The Artful Collector: Why Collecting Art is Such a Hard Job

Someone in a chat room I used to contribute to, once made an unforgettable statement: “it’s easy to collect art if you have money!”

Hah!  How I wish money were the answer!  And that a fat wallet could make all the hard work of collecting go away!

Collecting art is easy only if you have no taste, don’t plan on bequeathing your art to anyone, and have infinite patience.

Let’s review these criteria in reverse order.  COLLECTING IS HARD, because . . .

  1. It’s Harder to Wait than to Pounce

You’ve heard the expression “the early bird catches the worm”?  Well, this is not always true.  The early bird, in fact, can make “emerging” artists very nervous and cause even established artists to think twice about selling.  Patience is a virtue in collecting art, not pouncing.  But because stalking the prey can be tedious, many collectors just want to “get to it.”  This not only scares artists, it also (no surprise) makes the prices go up.  🙁

A contemporary artist is typically defined in the art world as one who is still alive, whether they are at the beginning of their career (“emerging”), at the height of their career (mature, or “established”), or post/career – retired (but possibily still painting).  If you are a collector of commercial art/illustration art, these categories can radically affect the way you – and the artist – value the art.

Collectors who consider themselves trail-blazers and like the idea of discovering new talent, can produce lots of stress for newbie artists.  They can be flattered, even awed into selling….and then go crazy trying to figure out if they gave away their art too cheaply.  The next collector to swoop in gets punished for the deeds of their predecessors.

By the time an artist has made a few sales, they are wary . . . and can get suspicious when a buyer is too quick to pounce.  They learn how to be cagey about prices, and when approached by buyers who buy fast and run….can very artfully slow the process down to a crawl.   It’s very hard to contain your enthusiasm in the face of artists who are indecisive, and take forever to commit to a price.  I’ve gotten many gray hairs that way (you just can’t see them!)

If you are a collector who decides quickly, and acts on passion, there is also more at stake than simply making decisions you’ll regret.  If you are buying art from an amateur or a professional who has never sold their art before, you are not just buying art from someone who doesn’t know what price to set on it.  You are buying artwork with no established market value.  Indeed, by your purchase YOU are setting the benchmark for its value.  And it is a benchmark that many artists do not trust collectors to establish.  No matter what price you offer, whether it’s lower or higher than they are expecting, the artist will not trust you.  If you offer them less, they may feel you are exploiting their lack of sales experience so as to buy high quality art for less.  If you offer them more, they get worried that they have set their expectations too low. Indeed, because they are fearful of letting their innocence give collectors the upper hand, they will feel compelled to counter your offer with a higher price, just on the basis of your interest alone! (and for more on this topic, see my upcoming blog on “artists I don’t represent”!)

2.   Nobody loves “My Precious” Like I Do 

No one will ever value this art the way I do, you’re thinking, but sooner or later you find yourself hoping they will.  Comes the morning you wake up, look around, and see your collection as an asset with value  . . . that’s the morning you start wondering what will become of it after you are under the dirt.

I’m not talking about worries about theft, water-filled basements, or cats shredding canvas.  Insurance is for anyone with anything of value to protect, and easily gotten.  Not so when it comes to finding a final resting place for your dozens of precious paintings, figurines or signed collector cards after you’re gone.

I’m not talking about downsizing, “pruning” or “refining” a collection.  If that’s your aim, I (or any number of others) can suggest ways to sell what you’ve got when you’re living.  If what you’ve got is worth selling.  NO.  Nor am I talking about collectors who really don’t care if their collections are sold off, along with whatever other household goods that no relatives want, after their death.  Just call the dealers in, they’ll make short shrift of anything you’ve taken years to acquire during your lifetime – never fear!  NO.

I’m talking about those collectors (you know who you are) who can’t bear the thought of parting with a single painting in your collection while you are still alive to possess it. I’m talking about collectors whose dearest desire is to keep their collections, whatever they may comprise, INTACT –  so that others can enjoy what took a lifetime of obsession, time and money to put together.    In fact, as a collector confided to me just yesterday on the phone, “even the thought of contacting an auction house makes me queasy”.

But if parting with your collection is not an option – then what?  Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a final resting place for even a moderately sized art collection?  Trust me, I know.  Maybe you’re thinking “I can give the collection to my children (relatives, etc)” . . . “I can donate it to a University, Museum, Library, some public institution, etc etc” . . . Have you actually investigated those possibilities?  I have.  It ain’t simple, and it ain’t easy.  And if I am telling you this…someone with the connections and savvy to make such things happen . . . I hope you are listening. 

If your children are anything like MY children (and I have 3, grown) they’ll have 3-4 “favorites” and a passing interest in maybe 2-3 others.  That’s 7 each, or 21 paintings, let’s say, out of (where we once were) 750 artworksThat left us with 729 to worry about, should anything happen to us.  Maybe you don’t have as small a family as we do.  Maybe you have relatives waiting in line, hands-outstretched, practically begging to be remembered in your will for your small (say, about 25, and counting -) collection of BUG-themed horror art (feel free to substitute a brief description of your collection here) but I do not.

Cover illustration for "Fear Itself" edited by Jeff Gelb, Warner Books 1995
Cover illustration for “Fear Itself”  Jeff Gelb, ed. for Warner Books 1995. Just one of about 2 dz similarly themed beauties  in Jane’s expanding “hive”

They would be very happy, however, accepting the ¢¢¢ these artworks would bring, if they can ever be converted into cash.

We looked into one likely resting place, Bowling Green University.  Famous for their Center of Popular Culture Studies, they are the home of The Ray & Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies. They were one of the venues for the tour of selections from our art collection, c. 1999-2000.  So we flew in for the opening of the exhibit and gratefully accepted a tour of the library.  They had hundreds of SF/F books, full collections of SF/F pulps,magazines, comics, toys, even action figures.  Why not ART?  The talk turned to donations.  They had no room . . . plenty of land, however.  If we were interested in first giving them 3-4 million to build the physical structure to hold the art.

That’s how we discovered that this was the norm.  That it was not going to be possible to just “donate” the whole of our art and/or books collection to ANY institution without a hefty monetary contribution to go along with the tangible property.  Bits and pieces, here and there, maybe.  But the whole Frank Collection?  We aren’t that wealthy.  Curation, administration, preservation, and exhibition – those things ‘cost’ and any time an institution takes in a collection, they must not only find a place to house it, they must pay for its upkeep . . .  and that means personnel, space and money.  And if (as many have suggested) we wanted to establish our own museum, it would take everything we had – with nothing left for our children and grandchildren.  Plus we’d need 40 million more.  We’re not Paul Allen.

Giving things away is not easy.  Even if you have alot of moolah.  Libraries and Museums are picky.  They don’t, as a rule, have much fondness for commercial art, SF/F/H illustrations in particular.  🙁 Getting stuff appraised takes time and effort.  It took us four years to complete our donation of Lisa Snelling’s kinetic carnival series, “Dark Caravan” to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  So if you are thinking of making a bequest of your collection, you better start planning NOW.  And prepare yourself to hear: thanks, but no thanks.

3. You Can’t Just Throw Money at It

Yes, there is a positive correlation between quality and cost when it comes to art.  But it’s a surprisingly weak correlation unless you know what you’re doing.  And by that, I mean education and developing an “eye.”  I can see why it’s easy for those with no money at all to come to the conclusion that lots of it makes buying easier.  Sure it is!  And not only that, if you look at the stats, people hardly (if ever) lose when they spend millions on art.  But even then: what more money really brings is more options.  And it’s the CHOICES that are the killer, when it comes to deciding how to spend your money.

Let’s say you have a budget of $100,000 a year to spend on growing your art collection.  Sounds good, right?  Ok, so should you spend that whole $100K on ONE PAINTING?  WHICH ONE?   Or would it be better to buy two paintings, $50K each?  Or maybe four paintings, each $25K?  You see where I’m going?  Even if you have only $5,000. to spend, you have the same dilemma.  Ten “prelims” by famous artists at $500 each?  Five paintings by working, but still upcoming artists at $1000. each?  Or maybe just blow the whole $5000. on one painting….but whose?  The best that a “rising star” can do, or a lesser, perhaps atypical painting by an established star whose best commands $15-25,000?  The only thing that separates you from being a fool with your money – no matter what tier of collecting you are on – is TASTE.

That’s why collecting is such a hard job.  🙂


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