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Art collecting: educate yourself

As you set out to build your art collection, the need for greater knowledge will almost certainly rear its head. According to Mary Rozell, programme director for the Sotheby’s Institute MA in Art Business in New York and author of the recently published The Art Collector’s Handbook: A Guide to Collection Management and Care, the process of learning about art is part of the pleasure of being a collector.

“Collecting is a quest – both a quest to own, but also to learn,” she says.  “It is a process of continual learning – that’s part of what makes collecting so enjoyable.  There are always new artists and market sectors to explore, and this can go on for a lifetime.”

The amount of time you can spend on your quest will inevitably vary depending on your available time and resources. Rozell knows one important collector who reached a point in mid-life where he decided to take a year off from his work, moved his family to London, and devoted himself entirely to the study of art.

“That experience was life-changing for him, and brought his collecting to a whole different level,” she says.  “While not everyone can devote an entire year to education mid-way through one’s career, there are educational opportunities to fit every need.”

One avenue is to sign up for courses such as those offered by Sotheby’s Institute. It is never too late to start taking courses, and these can provide a great foundation for building a collection, but Rozell believes the most important thing is to get out to galleries and exhibitions.

“There is no substitute for learning with the eyes, going to as many gallery shows and exhibitions as possible,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask dealers and curators questions.  And read everything you can – exhibition catalogues, monographs, and critical reviews.”

In addition to this primary engagement with art, she believes it also necessary for collectors to have an understanding of the operations and the nuances of the art business itself – as well as the responsibility and costs involved in owning art.

“Acquiring art successfully requires a certain degree of sophistication not needed for other types of material goods.  Knowing what art to buy, from whom, and when is essential,” she says.

While these kind of things can be learned by trial and error (and often are), as the art world expands and professionalizes, there are more and more educational opportunities and literature available that can help.

“Today, collectors can draw on a number of available resources, including extremely useful courses, both in person and online, on almost any topic: art history, the international art market, art law, art finance, art collection management, valuation, etc.,” says Rozell. “Of course, this is what we specialize in at Sotheby’s Institute, and our offerings expand continually.”

While your growing knowledge will inevitably inform your purchasing, Rozell emphasises that you should buy work you love – work that is visually exciting, moving, or inspiring and intellectually stimulating.

“Art collecting should be a passion pursuit, and in that respect the decision about what to buy is highly personal,” she says.

She adds that at the same time, there are many practical issues to consider: is the work made of materials that will hold up over time?  Will the work retain its value?  Is the piece authentic?  What kind of expenses will be incurred in framing, transporting, installing, and insuring?  Will the work even fit through the door and is there room to display it?  Certain works cannot be exported, and some works, due to nature of their make-up, cannot be transported at all.

“When buying art one thus has to consider both the personal and the practical,” she says.

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Jenny White

Jenny White

Jenny is based in Wales and writes about visual art, finance, food, drink and lifestlye.