“How to Choose and Purchase a Work of Art” by Debra Hand 

By Debra Hand

Are you planning to buy art as an investment?  If you are, then you should consult an expert just like you would for any other investment where you are choosing to gamble on a desired outcome.  There are ways for experts to investigate who is managing that artist’s career, what trajectory is being created for them via shows, fairs, and museum acquisitions, and what other collectors are purchasing their works. Where and how that artist is being presented, and by whom, could affect that investment down the line.   

However, if you are buying art only to fill your life with joy, don’t ask a single soul what they think you should purchase.  You already know everything you need to know to understand what will nourish your spirit and bring you joy, and what won’t. When you go to the theater and watch a movie, you don’t come out at the end of the movie and ask someone, “Did I enjoy that?”  In the first article I ever wrote, I compared asking someone if you should buy a work of art you love to asking someone if it was okay to enjoy some music you’d heard.

All art is about your personal experience with it and your response to it. 

You don’t go to a concert and hear the music and ask anyone if you had a good time and if the evening brought you joy.  Now, you might ask a trusted friend before you go to see a movie or concert if they think the experience will be worth it based on their own experience with that same movie or concert, but that’s because you are trying to get a heads up on an experience you haven’t had yet, but they have. That makes sense. Maybe they’ll tell you the performer isn’t very good live and save you some money.

With an artwork, if you are looking at it and you know that owning it will bring you joy, and your reason for owning it is to bring yourself joy, what more do you need to know? What expert are you going to consult that knows more about the subject of what resonates with you than you do?  There is no one on Earth that is more expert at what you feel than you. You do not need someone to validate your choice, or tell you that you are cultured or deep or permitted to appreciate that work and purchase it.

I don’t care if the piece cost $1,000 or $10,000, you are still the only expert on you and what moves you.

That being said, it doesn’t mean you want to rush into a gallery, art fair, or exhibit and start throwing money around. There are still a few things to be done, once you decide you are interested in the works of particular artists. You want to know if you are intending to purchase an original work, that the art is indeed original.  Some giclees (a form of print) are added to with real paint by an artist.  They can look like complete originals, but may not be. You should ask the artists about any word in the description of a work that you don’t understand. You should also try to understand about care for the artwork.  If you are going to display your piece in direct sunlight, the materials could be affected. If close to a fireplace, that could affect a work too.

Since many artists today create using mixed-media, or a variety of mediums altogether, you should try to get an idea if the artist has made other pieces using that medium and how long those materials have held up so far. With so many synthetic materials on the market, and with artists experimenting with more and more methods, you want to be sure you know how to care for that work.

“A Collective Soul” by Lawrence Terry | 22” x 23” mixed media on paper (2019). Acrylic, burnt & smoked hues, copper foil, ink. Assemblage —unframed | ShopBaia.com

There are some instant no-nos.

Humidity and excessive heat are not good for most materials over time. Artist’s pastels and chalks can rub off if not fixed with a chemical agent of some kind, by the artist. Of course an artist should know their materials well enough to have done this treatment in advance, but if they framed the piece under glass, that may be the only protection that piece has, and if you ever decide to reframe that piece, you need to know that exposing that canvas will make the artwork extremely vulnerable to damage.

So, again, there are some questions you should ask to try to understand how to care for your artwork. Surprisingly, few people ever ask about how to best care for their artwork. They are so happy to acquire something that they know will bring them joy that they just hurry away with it after the sale. 

Another thing you should do is try to get to know something about the artist.

Find out what their history is and how to follow their careers. Some collectors even choose to grow with the artists. As the artist’s work evolves, the collector buys pieces that illustrate the artist’s evolution and journey. Some collectors are excited to be able to share in the artistic journey of an artist and even check-in periodically to see what’s new. Gertrude and Leo Stein, a brother and sister pair, often bought or commissioned works from Picasso and Matisse, just to name two of their favorites. They amassed a concentration of their works, enough to influence these artists’ careers, as well as other collectors. Eventually, they not only changed the lives of these artists and others, but affected the whole of art history.      

But, even if you’re not on a mission to affect art history or grow with an artist, you will still want to keep tabs on what they’re doing. There’s a chance they could achieve great success, and you certainly would want to be aware of that. Even if you didn’t purchase that artist’s work as an investment, it might still grow in value (even astronomically so), and though you may never sell that work, you would want to take steps to insure it, if necessary. You certainly wouldn’t want to be one of those people who donated a painting to the thrift store while spring cleaning, only to see it on the news when the new owner discovers it’s worth a mint. Also, you would definitely want to inform your family that a valuable artwork could be handed down to them, so they won’t set the picture you always loved, but they did not, out on garbage day. How many times have you heard someone on the Antiques Roadshow say, “I almost threw that thing away, or we were using it as a doorstop?”

“Door to Life” by Kevin Johnson | 30″ x 40,” oil painting on canvas — unframed | ShopBAIA.com

Also, you want to get a certificate of authenticity.

This is so you can keep a record of how and when you came to own your artwork. Having a history of an artwork’s ownership (its provenance) helps appraisers, auction houses, museums, or future buyers or sellers to be able to value the work, as well as to certify it as being from the hand of a particular artist. Even if the artist doesn’t have a formal certificate to offer you, ask them to jot down the title of the work and to note that it is an original work created by them and sold to you on that date. Make sure they sign it too. This will serve to authenticate that work, along with the receipt for the purchase.

Try to keep the record of the artwork with the art work.

One way to do this is in an envelope taped to the back of the frame. Once you get the answers to the necessary questions and make your purchase, take your artwork home and enjoy it. Don’t worry about anyone else’s opinion along the way. Be proud of yourself for having the confidence to stand up for yourself in a market that will tell you that you don’t have the good sense to trust your own taste. Everyone has a right to the way they respond to a particular work of art. Some people love the work of Picasso, while some are not moved at all by his talent. And all of them are right. However a work of art moves you, or doesn’t, is your personal experience with that piece. Your response to that work is not up for debate. It’s called freedom.

As always, Thank YOU for reading. We love seeing your comments in the section provided below.

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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.


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