Learn to collect art 'on a shoestring'

October 31, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Art gallery director Reagan Upshaw has two main rules for collecting art: If you don't love it, don't buy it. And it's better to buy a higher quality work of art by a lesser known artist than a mediocre work of art by a well-known artist.

"It's better to have a home run by a .200 hitter than a pop foul by Babe Ruth," says Upshaw, director of the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York City.

Upshaw, a specialist in both 19th- and early 20th-century American art and contemporary art, will discuss "Collecting Art on a Shoestring" at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown.


He hopes his lecture will encourage art enthusiasts with moderate incomes to overcome any intimidation they might feel about dealing with big-city art dealers, while providing some tips for building a meaningful art collection.

"I just want to demystify the idea of collecting," Upshaw says. "I want to encourage people to become experts."

You don't have to be a millionaire to collect art - but you do need to have a plan and the knowledge to make it work, he says. Although some people can put together a seemingly coherent collection by buying at whim, most people need to narrow their search criteria to acquire art that fits their budget, works well together and, most importantly, thrills them when they see it hanging on their wall, Upshaw says.

"It can be interesting to put a vase next to a 19th-century painting and see what they have to say to each other - but it's difficult to pull that off," Upshaw says. "Most of us need some guidelines."

So here are his suggestions:

  • Collect art in one category. For example, build a collection around works by local artists.

  • Save money by choosing a genre that isn't as popular among big collectors. For example, portraits - even by well-known artists - are often a bargain because most people don't want a picture of someone they don't know. And nudes are often more affordable than other subjects because they aren't popular with corporate collectors or many family-oriented museums, Upshaw says.

  • Do your research. Read books about your chosen category or artist. Visit museums, galleries and auctions to study relevant works and familiarize yourself with market values.

  • Don't get suckered into buying an expensive work of art just because of the signature attached to it.

    "It's not a good deal if you don't like it," Upshaw says.

  • Take a chance on a new artist if the work appeals to you. Contemporary art is generally more affordable than older works - and who knows if the artist will make a big splash in the art world?

  • Consider investing in prints and works on paper - including watercolors and drawings that you love - rather than paying bigger bucks for an oil painting or other original canvas that doesn't please you as much.

  • Know that the frame will usually add significantly to the acquisition cost - and that frames can be changed if you don't like them.

Follow your passion for art wherever it takes you, and never be afraid to ask questions, Upshaw says.

"Even us cold, cynical dealers can appreciate a love of art," he says.

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