Collecting, or how to start

In its basic form,  art appreciation is a reaction that occurs in certain parts of one’s brain, pon exposure to something perceived as a true work of art. Therefore, the first step that I would recommend any connoisseur to be: if you are interested in a particular subject, start by exposing yourself to the best work, in the best condition.

At this point the brain reaction is either going to be substantial, or – not. In the latter case, the wise thing to do is to bow out, saying that this type of art is simply not for you. I heard many times stories about someone gradually developing appreciation for something that at first appeared inconsequential and unartistic. However in the end none of these people were able to create an outstanding collection, or otherwise contribute to the field. Repeated exposure to the works of varied quality can teach the difference between the masterpiece and something simply above average, but if there is no reaction to the best of the best in the first place, the student of art is much more likely to be driven in his appreciation by unrelated psychological stimuli. And art appreciation is always accompanied by those. To name but a few – perceived rarity, subconscious priming, herd instinct – all are well covered in the research literature, and all are especially powerful in collecting, where the objects typically lack functionality, practicality, and therefore there is no truly objective way to ascertain their commercial value. One can learn to mimic perception of the “experts” regarding what is considered as true art, and fake, even to oneself, the excitement of studying it, but it will never match the real feeling in intensity and depth.

Provided you were impressed by the best pieces, before you proceed, there is one important warning: do not believe people who tell you that collecting is a great investment. Most of the “data” they operate comes from unprecedented increase of “signature premium” (i.e. the extra one is expected to pay, usually for signed work, by an accepted Master), which occurred in the XXth century (as discussed in the excellent treatise on the subject, The Economics of Taste by Gerald Reitlinger). It should not be used as a general guidance. As it is with other goods, there are fabs, periods during which prices of particular items increase manyfolds, followed by slumps, when same items are difficult to sell, even at a serious discount. On general-average it does appear however, that since antiques do not generate consistent added value, their price over the course of the last couple of centuries remained more or less the same, with the value of top paintings significantly increasing, but the value of swords, porcelain and furniture remaining stagnant, especially when evaluated in gold currency.

In particular, you should expect the first three years to be that of a loss. You’ll make many mistakes. You’ll learn that something that looks perfect to you might have condition issues that are considered unacceptable by the community; that there are many copies that are close in quality to the originals, that your taste is probably somewhat off from what is considered to be a “standard” in the field, and that distinguishing between mediocre and good work can be difficult at first.

There are few things that can help to diminish the initial losses:
a. Accepting that you are not going to discover the lost masterpiece, and therefore avoiding paying very much extra for something that “might be it”. Don’t try to make money off the field you barely understand. The best strategy is buying something you really-really like.
b. Establishing a resale strategy that allows you to quickly get rid of your “mistakes”.
c. Consulting with others before buying. Provided there are many more self-believed experts than should be, at worst such practice exposes you to community perceptions (and misconceptions), at best – will save you from financial losses and embarassment.

In the mean time, you should also do two things – buy books and try to develop a relationship with a senior collector. You’ll quickly learn that books tend to be useless, as all they do is say that Rembrandt is great and show couple of poorly reproduced examples of his work; a good collector can enlighten you however on the differences between Rembrandt and other work of the same period, which nuances to pay attention to, and so on.

At this point you are pretty much set on your path, and where does it lead you is mostly a personal choice. A few hints or techniques might be helpful though:

a. The quality is best seen with side by side comparison. Place your new acquisition next to the best piece in your collection. It might be that either of the two will suddenly loose its appeal. Also, when buying something, try to look, if only briefly, at a really good piece on the same day. It might happen that what seemed like a quality work, because the rest of the things in the shop are plain awful, turns out to be just another, rather average item.
b. Good collector learns to conscientiously separate first, quick, “gut” reaction, from secondary reaction (or buyer’s remorse) and, finally – long term appreciation. To observe the latter, it can be a good idea to keep your new acquisition next to your bed or work desk for a few months.When looking at it, after a while, you can find yourself either questioning its quality, or constantly making excuses (I had to purchase it because the price was too good etc.). It can be rewarding to try to actually verbalize what aspect of it you find disturbing. If the long term appreciation falls below the first impression, it could be that the item is flashy, with bold, powerful techniques. These tend to be striking at first, but somewhat less deeply appreciated long term. Reverse is true for quality, but more subtle work. If the secondary reaction is too different from the first impression, it might be a sign of being impacted by psychological factors. It can be very useful, in any case, to study at least some of the research literature on persuasion and psychology of valuation.
c. Collecting opportunities come in droves. It is a bad, but common, habit to buy an item every month (or two). It slowly drives collector to become a dealer, with a stock of mediocre items that looked kind of good, but are nothing special. For the first two, three, maybe even five years that is going to be the case anyway, as one learns the ropes. But the really good buys are always result of sudden opportunity (frankly speaking – collectors tend to be old and die), where you are often required to part with a significant sum on a short notice. Its important to recognize them and to have the financial resources ready.
d. Respect expert opinion, but try to use it as a starting point in your research. All too often I am approached by a collector with a piece, accompanied by a pile of opinions, authored by big time dealers and museum curators. Usually these are not substantiated at all, instead conferring the sense that people who issued them have some secret powers and knowledge, thanks to which they know for certain that this item is exactly that. It is a common, but a corrupt practice. Very few people can easily admit that they actually don’t know something, and most expert opinions are but stories, originated by someone in the early 1900s, and retold time and time over, without ever questioning their validity. But even aside from some subjects worthy of a true research effort, there are plenty of people who rather ask around about a signature on their piece, rather than compare it directly against those found in books. Actually, very few collectors even have books to compare the signatures against them! There are plenty of people who are willing to spend 10,000$ on an item, but consider 50-100$ for a book to be an exorbitant luxury.
e. Don’t regret things. Instead of lamenting on missed opportunity, try to see why it was missed. Is this opportunity appears that great now exactly because it was missed, and therefore you are prevented from having buyer’s remorse or another chance to truly evaluate it? And was there a case, when you actually grasped a similar opportunity, and then came to regret it?