The Trap of the Contemporary Art Bargain and Other Misconceptions


When I started buying art over a decade ago, I made a lot of mistakes. I was eager to have some real art on my walls (as opposed to posters or cheap reproductions poorly framed, which tend to hurt a room more than helping it). I did not have much money to invest and I had an untrained eye. I also never thought I was going to become a collector because, back then “collector” sounded too big of a word to me (check my types of contemporary art collectors' post here). I also thought the world of galleries, artists and dealers was an impenetrable circle. It occurred to me that perhaps, I might not be able to mix cutting-edge contemporary art with my décor, accessories and lifestyle, and how was I going to ever be able to afford unique and extraordinary works of art by recognized artists? As time went on, though, I learned that I could be an art collector, acquire extraordinary art, integrate it with everything in my home, including the kids. All my assumptions turned out to be completely false.


Today, a lot of my clients come to me because they have made the same mistakes that I did. And they want help, guidance and a trained eye that can offer ideas and solutions without being biased. I’m not the artist, I’m not the gallery that represents the artist, I’m not an auction house and I’m not selling my own stuff to anybody. I certainly have very specific taste, and have developed a coherent art collection including a variety of contemporary art, both from emerging and established artists, ranging from photography to acrylic on wood to oil on canvas to mixed media—all of which manages to work well together. I’m also sensitive to my clients’ preferences, even though our tastes may differ a little (or a lot).


A good piece of art is a good piece of art even if it’s diametrically opposed to my own preferences and whether that piece is worth $1,000 or $1,000,000. A common mistake that I have found people commit over and over—purchasing art offered as a “bargain” without really considering how it will it fit with your home, or your style and/or personality. Or if the “bargain” was done without research, and isn’t really such a great deal after all.  Another misconception is that a contemporary artist will get his/her glory when he/she dies. Hence, the “bargain” issue of buying something from an artist who is relatively old, hasn’t seen much success while alive, but who knows if, after they die, he or she receives the recognition he/she deserves. I don’t think that will happen so much these days for a variety of reasons. Generally (and please note there are always a few exceptions), great artists are discovered in the earlier phases of their careers when they are young. They get the recognition early on at art school, or are spotted by art curators, or they get signed up by good galleries, or a major collector buys something from them. On top of this, the speed at which information travels these days has nothing to do with the days of Van Gogh. If there’s someone with great talent creating art in a remote corner of the world, someone will almost always notice it.

An artist who has been recognized by the critics, is acquired by museums, has memorable shows and has an established market at the time of his death has a chance of seeing his work increase in value over time. However, because the contemporary art world has grown so, so much and so many talents have emerged, it’s fair to think that in the future, the majority of the artists that we are crazy about today will become only footnotes in art history books.

An art purchase should not be made based solely upon “bargains”, or whether or not the “bargain” will become a treasure when the artist dies. Nor should the decision be based on trends, fads, or collective reactions. Buying art shouldn’t be made based solely on financial reasons either. Art is not security. Art is emotional. It’s supposed to be enjoyed. That’s how and why human beings create art.

If I happen to find something I love by an artist who is young and unknown, an inexpensive piece that goes well with my collection, I will buy it without thinking if the artist will become famous, or whether the piece will gain value over time. By the same token, if an artist is recognized and loved by museums, critics and power collectors, and the price point is high and I don’t love the work, then I won’t buy. It will not make me happy, even though the value of the artwork could increase over time. Bottom line for me--I have to really love the art and know I can live with it, if not for the rest of my life, at least for a good chunk of it.  


I believe that although there’s no perfect formula for buying art, a successful, “no-regrets” decision-making process looks more or less like this:

(1) love the piece and understand some of its background (or the creative process behind it),

(2) do some research on the artist;

(3) ask around: don’t be afraid of contacting galleries, art consultants or friends who are art connoisseurs;

(4) understand the space where you want to display it and the impact or visual stimulation that you want to create and

(5) do some soul-searching and see what it is exactly that you want that piece to give to you in the long term. These steps can be very easily followed and they ultimately should lead to having a great collection that can be enjoyed for many, many years.