A Private Collector’s Guide to Art Collecting

Stephen Chow
6 min readAug 18, 2016
A sample from my collection.
  • Settle all debts before starting your art fund. This advice was drawn directly from bogleheads.com —from people who are saving for retirement (specifically those in their 20s-30s). Do not begin collecting until you have a steady income with zero debt, and analyze every. single. dollar. that you spend, and whether it furthers your goal of collecting art, or detracts from it. Do you have recurring bills? For anything that you can do without? Eliminate those if you can. After food and shelter and your spouse/pets/parents/children, investments, etc., you want 99% of your remaining income going directly to your art fund. This is because liquid capital is everything — I personally do not use credit cards, I like to build up a healthy amount of savings, spend it on something of very high quality, and be done with it. Certain acquisitions can get VERY expensive, which is why I am so careful not to spend money on anything else. I go all-in on art, and relinquish my personal wants. I do try to stick to $1,000 per month, with any money saved carrying over to the next object.
  • Take what the market gives you. The main rule that I follow is that I do not buy reproductions, prints, impressions, copies, casts, lithographs, engravings, etc. The artist must make it completely by hand, from scratch, with no intention of making reproductions of it, and it must be a masterpiece. Usually at least one museum in the world has examples of the artists work in their own collection. In my top shelf, 8 of the 10 are represented in major museums. However, despite this rule of uniqueness and originality, what genre, medium, subject, culture, age the potential acquisition is from is completely up to the market. I do not chase after a particular work by the particular artist that I want, unless it is being sold for little. That is the surest way to pay a premium. The best way to maximize your chances of finding a bargain is to be interested in the entire history of art (for the most part I do ignore modernist/abstract/bronze/drawings/watercolors) and wait for the art market to hand you a masterpiece, from wherever and whenever it happens to come from. The catch is, you have to be able to recognize that it is a one of a kind masterpiece, and you have to know where to seek help to confirm as best you can that this is the case (hence JSTOR, archive.org and art libraries). You can expect to find one masterpiece for every 1,000,000 objects that you look at on the art market.
  • What is the art market? The top shelf has been found entirely on barnebys.com (this encompasses dozens of auction houses), ebay.com, ebay.at, ebay.be, and Facebook. 50% from eBay. I think I’ve had a lot of success on eBay because the site is a total mess with millions of items for sale and requires a lot of digging and immense patience to find the good stuff. It’s a lot like the photographers for National Geographic who sit in the same spot for months at a time to capture the perfect moment. It’s extremely inefficient, but over a number of years, it works! Of course there are all kinds of other places to look: craigslist, etsy, rubylane, Instagram, local auctions, garage sales, estate sales. antique stores. If you want access to many of these local shops, you have to use Google Translate and search for them in dozens of languages. That is a HUGE market that I haven’t even begun to look into: the entirety of China, India, Russia, South America, Africa.
  • Discriminate, Discriminate, Discriminate. When I walk into a museum gallery, I take a look around and identify the highest quality object in each room. When I walk into a garage sale I look at everything and identify the highest quality object in the garage sale. When I look at 10,000 listings on eBay I identify the highest quality object among those 10,000. You boil down all of the choices at hand to the one best object. I never buy two things from the same place, from the same dealer. Sure it’s possible to get top quality from a specific dealer if you’re spending $5,000+ per piece, but at $1,000 it’s very unlikely. In addition, a single dealer will price everything consistently, whereas when you jump around (all over the world) you WILL find cracks in the market price. The major art galleries and auction houses give a good sense of what the market prices are. Eventually all of these judgments will form a sense of quality in your mind, and you can make millions of comparisons in your head once you see something that you might want to buy. Is it as good as the one in the Metropolitan Museum? Can I buy it for less somewhere else? Where might I find a better one, even if it costs more? I do agree with Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to master this skill.
  • Diversify, Diversify, Diversify. So the best way that I know of to become an encyclopedic art collector (see: An Acquiring Mind: Philippe de Montebello and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is to write out a checklist of different mediums, and begin collecting by finding the best example of each medium that you can. Perhaps with a limit of $250–500 per object to start with. Almost everything I bought in the first twelve months ended up being fake or of terrible quality, so these are stepping stones. And again, the reason to collect at an encyclopedic level is to reduce your chances of being priced out of the market, but also you will learn a TON by owning things that are unfamiliar to you, even though they might be fake. Owning something unfamiliar is the best motivation for running to the library to do intense research.
  • Putting trust in Patience, or, saying NOT GOOD ENOUGH to almost everything. This is a leap of faith believing that everything you are dreaming of acquiring will eventually become available, if you are willing to reserve your money for these things, and refuse to stop looking until you find them. It’s a combination of searching to the point of madness and saving to the point of madness. There will be so much time, money, and energy invested into this process of searching and saving that it would be insane not to spend it on something of historic beauty and importance, something of inexhaustible interest. So I walk into museums with this standard, and very few objects in the museums live up to it. It should be a struggle to find a Top 10 for each museum. In my mind I identify the flaws in the remaining objects on display that make them unworthy to be in the Top 10, and I go searching on the market until I find things that are good enough to be on that level.
  • Browse, browse, browse. I am a big believer that libraries — and the art market, for that matter — will only give you what you are looking for (tunnel vision), unless you are receptive to browsing. Used bookstores are great for this also. There is a lot to be learned by walking into an art library and systematically opening every book on the shelves. I do this mainly to look at the pictures in each book, because the selection of pictures in these books will not be found anywhere else. So bring a phone or a notebook with you and write down all the books of interest so you can find them later. A hundred hours doing this now will make an enormous difference. It might be fifteen or thirty years later that a book you discover in this manner will suddenly become the key for determining the authenticity of an artwork that you see at auction. You may find books that are so useful that you have to buy a copy for yourself. This is what happened to me when I discovered Museum Guidebooks or Guides to the Collections, for museums around the world.

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