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Collecting Oil Paintings: How to Get Started

by Aubrey Dawson (03/06/12).

When you do some research you will learn about trends in pricing for oil paintings. This painting by British artist Thomas Sydney Cooper sold for £15,000 in 2009. Ten years ago, it could have sold for £50,000.

For thousands of years, human beings have sought to create images of the things around them in a variety of mediums. From early cave paintings to magnificent 17th-century Dutch masters and controversial modern day works, our civilization has been shaped, interpreted and understood through our art. The best and most fulfilling reason to collect art is because you love it. Theophile Gautier, the 19th century French art critic, called it “l’art pour l’art,” meaning “art for art’s sake.” On a purely aesthetic level, the art that you collect and love will be a constant source of pride and pleasure. But be warned: collecting is an addictive hobby and can easily become a lifelong obsession. Your wallet may also require a little therapy along the way!

When you first decide to invest in paintings, you have two choices—buying purely for pleasure or buying for investment. The two reasons can often overlap, but the latter is an exact science and takes a great deal of research, dedication and, sometimes, risk. When buying for pleasure or purely aesthetic purposes, the golden rule is: buy what you like. I cannot stress this enough. The art market is a fickle beast and changes greatly over time. So if you are unable to re-sell a painting due to a change in the market, you’ll still own a nice piece that you enjoy hanging on the wall.

Pictures can gain in value over time, but they can also drop. Victorian oil paintings are a good example. In the last five years, there has been a big drop in these, mostly affecting the lower and mid ranges. It’s not because they are any less attractive or well-painted, but simply because tastes, fashions and opinions change. Ten years ago, a large idyllic country landscape with cattle by the famous British artist Thomas Sidney Cooper could have fetched upwards of $50,000. Today you could probably buy the same painting for half the price.

Buying paintings for investment can be a rewarding and profitable pastime. As you begin to learn and grow in confidence, your appetite for investing will increase. Before you know it, you will have amassed a good foundation on which to build your knowledge and expand your collection. In the early days, you should regard it in the same way you would gambling; it’s not without risk, and you must be prepared to make mistakes (lose money). However, this is good in the long-term, because there really is no better way to learn than from your mistakes.

This unsigned oil on canvas painting in the British School, 19th century, of figures on a bridge in a Highlands landscape was estimated to sell for between $1,500-$2,500 in a auction held on Feb. 3, 2012, at Skinners Antiques and Appraisers. The buyer made away with a nice buy, getting it for $889.

Before you even think about buying, you first need to invest your time. Auctions are an excellent place to learn what to buy. Most houses will sell a variety of paintings, from as little as $20 up to many thousands. Auction houses can seem like scary places, but they are free to visit and anyone can look around. Learn to love them; they’re quite addictive. Also, buy a catalogue, as they are a good investment because they’ll have a description of each lot and an estimated price. Furthermore, they provide a useful source of information later on. Engage with the auctioneers and sale-room assistants, as they will often be delighted to impart their knowledge and answer questions. There will usually be a viewing period of a few days before an auction, when you can walk around and see everything on offer.

The next step is simple but important: attend the auction. It may seem hard to follow at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Use your catalogue and follow every lot as it comes up. Jot down prices, and note items that seem to be hotly contested. This instantly puts your finger on the pulse of the art market, as you can see up-to-date prices, what’s doing well and what isn’t. For example, after attending a few auctions in your region, you might notice that early 20th century modern art is doing well, whereas dark Victorian oil paintings have less interest and more lots unsold. This enables you to build up a good idea of your local art market. Watch for trends and pay attention to an artist who’s pictures seem to be steadily increasing in price.

Art galleries and shops also provide a good source of information. You may be surprised at the difference in prices compared to auction houses. Be a little more wary with an art gallery, as they will be keen to sell you whatever they have. Most galley owners are excellent and helpful, but some may just tell you what you want to hear.

After auction houses and galleries, the third—and perhaps easiest—source of information is the Internet. Recently, many “art price” websites, including Invaluable, ArtPrice and WorthPoint, have sprung up and become popular. They store the prices for all art sold at auction throughout the world, together with other useful information, such as artist biographies. You may have to subscribe, but what you get back in knowledge is well worth it. Some sites also list forthcoming items for sale at auction.

After investing some time learning what’s popular and what sells, you’re ready to make your first purchase. Hopefully, by now you will have decided on a genre you like, be it Impressionist landscapes, Victorian portraits or Dutch still lives; the choice is yours and there’s plenty to choose from. Don’t feel pressured to buy the first thing you like, as there’s no rush, so bide your time and wait until the right piece comes up. Let your heart guide you to the right piece, but then buy it with your head. You should also expect to be outbid by stronger buyers. Set yourself a price ceiling and stick to it; if you lose a piece, save your money and wait for something else. You should also be aware of buyer’s commission rates. You’ll pay anywhere from 10- to 25- percent premium on top of the “hammer” price. It’s important to buy from a reputable source and one you’re familiar with; that way, if you have a problem, you have some protection. For example, if you buy a lot cataloged as by a certain artist and it later turns out to be a copy, then you have course for recompense.

“View with a Young Shepherdess on a Fjord,” by Hans Andreas Dahl (Norwegian, 1881-1919), an oil on canvas painting measuring 40 inches by 60 inches, held a presale estimate of $25,000-$35,000 in the same Skinners auction. It realized $20,145.

Inspect the painting you are interested in before buying it. If need be, take it off the wall and check the reverse side. Condition is important and there are many things that may slip past the untrained eye. First, ask the auctioneer or seller for a condition report. This should cover any damage, restoration or other problems. Then check it out closely for yourself. Once you have seen and handled many paintings, these will start to become obvious. Small areas of damage, over-painting, restoration, problems with the frame are all things that can have a detrimental effect on value. Dirty oil paintings often just require cleaning to restore them to their former glory. Don’t worry too much about frame condition; the important bit is the painting itself.

You may also hear people talking about “provenance.” This is essentially the history of the painting. Genuine provenance is important and you’ll find great emphasis is placed upon it. The catalogue may state any known history, such as where it came from, who owned it and when it was previously sold. The back of the painting can also tell a story, with old labels, hand-written notes, gallery stickers and sometimes original artists’ labels. These details themselves paint a nice picture and are an added attraction for a collector. Sadly, whenever an artist sells well, unscrupulous people will fake their work, and even the experts can be fooled. Fakes and forgeries are a separate topic, but for now I’ll say this: buy from a reputable source and you should be OK. But use common sense; if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Collecting paintings is a real joy and there is a great deal you can accomplish. Indeed, many people make a living from buying and selling art. As your collection grows you may choose to sell some of your earlier acquisitions to make room for better pieces. The choice is yours. Amass your collection slowly, lovingly and enjoy it. But above all, remember the golden rule; buy what you like, because a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Aubrey Dawson is an experienced art & antiques auctioneer and appraiser in the United Kingdom. He also regularly works as an expert valuer for several antiques television programs in the U.K. He can be contacted at aubreydawson [at] me [dot] com, via www.AubreyDawson.com and you can follow hiim on Twitter at @aubreydawson.

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