Art of the Deal: How to build a personal art collection

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// by Claire Goforth

Starting a personal art collection can be an intimidating undertaking. Between finances, the variety of art on the market and trepidation about making expensive acquisitions that lose value or become eyesores, it can seem easier to buy prints of masterpieces than to acquire original work by lesser-known artists. But with a little bit of creative preparation, anyone can assemble a tasteful personal collection that brings joy and beauty for years to come.

Before you begin making purchases, first develop a sense of your tastes. “I think for someone starting out, you just need to expose yourself to as much art as possible,” says Ben Thompson, curator of collections at Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA). Local institutions like MOCA and Cummer Museum, as well as established art galleries, such as Florida Mining or J. Johnson Gallery and art fairs are great places to define and refine one’s taste by viewing work that has been curated by experts.

For both novice and advanced collectors, art history classes and other events offer opportunities to advance your knowledge. This spring, MOCA is planning a series specifically for collectors. “We’re trying to provide an opportunity for collectors to gain more knowledge on collecting and specific topics… [such as] appraisals, valuations, caring for your works, shipping your works,” says Thompson.

Purchases of valuable artwork come with particular risks, such as unwittingly buying a stolen piece or being duped by a talented forger or a scam. “Ask for recommendations, do your homework. You just want to look at past sales and past clients and make sure everything is reputable. Also, if you’re worried about the authenticity of something that is of high value, you always want to seek an appraisal,” says Thompson.

The International Society of Appraisers and the American Association of Appraisers can refer you to a professional appraiser. Truly significant stolen works are also typically listed in registries, such as the FBI’s National Stolen Art File or the Art Loss Register.

Stories of masterpieces unearthed at yard sales and flea markets generate a lot of interest, but they are far and away the exception. Nevertheless, don’t refrain from buying a piece that you love simply because it’s being sold in a thrift shop. “It’s a needle in a hay stack, but what do you really have to lose if you’re someone who enjoys going to yard sales or estate sales?” Thompson says.

Some items are suited for purchasing sight-unseen online; art isn’t one of them. “There’s a place for internet sales but the place is when it’s a known quality… I wouldn’t necessarily trust works sold on eBay or Craigslist,” says Thompson.

Work by internationally known artists is often an excellent investment, but you can get as much, or more, joy out of work by local or regional artists. Thompson and his wife collect work by artists, such as those with space in CoRK Arts District, who they have the opportunity to know; for them, it brings deeper meaning to the piece. One of his favorites is a painting by artist Carrie M. Keene of her family farm in Orange Park. “It’s just a very sweet painting that I enjoy living with day in and day out,” he says.

As you begin scouting purchases, remember that art most enhances a space when it harmonizes with the décor. “Art does not have to be color-coordinated in a room, but I like it to because it’s more pleasing to the eye,” says interior designer Melanie Harley, owner of Fleming Island’s Posh Home Designs. For timeless appeal, minimize trendy acquisitions. “It’s okay to do on trend, but stick to smaller pieces,” she says.

Collecting art is similar to having a lifelong love affair with objects that adorn your living environment. If a piece doesn’t stick with you after you walk away, it is probably better left for another collector. Thompson says, “The consistent advice I’ve heard from seasoned collectors is you always want to collect what you love.”