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How to Buy the Right Piece of Art

January 5, 2011

Photo by Rachelle Sherman

I’ve heard it said ‘People don’t buy art because they don’t know how to.’

Thus the post: I’m going to tell you how to get a great piece of art. [Disclaimer–there are many holes in my arguments, I’ll admit from the outset, so take everything with a grain of salt.]

Galleries will force a bunch of (what are in my mind ridiculous) litmus tests down your throat. Here are some of my favorites and why I think they are dead wrong (unless you are Warren Buffett):

1. Don’t buy anything from an artist who isn’t regularly sold in the major auction houses.
Wrong because: a. New and fresh art is being created every day. Artists that are being traded in the auction houses today were living in hovels 120 years ago. They were so frustrated with the establishment that they started doing crazy things like cutting their ears off. Today’s establishment too often safely touts the virtues of innovators of yesterday, while ignoring the innovators of today. b. At the auction house, unless you have a first rate budget (millions of dollars) you are going to get a second or third rate piece of art from an established big name. Much better, in my opinion, to get a first rate piece of art from a current name for a fraction of the cost.

2. Only buy from a gallery who will take your artwork back at any time and credit its value toward another work of art.
Wrong because: Same reasons as above. New and even established artists find themselves working with whatever gallery resources they have available to them. I would cut my own ear off to own pieces by artists who unfortunately aren’t represented by galleries with deep, deep pockets.


1. Buy Something You Absolutely Love

This is the rule of all rules, in my opinion. If the piece speaks to you aesthetically and conceptually, it will be a pleasure to live with, and no rises or dips in the market will tarnish your connection to the work.

2. If At All Possible, Buy Original Artwork

Yes, I offer prints of my images. Do I think they are worth the canvas they are printed on? Yes, and maybe a little more. But it ends there. Some reproductions even trade for significant amounts of money on the secondary market. But I don’t think it will last. Technology is improving, but these objects weren’t made to last for centuries of time. Better to save for the real thing and experience a direct connection with the artist’s hand. There is texture, translucency, and subtly in the original that can never be captured in a reproduction. A small original can often be purchased for the same price as a large reproduction. Yes, I realize it is often a specific image that speaks to you, and that image is only available as a print. And I say go for it. But if you’re sitting on the fence–spring for an original.

3. The Early Bird Gets the Worm

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people want to buy something that just sold. So how do you get first dibs? This can be tricky for a couple of reasons. Even though an artist may be grateful to sell a piece in the studio before it’s completed, a pre-sale can actually make the finished work of art worse. There can be a mental and emotional hold over the work, preventing an artist from freely making necessary creative and aesthetic changes. Also, some artist simply keep their studios closed–so there is no opportunity to buy a piece before it’s finished. Get to know the artist and find out if he or she likes to sell out of the studio. If not, make sure you’re on the artist’s mailing list as well as the mailing list of the artist’s galleries. Develop a relationship with both. Some artists and galleries will send out images to preferred clients, giving those clients first dibs. Request to be on that list. If all else fails, and this may be the best advice yet, come a little early to the art show reception–not so early as to annoy the people setting up–but early enough that everything is hung and you can lay claim to that perfect piece.

4. Avoid Interfering in The Creative Process

You’re paying for the artist’s expertise and vision, right? So why would you want to interfere? Don’t ask an artist to paint a photo that you took–that’s not the artist’s composition–it’s yours. Avoid asking the artist to put your loved one’s face in the picture–it’s hard enough to make everything fit perfectly into a composition without adding distracting peripheral constraints. Let the artist make a masterpiece without interference. But what about commissions? Yes, I accept commissions–if the patron wants me to do something along the lines of my usual work, and if the patron gives me plenty of artistic freedom. Even then it can be hard to finish a commission well.


Usually I visit the space where the work will hang. I measure the space, look at the room’s design elements, and envision something that will work nicely. Scale is important, as is how high the work sits off the ground. I talk to the patron about general themes they are interested in. I take this information home with me and work up three or four sketches from which the patron chooses their favorite. This allows me to create compositions without too much dictation from the patron, but also involves the patron in the decision-making process. Once the sketch is chosen, I get to work. I often send photos of the work in progress to the patron as a courtesy, but I don’t ask for suggestions. I need to be able to take or leave specific parts of the composition in order to make the whole thing better. Months later, after I’ve agonized over the process, the commission is complete, and hopefully both the patron and I are happy with the finished product. I ask for the patron’s final approval, hoping and expecting they will appreciate the expertise I bring to the work.


I’m not a rules person. I hate reading articles that list rules. In fact, I’ve been cringing the whole time I’ve been writing and proofreading this article. Like I said, take everything with a grain of salt. And the title of this article? So presumptuous and arrogant. The only reason I wrote it is to get people to read the article.


Get to know the artists you love and want to collect from. Ask them, “How can I get one of your best pieces? Can I get on your preferred client list? Do you accept visitors in your studio?” Be prepared to tell them what your favorite pieces from their past have been. Be patient but vigilant.

P.S. – If there’s anything I didn’t address in this article, let me know. I’d be happy to continue this discussion in a later post.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Alli permalink
    January 5, 2011 12:55 pm

    So True Kirk!
    As an art consultant, I believe the first “rule” is to love the piece. If you absolutely love it now then most likely you will love it in 10, 20, 30 years.
    My gallery sells reproductions, primarily, but we also carry a few originals and there is no reproduction that can even compare with an original. I love seeing the artist’s hand and the texture of the brushstroke. Reproductions are great for the price but I believe everyone should have a goal to own at least 1 original painting in their lifetime.
    Love your art Kirk- Love your blog too!!
    Alli Dawson, Repartee Gallery Fort Union

  2. January 5, 2011 5:31 pm

    I saw art critic Dave Hickey speak once. He said (somewhat paraphrased) –Too many people have spent too much on art because a man with an exotic accent and a tailored armani suit looked them in the eye and said “I can tell YOU have discerning taste.” He also said, every time you walk by a piece you should say, ” I am SO glad I bought that piece” and regardless of the price, you should feel like it was worth it.

  3. February 3, 2011 2:41 pm

    Oops! I guess I blew #4.

  4. February 3, 2011 4:44 pm

    Hey J, great article…. especially #1 ” Buy art you absolutely love”. I’ve got a print of yours on my wall. Love it… wish I owned the original:)

  5. Kristiina permalink
    April 25, 2012 11:39 am

    Could I add one suggestion for how to *sell* art? It would be wonderful if the prices for your pieces were included online, or if they could be provided by email. I absolutely love your work, but am intimidated at having to call your home to ask for prices. It would be much easier to contemplate a possible purchase here in the quiet of my home, with that information in front of me.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful work online. Gorgeous!

    • April 25, 2012 12:36 pm


      Did I spell your name correctly? Thank you so much for your great suggestion. I am always happy to provide prices by email. Perhaps I should make that more clear on my website. There are reasons I don’t put prices on the site itself. I wish I could, but it creates conflict–particularly with the various galleries and their pricing structures. Some galleries take 40%, some 50%, and others varying amounts. I don’t want to publicly advertise a price that may undercut or overcharge based on their various price structures. Does that make sense. Again, I love your suggestion. Email me about any pieces you’d like to know about, and I’d be happy to email you those prices.


  6. September 3, 2012 4:09 am

    Two questions:

    I have never been able to afford original artwork, but maybe that is because I haven’t ever been able to have the chance to interact with any of my favorite artists. I also don’t want to insult them because of money constraints. How do you get a feel for an artist’s prices, when I havent ever seen them on their website, and their originals do not seem to be on the secondary market (and the secondary market doesn’t seem to relate to the price originally paid to the artist anyway) so maybe I could afford an original and not have any idea that I could. How much do you need to have “saved up” to even make an entrance into buying original works.

    What is the best way to communicate with artists who I have never met, and who I do not have the ability to travel to meet? I have been to several galleries when the artist was there, but each time the artist seemed to be monolpolized by people who knew the artist, and his or her work, way better than I do. I find listening at the edge of the conversation is pretty acceptable, but even waiting respectfully for others to be done talking, does not seem to make an opening for someone to notice I am there, and see if I have any questions. Once I did get to ask a question, but the artist and his “devout followers” thought it so simplistic that several snickered, and the artist gave about a ten word answer, before go back to discussing brush strokes and a number of other details that I did not understand.

    I hope these aren’t too simple, but I haven’t ever met someone I could ask about this. Since this post is for people starting out, I am hoping it is the right place to ask.


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