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How to buy art without getting conned

Buy what ou love, and do your homework.

Buy what ou love, and do your homework.

September 02, 2002|by NILES BERNICK

Have you ever been totally taken by a work of art?

It speaks to you. It moves you. It's beautiful, or meaningful. You have to have it.

Then you look at the price tag.

A small voice in the back of your head wonders whether the work is really that valuable. The other voice whispers maybe, maybe, you'll make money on it.

Yes, there is that once-in-a-lifetime painting found at a yard sale that turned out to be the long-lost canvas of a French master and worth a couple million dollars, or the starving-artist painting bought for the cost of a meal that turned out to be worth hundreds of times more 10 or 15 years down the road.

And just as there are people who are sure they will win the lottery and others who play high-risk games in the stock market, there will always be people who buy art for financial speculation.

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But their chances of getting rich quick are equally remote.

How do you buy a work of art you really want without getting burned?

The answer, say the experts, is buy what you like, and be a smart shopper.

There is no objective way to determine a fair price for a work of original art. The artist has invested in training, thought, time, effort, and materials, as well as emotion, in producing it. It's difficult to put a price on that.

Competitive bidding from other buyers also drives the price up. In the end, a work of art is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it.

Is it really original?

Jean Woods, director of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and an expert in art about Maryland and by Maryland artists, frequently combs the country looking for classical and contemporary works of art for the Museum's collection.

One of the more insidious problems a naive buyer faces, she says, is determining if a piece of original artwork is truly original.

"I've heard lots of very sad stories - after the fact, unfortunately. I've had people bring in things they've purchased that simply weren't right. It's often very difficult if you buy at auction, because they won't take it back without two letters from experts in the field saying the work isn't what it was represented to be."

With most experts located in New York, it can be expensive to document a fake in order to get your money back.

Notorious forgeries involve expensive pieces. But do people sell forgeries of less expensive works?

"No," says Bob Burkhammer of Just Lookin' Gallery in Hagerstown. "If there is not going to be any great financial reward at the end, why would someone go to all the trouble of making a forgery?"

Although he and Eileen Berger, owner of the Just Lookin' Gallery in Hagerstown, have not had problems with forgeries themselves, they have heard about limited edition prints that sell out and are then illicitly reprinted or copied in quantity, making the original limited edition prints lose most of their value.

Limited edition prints are a less expensive way for a new art buyer to begin a collection.

Eli Pollard, curator of the Washington County Arts Council Gallery, a not-for-profit gallery in Hagerstown which primarily shows the work of local living artists, said he has never seen a forgery or misrepresented work in his gallery.

"Our artists are in it because they love it," Pollard says. "There isn't a lot of money to be made in art."

Misrepresented art work seems to be rare in small galleries that deal with more affordable works, but the risks appear to increase if you are in the market for contemporary and classical works by nationally or internationally known artists who command relatively high prices.

You need to know a lot about the work you are thinking of buying, learn a fair amount about the artist, and you may want to enlist expert help in authenticating the work.

What you're up against

Buying from the artist - For many knowledgeable shoppers, buying direct from the artist has the primary advantage of giving the prospective buyer a chance to meet the artist, learn about how the work was created, and how he or she views the creative process.

Although there is no middleman, many artists charge the same as galleries that exhibit their work. Fakes and copies are rare because they are more of a threat to a serious artist than they are to a buyer.

Some artists open their studios to buyers; others limit their direct selling to art shows or belong to groups that run their own galleries as a cooperative. For instance, The Mansion House Art Gallery in Hagerstown City Park functions as a cooperative gallery exhibiting and selling work of local artists who are members of the Valley Art Association.

Buying from a gallery - Galleries take much of the work out of finding something you like and purchasing it. Unless you already know and have decided on a particular artist's work, browsing in galleries is one of the best ways to find the things you like. Reputable galleries usually offer valuable information about artists and their work as well as how its popularity has influenced its market value.

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