How to buy art

Expert tips on how to pick the best piece for your sitting room wall

Good, bad or mediocre – there’s a lot of art out there to choose from. But deciding which piece will make the cut to hang on your living room wall, or which will make a good return on your investment (if you’re that way inclined), is a whole other matter entirely. To get the low down on where to start when it comes to buying art, I sat down with three industry experts to find out where to head for the best advice and inspiration, as well as the places to find the coolest new artists online and off-line to add to your growing collection.

How to choose art

Georgia Spray, an art consultant who previously worked at places like Christie’s and White Cube, recognised that there was ‘a certain type of elitism. It was very cliquey and lots of people don’t know how to break into that world.’ To combat this, she set up Partnership Editions to work with emerging and mid-level artists to produce unique works of art at accessible prices for buyers.

First up, she recommends not considering buying art as an investment. ‘Start not with thinking about what to collect, but what you like,’ she advises. ‘The art market is incredibly unpredictable, so starting an art collection with the idea that it’ll make a good investment takes the joy out of it and it quite often doesn’t pay off. The joy of art is really the idea that you’re going to have it forever. We live in such an age of throwing things away, and images have become so fleeting. But art is something that lasts, and good artworks are ones you won’t get bored with.’

Mary-Alice Stack, CEO of Own Art, the organisation supported by Arts Council England that provides interest-free loans to art buyers, agrees. ‘Look beyond the Warhol Marilyn Monroe reproductions that you find in show homes and magazine spreads,’ she says. ‘Scratch the surface of the art world and you’ll be spoiled for choice with unique pieces that reflect your taste.’

However, Spray also advises against simply choosing something that’ll look good with your sofa. ‘People should collect based on the artwork itself, rather than where it’s going to go and what it’s going to match. More often than not you’ll find the pieces you’re drawn to do relate to your home, as your home is a curation of your taste anyway.’

Where to find new art

Places like the Affordable Art Fair are a great place to start. But if you don’t want to wait until the next one, then there are other ways to find your masterpiece. ‘Online platforms for buying art are currently at the best they’ve ever been,’ says Kate Higginson, Managing Director of Print Club London, an website specialising in affordable, unique screen prints. ‘It’s an easy way for people who perhaps don’t feel comfortable going to a gallery to buy art.’ She also advises checking out the degree shows of top art schools. ‘They’re open to the public and a brilliant chance to find something new and from a recent graduate. Plus, these are often priced really well so great for entry level art buying.’ If you fancy checking one out, websites like Artlyst list all upcoming graduate shows.

Even if the thought of entering an art gallery and asking about prices fills you will dread, Stack emphasises that they really are the best way to get to know new artists and their work. ‘Talk to staff in galleries and ask questions about the artists they represent and what the work is about,’ she encourages. ‘Galleries love to talk about their artists and will be able to give you a deeper insight into their process. And once a gallery knows what you like, you’ll always be at the front of their mind when something interesting becomes available.’

If you want to do the leg work yourself, Instagram can be your best friend in the hunt for great art. And you’ll be in good company: the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report (2018) highlighted that 79 per cent of art buyers under 35 used Instagram to discover new artists. ‘Look up a specific hashtag on Instagram to see if anything interesting pops up,’ suggests Stack. #ArtistsonInstagram and #ArtStudio are two good ones to start out with, but art magazines also curate work for people to browse using their own hashtags, like #SomewhereMagazine and #BurnMagazine. ‘Get to know good art-related Instagram accounts, too, which promote emerging artists,’ Stack says. ‘Visual.Fodder and Collecteurs are two good ones to follow.’

However, Spray warns that Instagram has its downsides, too. ‘It can be brilliant but people shouldn’t think that if an artist has loads of followers they’re necessarily a really good artist. Some brilliant artists don’t have very active instagram accounts. So use Instagram as a research tool but don’t be too distracted by the noise that it can create. That can just be hype.’

Should I buy an original or a print?

One area where new art buyers become unstuck is buying prints versus buying original works. So what’s the difference? ‘Original works of art come in two forms: those that are completely unique [one-off], and others, like photographic prints, that come in the form of multiples [limited editions] and are produced as a series,’ explains Stack. ‘Artists tend to identify each multiple with a number and signature. It is common practice for the maker to produce a limited edition of the image, which means there is a fixed quantity. The tools used to create the print are often destroyed once the edition has been completed.

‘Beware of prints that don’t have an edition number or where the edition is more than 150 copies, or which are described as “giclée” prints, as this usually indicates that the prints are mass produced and have little or no value as works of art.’

Higginson agrees. ‘I would avoid digital printed works,’ she says. ‘Giclée can be an affordable way to buy art but essentially it’s just a colour photocopy of work. You can buy original works and screen prints which are handmade for the same price, and these are original works as each contains its own unique identity and small details which will never be the same in another copy.’

How to invest in art

If you’re really interested in one day getting a good return on your investment, unfortunately there’s no set formula for becoming the next art impresario.‘ The best type of art to buy for an investment is something you really love,’ advises Spray. ‘Look at people who have just come out of art school, rather than those already represented by a gallery. But degree shows are when artists are at their most experimental, and they often change a lot in the years after. So it’s worth looking at artists who are a couple of years out as well, and keeping an eye on the ones you like.’

Stack agrees that it’s difficult. ‘If your primary motivation is to buy art for investment purposes, then you’ll need to spend some time researching the market and taking advice from a range of sources, depending on what kind of work you are interested in buying.’ She suggests the ArtTactic website as a useful starting point for people interested in how the emerging and global art market works.

Finally, Higginson has some good practical advice for prospective investors. ‘Always ask the gallery for information on the artist, and write it down. Then stick it in an envelope on the back of the frame. The artwork may have no huge monetary value now but you never know in the future. Keeping information on its provenance really is key.’