Five Thoughts on Building an Art Collection

Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art
Feb 12, 2018 3:34AM

You’ve built a beautiful home and you want to fill it with art. Here are five important points to think about.

Growing up in a family of art dealers, I watched my father and his friends build a number of incredible collections. There was such a broad diversity of subject matter. From antiquities and Islamic art, to tribal masks, old master paintings, impressionist works and modern and contemporary art, each collection bore witness to the story of a unique collector. I came to understand that a good collection is greater than the sum of its parts. I also discovered that the best ones are often assembled with extraordinary passion, over a lifetime, by people of ordinary means.

Today when clients ask me for advice on where to start collecting, I think back to those early lessons. It may seem obvious, but if you’re going to buy art to put in your home and look at every day, you should choose pieces you’re passionate about. Your collection should reflect your life and your aesthetic, not choices made by others. Remember, too, that a good collection takes time to build and grows with you.

Once you’ve figured out what drives your passion, there are five basic points to consider: what to buy, where to find it, whom to buy it from, how much to pay for it, and what you’re going to do with it once you own it. You should seek advice about these issues from knowledgeable people and educate yourself as much as possible before spending large sums.

1. What should you buy?

At some point you will have to make your first purchase. Hopefully it will be something you feel you just can’t live without. My wife and I bought a piece of art together for the first time during our honeymoon, years ago in Buenos Aires. Our hotel was located next to an architectural design shop. Each time we passed the shop’s window, we were drawn to a fabulous panel made of thick red Plexiglas with arrays of multicolour optical bubbles carved into it. We didn’t know exactly what it was, but it was beautiful and we wanted it, so we figured out how much we could afford to spend and decided to enter the shop. To our delight, the panel was within our budget. It turned out to be a sculpture by the renowned Argentinian artist Rogelio Polesello. We bought the piece knowing that we would have taken it even if it were nothing more than a cool piece of Plexiglas.

As your collection grows past that first piece, it is likely that a theme will emerge, maybe even without your planning it consciously. A collection that is built over time will reflect the changes in your life. It will also turn a cold space into a warm home with a soul, particularly if you collect a variety of styles. There are no rules, but never buy something you don’t love; never buy art assuming it will go up in value; and if you disagree with your spouse or partner

Combining works from different periods and styles can make a collection more interesting and dynamic. Clockwise from top left: a graffiti painting by Indie 184, a wood sculpture by Tyrone Mitchell, an Italian antique marble table, a wire and paper sculpture by Trevor Oakes, and a 14th C. bronze Buddha from Thailand.

This living room corner comes to life with the combination of an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, a Karel Appel print, an old marine painting and an eclectic grouping of items found in antique shops.

2. What is the market?

When you know what you’re looking for, you still have to look in the right places to find it. Whether you are looking online or at brick and mortar establishments, the basic operating premises are the same. There are local and international auction markets as well as retail markets, which consist of art galleries, artists’ studios and art fairs.

Hand in hand with these are the primary and secondary markets. The primary market represents any art that is new and being sold for the first time, usually in a gallery or an artist’s studio. The secondary markets are the auction and retail markets dealing in second-hand art. The majority of the world’s most important and valuable art gets traded only in the secondary markets and most artists are not successful enough to have a reliable secondary market.

Studying auction results is a good way to learn about the market. All of the houses advertise upcoming sales on their websites and publish catalogues both online and in print. Sales are open to the general public and there is usually a preview period beginning a few days before the sale when anyone can go and inspect the pieces. If you’re going to want to bid, you should contact the auction house during that period, to register for a paddle or bidder number.

There is a fairly high transaction cost, called a premium, when you buy or sell at auction. The premium is the auction house’s share and is calculated as a percentage of the hammer price. There is typically a 24% to 26% buyer’s premium. There is also usually a seller’s premium that can be from 5% to 15%. If a painting sells for a hammer price of $10,000, with a buyer’s premium of 25%. The buyer will pay $12,500 to the auction house. If there is a 6% seller’s premium, the seller will receive $9,400 and the auction house will keep $3,100 as its fee. Don’t forget that sales tax, shipping and insurance will raise the costs even further.

There are many more places to see and buy art than just galleries and auction houses. There are countless art fairs taking place around the world throughout the year. Go to as many of them as you can. Get to know a few artists and visit their studios. They will introduce you to other artists. The art schools in every city have exhibits of their matriculating students’ work. These are where many top galleries scout their future stars. You can take advantage of the opportunity to buy those artists’ works while they are still relatively inexpensive.

British artist, Lucy Sparrow, sews felt facsimiles of items that our culture considers popular everyday products, such as breakfast cereals, soaps and even weapons.

A piece of tapestry or fiber art can add a feeling of warmth to any environment. Seen here is Drap I Mes (Cloth and More), 2011, by Spanish artist Josep Grau Garriga.

This iconic image from Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang series hangs on the walls of many museums, yet, is accessible and understandable on all levels. Photography is more affordable form of art to collect.

Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone, 1938 is a rethinking of objects we use every day, in this case a telephone, as art.

3. From whom should you buy art?

Dealers and art advisors are invaluable sources for information and can provide you with all the services you need. A dealer will sell items he has available to sell, but does not charge for advice. An advisor will charge a fee for her time and give impartial advice and guidance on art that other people are selling. A good advisor will educate you, do your research for you, prevent you from making costly mistakes and potentially save you some additional money by negotiating better prices for you.

There is a common misconception that the auction price represents the true market value of a piece of art. However, auction prices can fluctuate drastically from day to day for unpredictable reasons like bad weather, that have little to do with the true nature of the market. While there are some good deals to be found at auction and times when a posh gallery will charge you a higher price, it’s wrong to assume that these conditions are the norm.

You should also consider factors such as convenience and the level of service provided. Many galleries will allow you to take a piece on approval, to see how it looks in your home before you decide to keep it. They will also usually take care of details like framing and hanging or installing a piece for you. Auction services, on the other hand, do not extend much beyond the saleroom.

4. How much should you pay for it?

The best way to make a good investment is to do the research and then make an informed decision. You can usually determine a fair price for any artwork by digging a little online and then asking a couple of experts. Make a point of looking up auction prices for similar pieces by the same artist, on one of the databases like or Then, compare prices for similar pieces in all of the appropriate markets. The librarian at an art library can point you to good reference materials.

If you’re buying at auction, set yourself a price limit ahead of time so that you don’t get carried away in the bidding. Remember to include the buyer’s premium, as well as any sales tax and shipping or export costs you may have to cover in your budget.

If you are buying from a gallery, you can ask for a discount and try to negotiate a better price. Most galleries will negotiate to a certain level. Dealers generally have agreements with artists that make it hard to provide big discounts on primary market works. However, they may have substantially more room to negotiate on secondary market pieces.

5. You’ve bought the art. Now what do you do with it?

Once you’ve bought a piece of art you need to ship it home safely, ensure that it is properly framed and installed, that it is properly conserved, catalogued and insured and that you have it appraised periodically. Collection management is a broad subject and will be covered in future articles. However, for our purposes here, if you bought your art from a gallery, the gallery will likely provide you with plenty of support for all your needs. If not, an art advisor can help you manage the tasks you feel uncomfortable handling on your own.

Now live with your art. Move it around the house to see how it looks in different settings. Try combining pieces of different periods, styles and media together in the same space. Consider your framing options for wall art. The standard height for hanging pictures is around 150 cm from the floor to the centre of the piece but this is not a rule. Don’t worry about what other people will think. Only your eye and your sense of aesthetics will determine what’s best. Enjoy building your collection!

Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art