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Pursuing Your Passion for Art: Your First Purchase

A guide to choosing your first piece of art.

As appeared in Wealth magazine

Pursuing Your Passion for Art: Your First Purchase

A guide to choosing your first piece of art.

Buying your first significant piece of art − an original work that may cost four, five or even six figures − can feel intimidating and risky. How do you know you’re getting a quality piece? How can you identify a worthy investment?

Here are a few dos and don'ts to help you get started:

DON’T: Expect to Make a Short-term Profit

Although large gains in value for works of art often receive attention in the press, new collectors should not expect to see major returns, especially in the near-term. Buying a mega-talent before he or she is discovered, or an underappreciated art form that’s about to catch a wave of global popularity, is often the exception, not the rule. “When buying that first work, don’t prioritize potential short-term profit over finding a piece that speaks to you aesthetically and emotionally,” says Tim Bresnahan, associate director of Philanthropic Services at Northern Trust.

As you begin to collect, think of art as personal property, something you purchase to enjoy as a part of your daily life, regardless of market fluctuations.

DO: Immerse Yourself in Art

The more art you see, the better you’ll understand what’s out there, what it costs and what you like. Park yourself in the art section of a bookstore for an afternoon. Browse galleries, museums, art fairs and online publications, such as,, and Consider subscribing to magazines like Modern Painters, Artforum, The Art Newspaper and Art in America. 

You’ll discover whether you prefer drawings, watercolors or sculpture, for example, and whether you gravitate toward images that are abstract or representational. 

DON’T: Shop for Art Without a Budget

As you begin the process, it is important to consider your budget. Decide how much you’ll spend, including whether you’d rather buy less expensive works as you learn how to collect, or start with a single work you’d like to be the cornerstone of your collection. 

Remember to take into consideration additional expenses associated with acquiring and owning art. Educating yourself about the financial realities of being a collector is an important component of protecting your investment. "It's important to consider costs associated with buying and displaying art, such as framing, maintenance and insurance,” cautions Bresnahan. "Where you buy a work of art can also lead to added costs above and beyond the price you pay for the work." 

For example, auction houses may charge a buyer's premium on top of the sale price paid by a successful buyer of an auction item.   

DO: Wait for a Piece of Art You Love

You might be on the hunt for a piece to fill a space on the wall or on a table, but that’s not necessarily enough. “Art should move you,” says Nicole Berry, deputy director and head of VIP relations for EXPO CHICAGO, the International Exposition of Contemporary and Modern Art.  

“Look for a work that offers a humorous, intellectually challenging or fresh perspective on the subject matter – or in the case of an abstract piece, on the art-making process itself,” she says. “Hold out for something that you have a visceral reaction to.”

DON’T: Buy Art Without Research

“Once you’ve picked a piece, learn everything you can about it and its creator,” says Kathryn Selig Brown, former curator of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and author of numerous books and articles about Asian art. The gallery or auction house should be able to provide the provenance of the work, which documents who has owned it before and whether it has been displayed in any important exhibitions or publications.  

Learning about the artist’s life and times can provide context and meaning for the work. Find out about any prestigious awards the artist has won; fellowships or academic positions he or she has held; and notable collectors or museums that own his or her work – any of which can be positive indications about the long-term value of the piece. An artist with decades of renown is generally a safer investment than a new artist. 


DO: Understand the Art Buying Process

There are two markets for art. The primary market consists of works by living artists that are newly for sale. The secondary market typically includes work by artists from the past that are being resold, usually by an auction house or gallery. Galleries take their fee from the seller; auction houses charge the buyer, typically tacking a 20% to 25% buyer’s premium onto the winning bid. If you’re planning to buy at auction, attend a few first to get a feel for the process.

DON’T: Buy Art Without Checking the Price 

The fair market value of an artwork is easier to ascertain than you might think. Look for the sale prices of comparable works (by the same artist, from the same period, at the same size, using the same materials, etc.). The gallery or auction house may be able to provide documents showing their own related sales. You can also look at the online auction records of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, or through large online databases. 

Once you have that information, you can seek a fair price – and bring home a piece of art with an interesting back story, that’s likely to hold its value for the long-term and is a proud expression of your taste and sensibilities.