About a month ago, I discovered Invaluable and was inspired to make a blog post about buying art.
Invaluable is a platform that works with thousands of independent auction houses to get their products online. I'm sure they receive plenty of questions with regards to "buying art". After all, I hear this question a lot too. Maybe I'm asked this question because my husband, Steve Dingman and I have been buying original art for a lot longer than I’ve been a professional artist. Plus, our “day jobs” (for the last thirty years) are as certified, professional picture framers. We’ve seen plenty … from clients collecting Wolf Kahn pastels to souvenir caricatures from Disney World to 18th century antiquarian maps to hand stitched molas from Central America and more. Unfortunately, we've also know too many clients who have bought reproductions but thought they were making a wise investment choice. So, I actually do have an opinion, advise, and food-for-thought with regards to buying original art.
First and foremost (and you don’t really have to read beyond this bullet point), BUY WHAT YOU LOVE. Let’s face it, artwork is personal and you are the one who will be looking at it every day.
Let me tell you about a framing client who came to my business, Mouse House, with a big blue bird picture she found in her husband’s attic. His first wife liked it; he hated it and put it in the attic. He was surprised that his second wife thought it perfect for over the sofa … if it got a new mat. It was stuck to the old, acid-laden mat with double-faced tape. My client said, “Just pull it off”.
“NO! This is an original Havell double-elephant folio Audubon lithograph. It needs professional conservation! NOW!” I dialed Ginny Newell at Renewell Conservation and managed to get my client in her door immediately.
A couple months later, my client returned. She was grateful and elated. The work was valuable. It had been restored properly; I framed it; it went over her living room sofa.
The moral of the story is this: My client loved that blue egret before she knew it had any value. She wanted to live with it, enjoy it every day. Her husband hated it; he was happy for his new wife but that didn’t mean he liked that blue bird any more than when he put it in the attic. The value was just icing on the cake, a rationalization for why it was once again hanging in his house. When buying art, be sure you love it. If it has value, let it be the icing. If it turns out to have no value, you’ll still love it … because that’s the prime reason for buying art.
Second, be informed. I started framing artwork when the rage was “signed, number, limited edition prints”. These are NOT original artworks. During the late 20th century (and continuing into the 21st century … because there’s still a “fool born every minute”), unscrupulous and/or utterly naive art dealers and greedy/naive artists touted these “prints” as investments. They often came with certificates of authenticity. Some were “artist’s proofs” and said to be “better”. None of this is true … not in the least. It was a contemporary ploy using 19th century and earlier print-making vocabulary. In the process, the very work “print” was undermined. (By the way, I never peddled any of these “prints”. I stuck to antiquarian images … real prints pulled from a real press.)
Real “prints” are pulled from a press. They fall into two categories, intaglio and lithography. There are all sorts of them … etchings, mezzotints, chromolithographs, woodcut and lino-cut engravings, steel and copper-plate engravings, stone lithographs, etc. Multiple images can be pulled from the same “plate” but no two are exactly alike.
The confusion comes with the fact that 20th century advances provided perfect ways to reproduce images … by “off-set lithography”. This is a four-color process and should not be confused with “real lithography”. Off-set lithography is easily detectable with even low magnification. A dot-matrix is obvious. (Get a photo loupe or a good, hand-held magnifier and take a look!) This printing process is exactly the same as a magazine, newspaper, most contemporary poster, etc. Thus, signed and limited edition prints are all exactly alike. The “artist’s proof prints” are exactly like the rest of the edition. The first print is the same as the last. There is no “first state” or “second state” … and the lower numbers aren’t “better” than any other image in the run. In fact, all of these prints are simply reproducing an image made by an artist in other medium … an oil painting made available for mass consumption or a mixed-media work in multiples meant to be sold for a profit.
Sure, I understand why they are made. Artists need to make a living. (I need to make at living … but not this way!) They can sell “reproductions” of their best work and don’t have to call them “reproductions”. They call them “signed, numbered limited edition prints”. Artists and publishers agree only to produce a certain number … but they can still use the image in another size or format … like a calendar, coffee mug, note cards, etc. The artist/publisher is not handing over a guarantee, copyright, or binding contract of any kind. They are selling copies, period. (By the way, photographers often number their images. If made in a dark-room, a numbered photograph should always be considered “real” art!)
The moral of this story is: Buy original … and know what the word “original” means. When it comes to “prints”, original does NOT mean a four-color off-set lithography.
Finally (“finally”, so to speak, as I might want to write another post with additional opinions with regards to buying and selling original art), buy the best you can afford and don’t be afraid to use the Internet to vet an artist. Most artists working today have an Internet presence. Look them up. Look at their exhibition record. Look for their gallery representation. Send a potential artist an email or contact him/her on Facebook. Artwork can be so much more personal when there is a connection to the artist. If a direct connection isn’t possible, research the artist to see whether other works also resonate. The more a person learns about the maker, the more enjoyment is possible when living with one of his/her creations. Personally, I have artwork that has absolutely no possibility of acquiring any future, monetary value, but I still love the story behind each piece and the individual personality that is shared through the work. I have no regret over any such purchase. I also have artwork that has increased exponentially since my initial investment. I bought each work because I loved the image and wanted to support the artist. Every time these works rise in price, I simply feel lucky. It doesn’t change a thing about how I view the actual artwork. Investing in artwork is risky but if every investment is a work that brings daily joy, the risk is minimal.
As for me, I am writing this blog post from Florence, Italy where over the last few days I’ve seen the works commissioned by long-gone wealthy dynasties ... works I studied when earning a BA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies with a concentration in early Italian Renaissance art. I love the work of Giotto, Simone Martini, Duccio, Gentile da Fabriano, Botticello, Donatello, Brunellschi, Masaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, etc. I will never know if anything I ever make will last like these masterpieces. (Probably not!) It doesn’t matter. Many of these Renaissance artists were working in different directions at relatively the same time. They had patrons … people who loved there style and wanted to possess it. Everything didn’t last through the centuries. The future cannot be perfectly foretold, but the investments made back then were decisions made by people who loved the work they were paying for. That’s the important thing!
I stitch pieces that reflect my passion of architectural patterns, layers of fabric, textural surfaces, and environmental concerns. I put together installations meant to touch those who enter the space, probing questions about mortality, remembrance, and personal legacy. I live with artwork made by friends and creative personalities that are attuned to my soul whether I know them or not. I’ve run out of wall space but will continue to purchase … because I love and want to live around these works of art.