Everyone in the industry will tell new collectors that your purchases should be based on your heart and gut, which is why it’s vital to buy what you love. An artwork that provokes an emotional reaction will bring rewards for years, endlessly revealing new depths.
They will, however, also advise you to make sure your money is well spent. This is done by getting to know as much as possible about the artists whose work stirs you, even getting to know them personally.
“Context matters,” says keen art collector Ravi Naidoo, co-founder and Managing Director of Design Indaba, South Africa’s annual showcase of the finest creative minds. “All too often people have only a mercantile relationship with the art they buy. I’m interested in the back story. Culture and art play such a big role in our society, and artists are socially conscientised, so I like to get to know them, spend time with them in their studios and buy their work on that basis. My art collection is deeply personal – based on relationships – and I only buy the work of artists I like. They have to pass the mensch test.”
Naidoo acquired his first piece of art over two decades ago and now has an extensive collection in both his home and office – all professionally framed and lit, and protected by blinds from any light that might damage them. “I went from supporting youngsters at their Master’s graduation shows to collecting the work of artists I’ve hosted at Design Indaba over the years,” he says.
Charity auctions, like Art Angels, the annual sale at the luxury Bantry Bay guest villa Ellerman House are good places to source quality, affordable art, as are end-of-year exhibitions at universities, colleges and art schools. Director of the Irma Stern Gallery, Christopher Peter, says: “UCT’s Michaelis undergraduate show is a bun fight of dealers and people panting to buy. To acquire the art of good young artists before their prices rocket, get in at the end of [their] second year. By their fourth year, many Michaelis students’ work has already been snapped up by the art institutions. Early work is sometimes better than anything that follows, because it’s when the artists are at an intense and highly charged time in their lives.
“Regarding resale investment, often it takes decades before you see a profit. Art investment is a minefield, only for those with money to burn or frustrated dealers. Plus, it’s hard to let go of beauty. But if you happen to find something really reasonably priced, which you know has an assured market and you don’t mind parting with it, wonderful! Release it into the world and grab the money.
“The mistake new collectors make is buying things other people have told them to, without really knowing what they like or having the courage to own up to what gives them joy. To thine own self be true. Don’t be governed by price (high or low) and, above all, don’t be conned into buying a signature just because it’s cheap.”
Mark Read of the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg says the golden rule is to build up knowledge about the sort of art you’d like to collect: “Great collections are put together by people who have a feel for what they’re doing, not people who’ve just thrown it together. It’s a journey and the collecting part should be fun. We deal with a lot of young, starting-out collectors who are trying to put together something meaningful. If they like a painting and can’t pay for the whole thing immediately, we let them pay in installments. And we’re willing to change artworks. If someone feels they’ve outgrown a piece, or they don’t like it as much as they thought they did, they bring it in. I certainly don’t want to think people are walking around with our paintings at home that they hate! That’s not what this is about.”
Jochen Zeitz, whose iconic collection of African art is now in Cape Town’s new landmark art museum the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, says: “You need to believe in what you buy. Research the artist. Talk to experts. Ultimately, you need to be emotionally and intellectually attached to what you would like to buy, not [buying it] just because somebody tells you this or that artist is great. It’s your personal decision.”
Cape-based dealer Penny Dobbie started collecting art 40 years ago. “Start slowly, find a kind art purveyor with good terms, who will allow you to pay in installments. If you choose wisely your money will grow while giving you enjoyment.”
She also emphasises the importance of not stinting on framing: “Leave the artwork unframed until you can afford a frame that enhances it. A bad frame can kill a work, so consult someone you respect. The number one prize is when the artist decorates the frame and it becomes an integral part of the work.”
A good place to get acquainted with what’s happening on the global contemporary art scene is the Royal Academy of Arts’ Summer Exhibition in London. Held in June, July and August every year, it’s the world’s largest open-submission exhibition, with over 1 000 artworks in all media.
Art fairs anywhere are a good way to get started, says Alexia Walker of Walker Scott Art Advisory. They’re an ideal place to chat to professionals – artists, gallerists, curators and other buyers – and to attend panel discussions to help you develop an eye and get a sense of your own tastes. Walker’s business partner Fred Scott says that if you come across a piece you like and don’t know anything about the artist, you should quiz the booth attendants. Establish whether the artist exhibits regularly and if there are essays or monograms on the artist.
Walker believes collecting art is about telling the story of a time, a culture and a community. She quotes Nigerian Prince Yemisi Shyllon, one of Africa’s most important collectors: “It should go beyond just collecting – it should go into the element of propagating the culture or the heritage of the people and way of life of the people.”
The Walker Scott Art Advisory offers a wide range of services to new and established corporate and private collectors. They will work out a collection strategy for you, research the art market and assist in both acquisition and disposal of art. The firm also audits and evaluates your collection and can manage it, which includes documentation, maintenance, preservation and restoration, as well as framing, installation and shipping. Their special focus is the management of art as an asset class, with an eye on future value.
“Success in investing in art requires more than owning a mediocre work by a famous artist,” says Scott. “It’s a highly specialised field which requires a good understanding of art market trends. The risk in purchasing young unknown artists is lower, as your initial investment is not high. Buying artworks of a famous artist who has passed away may be expensive, but this artist’s markets may be well established, minimising your investment risk. However, one can gain more pleasure from a good-quality work produced by a living, unknown artist than from a poor work by a deceased, but established artist. A further advantage when buying a living artist’s work is that you can meet and discuss their ideas and creative work.”