Collecting art on a budget can be daunting. The galleries are snide, the auctions confusing, the whole apparatus seems to have been set up as a conspiracy against the decent, normal, interested punter. Well, it needn’t be. Here are a few pointers to make sense of the process that separates you from your hard-earned money and connects you with a work of art. The fundamental thing is to know your own mind. What do you want from a work of art? There are no wrong answers here. You have a passion for all things Victorian, you want a bit more colour in the living room, you are excited by abstract expressionism. But if you try to buy something without a clear sense of what you want, you will be susceptible to the basest sales techniques and most likely come away with dross. Once you know what you want you can start finding out about it by going to museums or reading books or surfing the internet.
It is a good idea to have plenty of dry runs, go to an auction or an art fair with an imaginary budget and a camera to take photos of your non-purchases, see what you think when you leaf through your photographs a week later. Relief?
Remember to look for the best things your money can buy. Looking for a bargain may be popular on the TV but it is not a good idea if you have to live with the results. Look for a bargain and you are likely to find a problem: bad paintings by great artists are still bad paintings. On a budget, buying the best you can afford usually means steering away from names and often means drawings rather than paintings.
While it is very tempting to try to make pots of money from contemporary art, remember it is gambling and you are likely to lose your cash and be condemned to live with your mistake. Contemporary art is actually a great place to buy on a budget but you had better be sure about your purchase because mostly you won’t be able to cash it in, whereas a drawing by Sickert will always have a market value.
Once you know what you want, where do you go to get it? Auctions and art dealers are the principal places, but there is an enormous variety of both. The truth is that if you really want to find the best thing your money can buy, you are going to have to look at everything because both auctions and dealers will have the goods. Because where you should go depends so much on what you want, I am going to suggest a couple of case studies.
The budget collector of Modern British art will want to keep an eye on these auctions: Christie’s South Kensington, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Bloomsbury’s. You can do it all on the internet so there’s no need to subscribe to the catalogues, but you should always view the sales wherever possible. Never, ever buy anything on the basis of a photograph. It looks easy, but the last time I tried it the drawing I bought turned out to have been done on a paper tablecloth.
Aside from the auctions, there are also excellent dealers such as Abbott & Holder in Museum Street, which has a huge stock of reasonably priced works. The best place to access the smaller dealers is at art fairs like the Watercolour Fair, 20/21 at the Royal College, and Art 2007 in Islington. A good trick for art fairs is to find which dealers’ taste really agree with yours and stay in touch with them. It’s easiest when they have a website, as with modernbritishartists.co.uk.
Modern British art is trendy but if you have broader tastes that stretch back into the 19th century, with persistence you will find excellent things. Try the same auctions but also try some of the regional auction houses. A shortcut is to sign up to the Antiques Trade Gazette website (antiquestradegazette.com), which lists so many auctions it will make you weep. If it leaves you unsated, you can always look at French or American auctions too. Remember that with older things condition can be a real issue and it does not take much to run up a £1,000 bill, so always get a condition report and read it carefully. On the flipside, poor condition can scare the competition away.
Contemporary is a lot more difficult. You can buy from the auctions but you will never find the cutting edge there. You can try buying from art schools: there are the MA shows that Charles Saatchi haunts, and some Masters courses, like the Royal College, also have interim shows. If you find the next Jenny Saville, then pounce, but generally you won’t. No, you need to buy from galleries. Again, art fairs, this time Frieze, Zoo, Pulse, etc., can provide an easy way to see a lot of galleries, but you will also need to keep in touch on a more day-to-day basis. If you want to collect in the field, that should be a pleasure. You should read art magazines like Frieze and ArtForum, and go to the trendy mid-range galleries like Corvi Mora, Greengrassi, Modern Art, but also keep a keen eye on spaces for emerging artists like Paradise Row in the East End or Allsopp Contemporary in Notting Hill. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but when you deal with galleries, always plan on spending 15 per cent less than the asking price. Offer maybe 25 per cent under and then come up. It’s unlikely to win you many friends at Victoria Miro or White Cube, but in the smaller galleries it is well worth it.
Good luck and good hunting.
Jack Wakefield is an independent art dealer and consultant (firstname.lastname@example.org).