Starting a Collection

For inexplicable reasons, crossing the threshold of a Cork Street gallery or setting foot at a packed Old Masters sale often inspires a forbidding awe, which can intimidate prospective collectors. There is something about the rarefied world of art and antiques which scare the wits out of the toughest businessman.

Which is a shame really, because the first advice for anyone who is thinking of approaching the art market is to research, research, research. Nurturing a passion for paintings, sculpture or furniture on books, museum visits and exhibitions is an excellent starting point. But when people take the leap from viewing to collecting, nothing beats a hands-on approach – in the literal sense of the word. “My advice would be to watch far less Flog It! and work far more at going to auctions and handling the objects yourself,” says Mark Oliver, Director of the Design Department at Bonhams (+44 (0)207 447 7447). “I think sitting down with a cup of tea watching Cash in the Attic is very cosy, but it is light entertainment, not a means of learning.”

Auction houses and dealers agree that the best way for prospective buyers to find out more about art and antiques is to view and even touch the works that tickle their curiosity. “The best tip is to research. Go and visit fairs, have a look around, don’t be afraid about talking to dealers and if you are not sure about something, ask,” says Andrew Messum of contemporary art gallery Messum’s (44 (0) 207 437 5545).


He suggests that trawling the web is a good springboard to become acquainted with big names in the art world without that scary face-to-face encounter with a dealer. “Almost all galleries have [a site] and you can have a look at exhibitions and inventories.” Once the ice is broken, however, he recommends newbies make an effort to “go and stand in front of a picture” at a gallery. “If anyone wants to start a collection, they should really go and visit galleries. It is great to come down to Cork Street to have some ideas because there is a great cross-section [of works].”

As for antiques, Oliver says “you could start from as humble an origin as your local car-boot sales.” He is adamant, however, that anyone with a serious interest should visit a proper saleroom sooner rather than later. “An auction, by its very nature is a public event. There is no need to have a penny in your bank to attend it.” He urges people to take advantage of pre-auction viewings, which allow new collectors to familiarise themselves with works of art outside the highly-charged atmosphere of a sale.

“Nowadays, all houses do Sunday viewings, so if you are busy during the week, you can come on a Sunday afternoon,” he says. And, as chairman of Christie’s more affordable saleroom in South Kensington (44 (0)20 7930 6074), Hugh Edmeades reminds, people don’t need an invitation to attend an auction. “[Our] doors are open seven days a week and anyone can come along to view the objects and works of art, get advice and talk to specialists and possibly bid and take something home with them,” he says.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s have taken this open-doors policy one step further by setting up evenings for new collectors. “We have a programme called New Collectors Club, which we started a few years ago [when we spotted] a huge gap in the market for young people. We are looking at the children of our customers,” says Sotheby’s spokeswoman Helen Griffith (44 (0)20 7293 5000).

The Sotheby’s Club, which has grown very quickly and now counts some 2,500 members, holds informal lectures which are usually based around a sale. “People come and have a cocktail, then one of our specialists will look at what to buy and where you could go wrong,” explains Griffith.

Christie’s run a similar series of events, called Christie’s Contemporary Collectors, which focuses on traditional as well as innovative collectables, and “new ways of enjoying them.” They also run dedicated courses in the evenings or on Saturday where aspiring collectors can build their knowledge of anything from Post War art to the Arts & Crafts movement.

Attending fairs is also a good way to view pieces and glean useful information from the experts. And because all the works presented at the best fairs, such as the upcoming Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, are vetted, novices can purchase without fear.


Touring antiques fairs, shops and art galleries also helps prospective collectors discover more about their own tastes, as they stumble upon and fall in love with objects they never thought they would like. Because the second cardinal rule of good collecting is to buy what you like.

Blowing thousands of pounds in a paintings or a sculpture in the hope to make a killing out of it years later is foolhardy for an experienced collector, let alone one who is just starting out. “Investing in art is hardly as profitable as other forms of investment in the long term,” explains Guido Guerzoni, a former University of Sussex research fellow, who contributes to research projects at the V&A and the University of Manchester’s Italian Forum.

He explains that appreciation figures for artwork are often skewed because they don’t take into account a number of hidden transaction costs. “The people who buy a work of art at auction are not always the same who resell it years later. Some studies have demonstrated that there is a significant mark-up at every resale, and so long as it remains hidden, return on investment figures [which compare the first and last auction prices] will inevitably be wrong.”

What’s more, Guerzoni adds, “when you calculate the average return on stock investment, you take into account both good and bad investment, whereas in the art market we know next to nothing about bad investments. It is very difficult to get rid of the tendency to isolate great returns [on art investments] forgetting that there are other artists whose work didn’t appreciate anywhere near as much and that, had you invested in property in Montecarlo, you’d probably have made more money.”

That is not to say that people should plunge into a purchase with their eyes closed. “Obviously you have to have a dealer explain why a paintings is worth what is worth, and have them tell you all about the painting and the artist, but then you have to put your own value to it about how much you like that picture. You have to make up your mind whether you want to spend, say, £3,000 for it. With a painting, the interest you gain on it is to look at it hanging on your walls,” says Messum.

He also urges new collectors to avoid following fashionable trends. “Paintings do come in and out of fashion, so find out what you like and go for it.”

“Great collectors don’t really care about what other people think. They have their idiosyncratic taste and follow it,” agrees Guerzoni.

This, of course, means that there is no prescribed course to start a new collection. If a prospective collector does his homework, is careful about provenance, authenticity and condition, and has a deep enough pocket, he can plunge straight in the Old Masters market.


However, most newbies prefer to test the waters on slightly less intimidating sectors. “Typically, men [in our new collectors club] are interested in watches and wine, girls in jewellery and vintage fashion,” says Griffith. “They want to know about contemporary art, but also about silver and how to furnish their house without going to Habitat. I’d say [novices] go for jewellery first, then wine, house sales, contemporary art and prints, because they are affordable.”

She shares a couple of tips for first-time jewellery buyers. “The best guide when buying jewellery is [to] buy jewels that appeal to you. But also consider your lifestyle and buy jewels that complement it. Never buy anything you are not sure about, as you will never wear it, and jewels are meant to be worn.”

Obviously, money is of essence when looking at this type of collection, although historic jewels can sometimes be unusually affordable. “Buy the best you can afford. Scale down in size but do not compromise in quality,” says Griffith. “When buying a diamond follow the 4 Cs rule – colour, clarity, carat and cut. Jewels signed by the major jewellery houses bring kudos and usually add to the value.”

And while it is important to get guidance on quality from an expert, “always follow your taste and your instinct.”

Surprisingly similar advice applies to buying contemporary art. “Contemporary art is such a broad spectrum that it is difficult to advise what to look for. But if you are serious about collecting, don’t be afraid of expressing an interest, of saying: “this is what I am looking for” and see what dealers have to offer. Find out what you like and go for it,” says Messum. “You don’t get fakes in contemporary art, so the only thing I’d say is it is all about finding the thing that’s right for you.”

If not buying directly from the artist or a gallery that represents him, “condition is a crucial factor to take into consideration,” adds Griffith, who recommends checking a painting’s lining and backing. “Also be aware of the edition sizes and whether something is unique or from a large series, as this will affect its desirability and price.”

Things get a bit more intricate with early 20th century decorative arts, which is another favourite hunting ground for new collectors. “It would depend what level they want to enter the market. Between £500 and £2000, for example, they have plenty of choice in Arts & Crafts furniture, which is a good way into collecting,” says Oliver.


He recommends visiting exhibitions and salerooms, and going online to find out where and what is on the market. “I think you are generally OK with furniture, but you need to make sure you are buying from a dealer or auction house who will guarantee that a leg hasn’t been replaced or an inlay restored, or other work has been done that a novice buyer may not be aware of.”

Avoiding restoration is equally important when buying ceramics, which is another area where there is plenty of choice at affordable price range. “The work of the Martin brothers and William de Morgan are doing very well. Expect to pay £1,500 for a William de Morgan tile with an animal subject,” says Oliver. “But with all ceramics, pay careful attention as to whether it is restored, whether it is genuine and whether you are paying the right price for it. You shouldn’t buy unless you are certain about all three criteria. Decide through your experience in handling objects or drawing upon the experience of the auction house or dealer and make sure you get a written report before you buy.”

Again, establishing a rapport with dealers and becoming familiar with objects is key to building confidence as a buyer. “You should really go to big fairs and salerooms and wander round,” says Oliver. “You will find out how many dealers are happy for you to handle pieces. Only things is, if you are nervous at first, start with silver, because glass or ceramic can break if you drop it!”