorous and high-octane, liberally fuelled with champagne at glitzy museum launches and riding on the hype of ever-soaring auction records. If Mr Andy Warhol could create his own artistic empire by holding extended casting sessions and non-stop parties in his New York “Factory”, while Mr Julian Schnabel does it all in his pyjamas, then becoming the next squillionaire artrepreneur doesn’t seem as if it should be hard work.

The real art market, of course, is messier and harder to penetrate than this (unless you have the funds of a mega-collector at your disposal), but is no less exciting an arena for making a genuine artistic discovery at a lower price point and for finally being able to hang that long sought-after work on your wall.

As with any seemingly internecine game of thrones, the art market is better navigated with a degree of insider knowledge and some general collecting intellect, never forgetting not to hate the players or upset the kings along the way.

1. Trust your “eye”

This is not a mystical, all-seeing third eye that picks out collectable works to purchase. This is your eye. But before you bow to any so-called experts (such as me), you should be secure in your own taste for what is good or bad. This need not involve hours of fruitless research in art history or theory books, but it does require a modicum of preparation or commitment: a subscription to an art magazine perhaps (try ArtReview, frieze or Artforum in that order) or a weekly routine of gallery trawling to train your aesthetic fitness. (Failing that you could just bow to the so-called experts and try a beginner’s guide to contemporary art – such as my book, Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art) The more familiar you are with the current practices of art – which artists are hot right now; whether they are classified as “post-internet” or “post-studio”, for example (see the art-speak glossary below for definitions) – the more likely it is that you will be taken seriously in a gallery context and the more you will believe in yourself and your choices.

2. Don’t collect with your ears

While it’s valuable to have a friend in the biz to turn to in matters of art appreciation, don’t get sucked in by the whim of collecting trends or the constantly changing winds of the art world. A few years ago the word was that the city of Cluj and all things Romanian were the next big thing, just one of many tips that never came to pass. Don’t always believe the cheerleading noise around a bevvy of emerging artists either, especially those that are being “flipped” (bought and re-sold very quickly, often at auction) and talked up or down on scurrilous websites such as ArtRank. Besides, by the time you hear the hype, prices will already be spiking, so you have to team up hearsay with other more established markers, such as whether an artist you are following is about to be taken on by a bigger gallery, or is being given a big break in an international group show curated by some bigwig.

3. Always view art offline

Nothing compares to seeing a work of art in real life, so never buy without seeing something in the flesh first. Digital collecting is a risk unless you know what you are doing or the work in question is a small, low-value print. (Admittedly, much global art business is done via jpeg or supposedly on Instagram, but generally it’s by those who have seen similar works elsewhere.) Paddle8 is a good platform for strictly online auction purchases, and others are cropping up all the time, such as Artuner. However, your local small single-owner or artist-run art galleries are still by far the best places to buy new work by up-and-coming artists. More established “primary” galleries such as White Cube, Sprüth Magers, Sadie Coles HQ or Lisson Gallery where I now ply my trade, are those that work directly with artists and in their best interests, whereas “secondary” dealers tend to hawk whatever material comes their way.

4. Walk the walk and talk the talk

While there is a strict pecking order in the art world (ultra-rich collectors at the top, followed by curators, gallerists, artists, critics and everyone else below that), you can gain respect and valuable friendships by educating yourself in the language and by sociably doing the rounds of gallery openings. Private views and art fairs are great places to chat (though not everyone will have time) and these discussions can quickly mark you down as a serious collector, even if you don’t yet have serious wealth. Doing time up and down the aisles of an art fair is a rite of passage or penance and is an invaluable experience into how buying can become frenzied (think vast art supermarkets with wide-eyed sales staff). Fairs are not for shy and retiring wallflowers – you have to be confident enough to request prices and not be offended if a work is reserved or unavailable to the likes of us. It’s all part of the hustle.

5. Negotiate to accumulate

It sounds medieval, but you can barter and haggle over art. Writers, for example, regularly part with essays in exchange for small works and artists swap all the time. Galleries expect some price negotiation, even if only over small shipping costs or the terms of payment, which can even be made in installments. Smaller galleries may not look too kindly on your trying to bat the price down of a work already worth less than £1,000, but many dealers will consider about a 10% discount if they believe it will bring repeat business. Besides which, they can afford it: the art world is currently estimated to be worth £40bn globally. More important: find a budget and stick to it. Explain what your constraints are, as galleries are used to collectors having a ring-fenced pot of money for acquisitions.

6. Re-sell but don’t tell

Just as you don’t take market gossip as the golden egg, don’t brag about your art world conquests because you have sold on a work for more than you originally bought it. This might play well to your hedgefund mates but no one in the art trade will be impressed with your attempts to beat them at their own business model. Having said that, even inexpensive editions can eventually come up for sale at auction and command decent prices if an artist gains traction or doesn’t produce too many similar print runs. In other words, play the long game. Art is not an obvious investment with short-term gains, no matter what some would have you believe. Even those buying at Picasso level realise that they are in it for the long haul and that only time and art history can produce dead certs.

Getting Started


Buy unique pieces by young artists with a future beyond art school – such as Mses Helen Marten, Analia Saban, Samara Scott and Alicja Kwade; and Messrs Eddie Peake and Ethan Cook – or those established artists of older generations who have been neglected and might be due a career resurgence.


Make sure it fits in your house, make sure it will last and won’t fall apart and if it is a video or has moving parts that they can be re-supplied or replaced if broken.


There are thriving art galleries everywhere at almost every level, so begin with the young ones in London (such as Seventeen or Laura Bartlett), New York (Bureau, Artists Space), Beijing (Arrow Factory) and Mexico City (Proyectos Monclova), to name but a very few.


Cities such as Berlin, Los Angeles, Vienna, Warsaw and others have organised gallery weekends or set times of the year when the art world revolves around a major art fair, with evermore crazy affairs popping up such as the Paramount Ranch fair set in an old Hollywood Western set.


Only buy because you love a piece, not because you think it might appreciate in value.

Art-speak glossary

The art world has a patois of its very own and it behooves you, as a budding collector, to be familiar with some of the latest terms describing current trends or artistic practices. Just so you can sound as if you know what you’re talking about.

Anthropocene: We all live in Anthropocene time, the geological era when man’s activities have begun to have a global impact on the earth’s ecosystems, thus making it the subject of much debate among artists and exhibition makers, as well as some of our greatest philosophical minds.

International art English: This sort of gobbledygook or pseudo-intellectual blather is prevalent in the art world but ought not to be encouraged. It mainly festers in gallery press releases, which are peppered with nonsensical words such as “dialectic”, “paradigm”, “deconstruction” and “discourse”.

Metamodernism: Broadly speaking this is what happens when the irony and anything-goes spirit of postmodernism becomes old hat. This could be called the new naivety, or the new sincerity in art. In short, metamodernism is a romantic reaction to the crisis and calamity of the world.

Post-internet: Also known briefly as the New Aesthetic, this kind of work is what occurs when artists take digital work produced on or about the internet “meatside” into a real-world gallery. We are now seemingly post-everything: post-studio, post-black and even post-postmodern (see also Metamodernism).

Relational aesthetics: This idea was coined by a French curator to describe performance art that uses social interactions and shared experiences with an audience to tell a story rather than simply placing objects in a space. Think outside of the box.

Zombie formalism: A pejorative description for the swathes of cool, minimally abstract paintings being produced by a legion of hip artists, which are all starting to look much the same. The phenomenon has given rise to the practice of collectors and speculators “flipping” or re-selling works to try to make fast bucks off these young Turks.

What to wear

Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni