On Collecting

Added August 17th, 2016:

  • 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.

This is everything I could find from the past year (2014) that I wrote about art collecting:

Mission:

To collect objects of art that match or exceed in quality select oil paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from institutions like the Boston Athenæum, the Mead Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre Museum, and the Yale Center For British Art. Finding the portrait of Thomas Hill, Esq. by John Linnell early on, and finding a trove of literary connections through subsequent research, inspired me to collect hundreds of works over my lifetime. To ensure that each new acquisition improves upon the standards of the former–and, when more than one work by the same artist is acquired, it is not by association, but by merit, that such a choice is made–I leave no book unturned, no song unheard, no art unseen, that will be of help.

For two years I collected antiquarian books before realizing that I could find works by artists represented in major museums, albeit for much more than I was spending on books. Suddenly it became clear that unless I found the most beautiful of a type of work, my estimation of it would deteriorate over time. The books that I initially collected suffered from being deficient in their quality of materials, printing, binding, writing and typography. Rather than collect books at a higher level, I found that my background in oil painting made original art a field in which I could more easily find objects of the utmost beauty. As a result, collecting physical copies of music and books fell out of favor, and I was left to browsing recordings and books freely available online. These may turn into physical collections in the future, but for now all of the music and most of the books remain virtual.

What you don’t see on my site are the 2 million+ objects that I looked at in order to find those over a period of 14 months. Your standards literally have to be higher than that of museum curators in order to deal with that many choices. I see many things now in museums that are commonplace on eBay. That is why I have so much respect for people like Otto Wittmann and Sherman E. Lee, because they had astronomically high standards and they knew that unless they found the very best, the reputation of their acquisitions would deteriorate over time. The best collectors of the 17th century and earlier knew this by heart, and it is very telling that collectors today would rather build their own museums than attempt to improve upon established collections.

The auction format usually gives you a few days to do research on-the-fly, that may give you more confidence in placing a high bid. For example, the portrait that was being sold as a John Linnell was very convincing from the photos, but the seller only provided the Wikipedia entry for the artist. It was only after doing my own research on archive.org that I discovered an off-hand remark that this portrait was described as “miniature”‘, and that for me confirmed the authenticity of the painting, because it was indeed unusually small for a British oil portrait on a wood panel. I was fairly confident that it was too obscure to be an elaborate forgery, but the risk was there. After I received the painting, I transcribed the notes glued to the back of the panel and looked up all of the books associated with the sitter, Mr. Thomas Hill, Esq., which turned up over 25 pages of texts about him, including correspondence with Charles Dickens. This is all posted on the site, and it demonstrates how much more attention the seller could have gotten for the auction had he known these things about the painting and its colorful subject.

One more thing: never, ever assume that the best works in museums are out of reach to an amateur. It is not at all a linear scale where the most experienced and deep-pocketed buyers find the best work. Persistence and creativity when searching for antiques will open up opportunities that will make your competitors shake their heads in disbelief. Cultivate the highest standards that you can, and be prepared to go all-in when those opportunities appear.

Original works of art, as primary sources of history, and preserving for posterity the fingerprints and souls of great artists, transmute raw materials into the sublime, and into some of the highest achievements of human culture–among the most beautiful, inspiring, and pleasing objects in the world, often despite generations of neglect. They are some of the most extraordinary objects that money can buy. With the Internet, never has there been a greater opportunity for connoisseurs to rewrite the history of art through the unknown or unheralded objects that they acquire.

If the original works of the great artists were not uniquely worthy of study and admiration, then there would be no need to visit museums and galleries when all of the work is reproduced in art books; there would be no need to visit libraries when all of the work is reproduced in e-books; there would be no need to visit concerts when all of the work is reproduced on compact discs. But I think there is absolutely a need to engage all of these artistic creations in person–reproductions, in particular digital reproductions, are several steps removed from direct contact between the creator and the beholder, and in this direct contact is a whole universe of beauty, subtlety, and human connections that would otherwise be lost. Without this direct contact, the studies of the humanities and the liberal arts are unworthy of their names.

Acquisitions Policy:

What is the difference between regular art and museum-quality art?

Museum quality art is one in a million. I look for museum-quality artwork every day, and I consider myself lucky if something appears on the market once per month at my price range. It is directly linked to traditions, subject matter, and artists already kept in museums that I admire, and can hold its own when compared to them. It is something that I consider first and foremost to be extremely beautiful, and am willing to throw all of my money at it to obtain, and spare no expense to preserve it for posterity. I can hold up each piece and say, “This is what it’s all about.” My life is enriched because of what this artist created. It has cultural significance. Regular art is none of these things.

Paintings:

I will only buy oil paintings that have been painted on rigid panels, including copper, masonite, and wood panels. No stretched canvases–their durability is suspect, specifically the dangers of: paint flaking off the surface, severely increased risk of tampering, and the tautness of the canvas being sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. It terrifies me that paintings can disintegrate in this manner. Even if I find a painting that is clearly a masterpiece, I will be extremely leery if it is painted on stretched canvas. As a general rule, anything with stretcher bars are forbidden.

I dislike oval-shaped canvases.

In terms of subject matter portraits and figures hold the highest place because of their singular association with the divine. This includes allegories, historical scenes, and scenes with classical or religious architecture. Still life, landscape, and animal subjects are systematically avoided.

Because modern art has departed from tradition and cultivated beauty, it lies beyond the scope of my collecting interests. The antidote to fraudulent contemporary art is not criticism, but admiring, collecting, and promoting its stated enemies.

Sculpture:

When collecting sculpture the nude forms of bodies are paramount, so when props or clothing must appear they should only: (1) provide structural integrity, (2) tell the story with the utmost economy, and then (3) get out of the way. The full-length figure is preferred.

The use of bronze or other metals on a marble statue, or using a mixture of two or more types of stone, is almost always grounds for dismissal. A single carved stone is preferred.

The Zhou Dynasty style bronzes that I am trying to collect are typically in an unwashed state with ornaments in repeating patterns. There is an appearance of symmetry that, upon closer inspection, reveals that every form is unique in a subtle way.

I dislike cast bronze sculptures of human figures in all traditions and cultures because they are not carved or molded directly by the sculptor’s hands. I make an exception for the Zhou bronzes because hand-carved examples do not appear to exist.

Books:

Areas of interest include: poetry books, essay collections, letters, primary sources of eastern and western mysticism, and museum catalogs and books on art collecting. The books on mysticism interest me the most, because they suggest, like my favorite works of art or music, that there far more exquisite realms that exist than are suggested by mundane reality. The mystery of that, and the many suggestions that they are attainable, are irresistible to me. They claim to present better, albeit very challenging and disruptive, alternatives to how I currently live, and I wish to understand them as authentically as possible.

Some Thoughts on Collecting Art on eBay

  • Always look for, or request to see, the backside or underside of a painting or sculpture of interest. Whenever possible, I try to buy paintings on rigid panels such as wood or copper, and avoid the vast majority of paintings done on stretched canvas. Because of the expense, it is far less likely for a forger to use a panel. The authenticity of an original terra cotta sculpture I recently purchased was confirmed by finding dozens of pinholes on the underside of the base, and finding their absence on an artist’s proof.
  • Study the seller’s transaction history: do they sell art for a living, or do they happen to have a couple random art objects that they want to get rid of? The former usually sells heavily curated second-rate objects, the latter sometimes unknowingly sells uncurated first-rate objects.
  • Does an object have dozens of bids early on? This is usually because the seller is popular, and not because the object is worthwhile.
  • Always download all of the photos supplied by the seller for an object of interest. A basic image-editor such as Apple’s Preview can glean important information from them by adjusting brightness, temperature, saturation, and contrast.
  • Not sure if an object is unique? Blouin Art Sales Index can dig up copies and prices paid, and even Google image search can find duplicates and link you to their auction listing. I usually check to see whether an object is fresh to market: sometimes I will find that the seller has recently purchased it and is trying to flip it on eBay for profit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is helpful to know how much it last sold for.
  • Not sure if an object is a forgery? See if there is, or has ever been, a market for copyists or forgeries. I try to avoid artists, subject matter, or styles that have an extensive history of copying. I especially avoid art that is easy to copy (by the artist or by forgers), such as metal objects, abstract art, prints, lithographs, engravings, photographs. It is much harder to find, but to me much more rewarding, to find an absolutely unique work of art, molded by the hands of a master craftsman.
  • For every authentic first-rate work that you find eBay, there are 5,000 mediocre objects. I suggest going on Flickr or Pinterest to look at tourist photographs of first-rate objects in museums: these are the quality of photos that eBay sellers use, so knowing what a museum-quality object looks like through the lens of a shoddy cell-phone camera is crucial. Understand how much lighting conditions, or a lack of varnish, affect the appearance of a painting in such photos.
  • Saved searches are useful for the names of individual artists, as well as for sellers who routinely find high quality work from estate sales.
  • I like to search across extremely broad themes, such as anything painted on or sculpted in wood, or anything by a listed artist, or anything by an artist linked to wikipedia in the item description, or anything that represents the Virgin Mary. It is important to continually revisit museum databases to retrieve keywords that are useful to search for.
  • Outside of the US, there are strong markets in ebay.co.uk, ebay.it, ebay.at, ebay.es, ebay.com.au, ebay.fr, ebay.be, the-salesroom.com, liveauctioneers.com, molotok.ru, auctions.yahoo.co.jp, mercadolibre.com.co, gittigidiyor.com

Acquisition Method

Go to museum databases that photograph and catalog a large percentage of their holdings (MFA Boston, Five Colleges Collections Database, Rijksmuseum, Google Art Project, etc.) and keep a record of all the objects that you want. Do the same in person at local museums and libraries that you admire. Approach museums and libraries as if everything had a price tag, because most of them once did. Museums traditionally seek the best examples of any particular object, so they are your best resource for cultivating your tastes. For books, it is often better to examine the personal libraries of great men and women, so I would point you to a combination of LibraryThing Legacy Libraries and archive.org to find exemplary books to browse through. If you’re looking to collect books for their bindings or typography, the auction sites will be of more use.

Go to auction websites and look up those objects in past lots to see what kind of market there is for them (Blouin Art Sales Index, eBay completed listings, Christie’s past auction sales, Liveauctioneers past auction sales, etc.). Constantly write down everything about your favorite objects: distinctive materials that they’re made out of, construction methods, associated time periods and cultures, associated artists, teachers, and students, subject matter, etc.

If you have been keeping good records, you will now have a huge supply of keywords with which to search for live auctions. On a site like eBay, I like to think of auction searching like an archaeological dig: the more specific and targeted your keywords are, the more effective you will be at sifting away the dirt. And there is a LOT of dirt. For every object that I think is worth collecting, there are about 3,000-5,000 objects that have to be brushed aside. It is safe to assume that a great many of the best objects in museums are found by culling for months or years at a time. You can expect to find the best objects now on eBay, because almost anywhere else the objects have been screened by curators in order to attract the largest amount of bidders, and do not have the benefit (for you, the savvy collector) of being hidden in the dirt from all but the most discerning. On eBay you must find the non-professional sellers who have great items but don’t know how to market them–this is where the great finds for the lowest prices happen.

You must put yourself in front of tens of thousands of objects and compare them. You can start with the online image databases of all major museums. In some cases they represent 95% of museum holdings. Compare these museum-quality works directly to the paintings and sculptures on eBay. And also learn what it takes to create a terrible artwork, a mediocre artwork, a decent artwork, and a masterful artwork, and attribute value to how well it was made, how expensive the materials are, and what effect it has on you aesthetically. At this point I can tell if something is good as soon as it scrolls across the screen. However, it usually takes looking at 5,000 terrible objects before this happens. With all of those comparisons under your belt, you’ll be able to recognize immediately when something is a copy of an old master, is made of fraudulent materials, or when the hand of a great artist is at work.

You have to have the patience to wait three, four, five years for something good to appear, recognize the rarity of the situation, and have the confidence to out-bid everyone else. The challenge is learning how to cast a large enough net that can capture at least one interesting work each month. I try to find at least three candidates, and choose from among them.

Part of the motivation for art collecting is to prove that it doesn’t require vast fortunes to buy original art. I began to realize that I was overpaying for antique books, and paying very little comparatively for culturally and aesthetically significant original art. On top of this, the sector of the art market over which auction houses have no control is disorganized, scattered, and obscured. The collector who can navigate such treacherous and uncharted territory is at a great advantage, because the field is ripe for discovery.

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