The Artful Collector: The Art of Collecting

When asked to explain why I chose “The Artful Collector” as my byline, and what I mean by that play on words, I always respond “because there’s an “art” to collecting, whether it’s Art that you collect, or not.”  And by “artful,” I mean shrewdness is going to be needed, for success in collecting.  Since this isn’t a word one throws around every day of the week, let’s spend a sec or two figuring out why I’d use it  😀


  1. Having or showing sharp powers of judgment;
  2.  Characterized by keen awareness, sharp intelligence, and often a sense of the practical.
  3. Disposed to artful and cunning practices; tricky.
Synonyms: sagacious, astute, perspicaciousThese adjectives mean having or showing keen awareness, sound judgment, and often resourcefulness, especially in practical matters. Sagacious connotes prudence, discernment, and farsightedness: Astute suggests shrewdness, especially with regard to one’s own interests: An astute tenant always reads the small print in a lease. Perspicacious implies penetration and clear-sightedness

Shrewdness without scruples (morals or ethics) – not good.  You end up a con-man, or worse.  Maybe a hard-sell “art consultant” working in a cruise ship art gallery (!)   Shrewdness without wisdom (gained from education and experience) – also not good.  You’ll just be eaten alive by someone shrewder.

There are collectors who will argue that “love is enough”.  This is only true “to a point”.  And that point will become apparent the day you realize you’ve spent the equivalent of your child’s college education on your hobby, or all your disposable income for 30 years, or whatever measure you’d like to use to represent the thousands of dollars and angst you’ve put into “X”.  To such lovers, I say, “heart palpitations cannot make up for the lack of an educated, discriminating eye, when it comes to collecting….no matter what the object of your desire.”   To make the right choices when you’re buying art, to answer that nagging question “Should I buy it?”  you need more than sweaty palms and a credit card.  But you also need more than a tape measure – coldly rationalizing that it will fit over your sofa.  What you need, and this is true for any hobby which involves the potential for profit (to maximize your return when buying, selling or trading), is to develop self-confidence and become an astute deal-maker.  See: shrewd.

 The Collecting Spectrum

As Alexander Pope once commented, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and no where is this more clearly seen than in the behaviors of beginning, “emerging” – or as some dealers call them – “casual” collectors. These collectors are important to any field of collecting because they spread the word, and get others interested in what they collect. In the field I’m most interested in, illustration art in the SF/F genre, these collectors play a significant role. They attend conventions and follow public auctions (whether eBay or Heritage) and actively bid on items there – even if they rarely win. They correspond with artists and each other through online forums and chat rooms. They publicize their collections and ‘share’ their sources of information . . . and in doing all these things stimulate wider interest in this hobby, and greater activity in the marketplace. They may know how to buy art, and from whom, but not always what, when, where or why to buy, since their knowledge isn’t usually accompanied by wisdom. Casual collectors may often spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on art per year, year after year – yet balk at spending $30. on an artbook.  They just want to know: what’s it worth, will it go up, should I buy it?

I often meet these collectors for the first time after they’ve already accumulated dozens of prelims, sketches and paintings. They’ve already made purchases online from artists directly, or from fellow collectors. They show me portfolios of artwork they’ve “picked up” over the years, curious (and sometimes anxious) to know what my reaction will be.  I  resist the urge to ask “why that one?” – because so few collectors can really tell you the truth about that.  But even so, few have a game plan for their collection, and are beginning to wonder “How do I get one?” They visit our collection and along the way they inevitably are drawn to the art books I keep on two shelves in one of our several libraries.

Just a few reference books
Just a few reference books

At some point, they invariably want to know: how do I get to that next collecting level? You know, the one where there’s no “buyer’s remorse” and every decision gets you closer to having the collection of your dreams? Do I have to win the lottery? The answer is NO.  It’s really NOT about having money.  Although a fat wallet surely helps to free up your options, you can spend thousands of dollars on one crappy piece of art.

So what’s the secret?

If you want to take that next giant step in your collecting, it’s EDUCATION that will get you there. KNOWLEDGE is the magical key that will open the door to a more exclusive, and power-wielding “inner sanctum” of collectors. Information is what separates the beginner from the advanced, serious, buyer of SF art. Or whatever it is you want to collect (just fill in the blank). Serious collectors stand out from the mass of everyday, casual collectors not just because of the money they are willing to spend on their hobby, but because of the intensity of their enthusiasm for what they collect. You could call it an obsession…but at the heart of it is their focus and depth of interest. There aren’t many of them, but as anyone “in the business” can tell you, their impact on the market can be much greater than their numbers would suggest.  They become the market leaders.

Novice collectors in all fields ask a lot of questions and make mistakes. They are the sort of collector that is impressed by the “A/P” designation on a lithographic or digital reproduction – when in fact such a designation has zero meaning value.  They are the collector that keeps the Danbury Mint and Disney retail shops in business, or Noble House – any company, in fact, that is in the business of selling or distributing “made for the market”, mass-produced rarities.   And who among us is immune from such cuteness?

A small collection of mugs that I will never use for coffee

The question I would ask, is: How long are you planning to stay at that collecting level?  Because, almost always, such collectors’ expectations exceed the actual market or “street” value of what they own.

This blog is going to allow me to step in and out of the various roles I’ve played over the years to show you how they are played- and what the “winning strategies” look like, from my point of view.   Depending, of course, on which “point of view” I adopt – collector or dealer, buyer or seller.  I’m going to “break character” as they say in the theater, to slip in and out of the cultural “frame” that may influence how you view me: as collector, as researcher/author, as art dealer.   Watch out!  I’m the guru, but I’m also the fox!  I’m the expert but also (perhaps like you) the owner of those mugs!  😉   Am I crazy for disclosing that, or a combination of “smart, crafty, savvy, wise, and wily” for sharing the fact that part of me is like you?   Hah.  Gotcha!   😆

With effort, anyone can graduate to the next level of collecting.  Serious collectors take their time and don’t expect a quick pay-off. Very often they are circumspect in what they own, and don’t publicize their holdings. They keep their sources secret, even when it’s tempting to brag. I know when I’m dealing with such a collector, and one of the first things I do is assure them that I will never gossip about what they own, or are interested in, or what they can afford. This matters, in a small field like ours.  These collectors may only spend a few hundred dollars a year on artwork…but they understand what they’re doing and make educated purchases.  They rely on trusted dealers to help them make good decisions – when they ask for them.  They FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS.

Which group are you in?



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  1. Very interesting post! Good to hear it "from the other side" as it were – I'll make sure to follow your blog! 🙂 And thanks for popping in on mine.

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