You have fallen hard for a painting. The price is even in your budget. You know exactly where it is going to hang. Remember to ask these 5 questions about the painting you are about to buy.
Reading time: 4 minutes
January 2022: This piece has become a widely read and popular article. People have been contacting me at the gallery often. These questions in the original article are not the questions first time buyers are looking for answers for.
At the heart, people were clicking on this article to feel more assured when walking into an art gallery or buying a piece of art. In short, the fear of being scammed or feeling out of the place, was at the heart of people finding this article.
So here is a short update to make sure you are not being scammed and paying a fair price. The rest of the article seems silly and redundant in retrospect, as the 100's of people that have contacted me, where just actually looking for peace of mind, as the art world seems so strange and illusive and they don't want to be done over or they want to feel confident in visiting art galleries. So let's start this article, because where you buy an artwork each has a different dynamic. I did not include buying online, as in my experience there is very little interpersonal contact before a work is sold and people have adjusted their budget and aesthetics into the filters and algorithm of online sales platforms.
Where are you buying this painting? An artist studio or a gallery? Or at an Art Fair?
You are buying directly from an unrepresented art in their Artist studio; good on you. Buy from the artist first. Support your local artists in your network. Most probably, the artist is undercharging you for their work. Also, you will never get it cheaper than now. Do you want to negotiate a price down of an object that feels like a part of a person soul? They are asking a fair price for how they feel about themselves at the moment. If you attempt to negotiate, it often feels to some artist, like you are negotiating their worth as a person. You can kindly ask if they can under build the pricing if you think it is too much.
In a gallery, ask how old the gallery is. Are they part of a local or national gallery association? Most art galleries/businesses don't reach their third year. Most galleries will proudly proclaim their years operating in the art world because it is no small feat to partake and thrive in the art world. It takes 5-8 years before a gallery will become profitable. But also, all the years have shown that they have and always will be dedicated to the arts. There is more accountability. So if you are unsure, kindly ask what type of gallery it is. There is always a reasoning behind the gallery and the collection. So most galleries will have been there for several years, but it can also be a pop up.
A pop up is not necessarily bad but doesn't speak to long term accountability. So if a pop up has a painting of a few thousand euros, and no prior history, most people would give it a skip. Paintings up to 3.000 euros in a pop up are not strange and are acceptable. This may be artist-led, or a gallery is just starting.
And at the end of the day, no matter how high end or new a gallery, at the end of the day all galleries operate under the same principle.
"I like this and think its neat, do you like it too?"
Buying art at an art fair, allows you to see 30+ galleries all in the same walking distance, with their bestest art. Galleries have to pay a ridiculous amount of money to partake in an art fair, and the artist is vetted by a commission to partake. So you know, all the galleries and artists at the art fair take themselves serious enough for a jury of their peers and invest heavily in their artists. Galleries have to give a lot of information, and if there are any funny business fairs, won't think twice about blocklisting them. You can also get all the details you need from the art fair if a gallery disappears.
No one will buy expensive art from someone they don't trust. If you don't feel comfortable or are unsure, ask. Ask everything you need to know to feel comfortable. At the core of buying art is trust. Maybe the answers don't comfort you or make sense. You can leave and never return. Buying art also often happens in the form of a relationship between the gallerist and the art collector. That's what all the parties are for. Getting to know everyone. Artists, Gallerists, Buyer. 99% of people walking into a gallery is just a quick view. They may return several times. They may never buy, buy every time, and only come for the wine at the openings. But that's an essential part of the ecosystem, building relationships of trust.
The most confident buyers are there because they know what they like and have found it. If you don't have this feeling, there is nothing wrog with you, rather you haven't found what you are looking for.
Now on to the old article about material, secret paintings underneath and ownership.
What to ask when buying a painting?
The start of another three-part series: What questions you should or could be asking when you buy a painting. You might be purchasing a painting for the first time or the hundredth time.
Before you ask these questions, you have already answered the question of whether or not you want to own this painting. Today’s questions are about care and informed decisions about where to place the painting in your office or home. These are also questions Art Historians need to answer 100 years from now. So it has a dual function. As an Art Historian, I am obviously biased and informed by my background. If you can think of any other pertinent questions, please let us know in the comments below.
Questions about the painting itself
Most of the information you need would be on a bit of paper next to the painting or sculpture. Like when the artwork was made, who the artist is, what it is made of, and maybe why it was made. These are a few questions that can help you better take care of the work after buying it.
These questions should be enquired after respectfully. Make it abundantly clear that you ask these questions on how to take care of the painting best if you would buy it. Questions 1 and 2 you can skip if you know how to care for your painting. Questions 3, 4 and 5 clarify what you can expect in the care for these paintings. None of these questions has a right or wrong answer. No matter the answer, it does not diminish or add value to the object in the now. It is valuable information for later and how to make sure there is a later for your painting.
1. What material is used in the painting?
You should know what medium it is made of, as it is usually labelled. However, this is an essential question if it is a mixed media piece about what it is made from and how it can significantly influence where you can place your painting in your house or office.
For water paintings and drawings, it is usually a good idea to never put it in a space that gets full sunlight for an extended period of the day. Unless you have added extra UV filtering foils on the windows or painting frame, both are costlier than simply placing the painting outside direct sunlight. Sometimes this is a non-issue as the artist has had the forethought to use a UV Varnish as a final layer over the painting.
Oil paintings will be able to withstand a lot of unfiltered light, but aquarelles and drawings and paper canvasses will disintegrate alarmingly fast in direct sunlight over time.
BONUS: some sculptures can easily be placed outside and stand wind and weather. However, many statues are placed on their pedestals with an iron rod, which, when wet, oxidises and expands. Over time this can result in fractures in the sculpture and even break the sculpture in two.
2. Does the painting have special care instructions?
In mixed media painting, there should be clear instructions on where the painting can be placed. For some people, it is logical that you can not place everything just anywhere. And for other people, it seems needlessly nitpicky that there are explicit instructions on how you can or cannot display a painting in your own home or office. It’s about transparent communication. Oil paintings easily stay beautiful for several generations, before it needs care. With acrylics, it depends, and watercolours are very delicate. And mixed media pieces can either be tricky as they combine different mediums. But they might also only need a bit of extra dusting.
3. Who has owned it before then?
Has the painting hung in someone's house? As part of a travelling exhibition, like the artist group, Monday's Collective does. Has the artist hung it in their own home or at a family member? What effect did the object have in their house? Has it been stored in a shed or under a bed? Has someone bought it and returned it. This has nothing to do with the quality of the painting. Sometimes art is sold, and people have not paid for the painting. For costly artwork and known collectors, some artwork has not been paid for even two years after the sale. This question is more about a painting's provenance, even if you are the first owner or buying from a blue-chip gallery. The information you can keep on a piece of paper at the back of the painting. Or maybe the gallery has it all written down, and it can be extended to you in print form.
4. Where has this painting been exhibited?
Has the painting been exhibited at a museum, art fair or in any other exhibition? Has the painting been part of an art loan project? Again this does not diminish the value. It is about the art trajectory has taken before it has found its forever home (as some American Artist call it). Art can and will last a very long time, so the chance of it having multiple owners throughout its life is very typical. As a collector, it is part of knowing your paintings history. If the Artist is very famous or becomes very famous, you might be asked to loan the painting yourself to a museum or exhibition later.
5. Has the object been damaged and/or repaired?
Paintings can easily be damaged, and it does not have to be the end of the world. Better yet, it hardly ever is. It might need a touch up by the Artist or becomes part of the overall look. Maybe the Artist dropped it; perhaps someone bumped it off the wall. If the painting is repaired, you usually do not see it. It is more something you will see on the back. Again not, a dealbreaker, broken or very damaged art that can not be repaired, will not be offered for sale. But it is good to know beforehand. Not to drive the price down, but to be mindful of the painting's history and damages.
Bonus question: Is there another painting under the painting we see now?
The most exciting discoveries in Art History are figuring out that there are other paintings under the one we know today. Maybe the artist even has pictures of the process. Ask if you could have copies of these pictures to store with the painting.
Is there other questions you should ask about the painting in particular? Let me know in the comments. Next week we will list questions you can ask the artist and after that the gallery owner.
"The smiling Art Historian"