How to Buy Art Like a Collector

Anyone can buy decoration for a wall, but it takes some knowledge to choose artwork like a real art collector. You don’t need an art history degree or a Swiss bank account to purchase high quality art, but you do need to take the time to educate yourself.

Look toward contemporary artists, which are present day artists. They are making artwork that deals with current issues in a multitude of styles and media. Contemporary art tends to be a good first art buy because many pieces are affordable and fit most tastes. Typically, important artworks from an old master or well-known Modern artists, such as Picasso, are the preserve of museums or established collectors, while art made by young or emerging artists is a good opportunity to build your own art collection.

Annie Wharton, director of Annie Wharton Los Angeles (AWLA), a gallery located in West Hollywood's iconic Pacific Design Center — designed by architect Cesar Pelli, FAIA — tells her clients that, “emerging artists are plentiful, but emerging artists who will become established artists are far fewer.” She advises everyone “to do the research, look at the trajectory of the artist, and ask questions.”


Develop your eye by reading up on art and artists who are making contemporary work. Visit museums and invest in some art books and magazines. Many institutions offer classes about their exhibitions, and some have even started young collector groups. By joining, you can meet other interested art buyers and local artists.

Attend international art fairs where many galleries participate. Here, you can see all types of artwork and meet gallery directors who sell art that you may be interested in. Research web-based galleries, who frequently attend art fairs and sell artwork online. These outlets make buying art simple, especially if you live far away from a museum, and provide all the information you need to make informed choices.

Meet artists at open studio tours in your hometown. The more art you see, the better your eye will become. You can expand your own tastes, and you become an educated art buyer.

Investment versus Gut Feeling

A piece of art may be a love affair, but it can be a real investment with a high rate of return. Always check the resume and sales record of an artist you are interested in. If the artist received a Masters Degree in Fine Art or attended a prestigious art residency, such as The MacDowell Colony or Skowhegan, her/his price may increase more over time than a self-taught artist. Artists who are represented by important galleries or who have received special grants/awards may also be better investments.

However, many curators and art collectors are wary of buying artwork solely to make money. Long-time art collector, Jane Hart, who is also Curator of Exhibitions at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood in Florida, recommends that collectors “buy what resonates for them - something where they have the feeling that they just ‘have’ to have it.”

Art is an acquisition you ultimately want to live with, and that expresses an idea you love or have respect for. If it is only to make money, in the end, Hart says, “It’s a gamble just like any other investment.”


Artwork like photographs, prints and some sculpture are produced in editions, which means that they are duplicated identically. Editions may vary in size, with smaller editions, or fewer reproductions, being more valuable than larger ones. Each piece is numbered in the order it was fabricated, such as “5/20.” The first number is the order in which it was made, and the second number is how many pieces make up the total edition. Most prints of the same edition are of equal value.


Even if you do not have a specific place you want to display your newly purchased work, ask questions about the artwork’s overall dimensions with and without a frame or stand. Art pieces are measured height by width, as well as by depth if three-dimensional. The precise dimensions are important when framing pieces and for storage.

Though there is no guarantee that your first art purchase will be worth millions in ten years, investing in a young artist’s career is rewarding. No matter what you spend, Wharton explains, “just because your budget doesn't allow you to shop at Gagosian [a blue-chip gallery] should not preclude you from owning high quality works from wonderful artists.”

By Charong Chow