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How to Buy It

Priceless and emotional: How to buy fabulous fine art

  • Buy it now
    Daniel Firman's Butterfly at Frieze Art Fair, one of Europe's biggest affordable art fairs. (AFP/Getty Images)
  • Affordable art
    Affordable Art Fair sells original works for as little as $100. Buyers at a fair in Singapore. (Affordable Art Fair SG)
  • Art ambush
    Familiarise yourself with art through exhibitions like this one in Sydney's Darling Quarter. (Enzo Amato)
  • Shopper's delight
    There are more than 500 galleries in New York City's Chelsea neighbourhood. (Agora Gallery)
  • Up close
    Some galleries host live painting exhibitions. Artists are available afterward to discuss their work. (Enzo Amato)
  • Art love
    Bill Dimas (left) and John Wiltshire turned their art-collecting life into gallery ownership in Sydney. (Enzo Amato)
  • Taste matters
    Works by artists like Eric LoPresti, seen here, sell for as low as $1,100 on Uprise Art. (Olivia Divecchia)
  • Personal flair
    Uprise Art sold this work, Sunburn in Naples by Brea Souders, to one of its first members. (Uprise Art)
  • Get in early
    Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4m. In 1985, a Koons could sell for $3,000. (AFP/Getty Images)
  • Continental appeal
    In the Americas, Europe and Asia a global art fair group brings art under $10,000 to everyone. (Affordable Art Fair SG)

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Bill Dimas’s love affair with fine art developed as a child growing up in the small city of Corinth on the Greek mainland. When not visiting ancient archaeological sites, Dimas passed his time happily painting murals on his bedroom walls.

Travelling through Europe as a teenager, he dragged friends through every gallery in a bid to catch a glimpse of the Great European Masters.

Eventually moving to Sydney, Australia, Dimas, met John Wiltshire, a fellow enthusiast. They bought their first three works together from a contemporary artist in New Zealand for $250 to 500NZD ($209 to $418) while the paintings were still wet.

“We were just starting our careers, but realised great work doesn’t necessarily have a particular price point,” Dimas said.

To an aspiring collector, looking in on the contemporary art world it might seem an exclusive, inaccessible, club where multimillion-dollar purchases are common. But today there are more ways than ever for inexperienced buyers to educate themselves and with luck get their hands on their very own masterpiece, especially contemporary paintings.  

New ways to track down coveted pieces are myriad with many galleries also launching online stores, auction houses and references online making art buying more accessible and affordable.

Hunting for the next Andy Warhol could mean not only finding works for $1,000 or less but also earning a fortune from your investment twenty years down the track. If an emerging artist develops a successful career then their works skyrocket in value. Jeff Koons’ statue Balloon Dog (Orange) broke world records last year at a Christie’s auction when it sold for $58.4m. But when he was starting out as an artist, his work sold for a fraction: as little as $3,000 in 1985.

While tastes vary, buying is almost always motivated by passion; a work could have far more emotional value to someone than its price tag belies. Dimas and Wiltshire, for instance, still own those first paintings they bought.

“Art goes beyond business. We had no idea who this artist was but we loved what we saw, and his work just happened to be in our price point,” Dimas said.

For most people, knowing exactly what to buy, where to buy it and at what price will secure the most lucrative deal or sentimental purchase. But expert assistance might be necessary, depending on how much you’re looking to invest. Here’s a look at how to buy fabulous fine art.

How to buy it

Begin your quest on a weekend afternoon or evening and you just might find yourself rubbing elbows with famous painters at opening exhibition parties. Gallery directors like Angela Di Bello of Agora Gallery in New York, will give you a comprehensive background of the artists on display. If you make a genuine impression, Di Bello said most galleries will give a 10% discount on art purchases. Others might go as far as introducing you to the artist.

The rise of the art websites — there are more than 300 now — is another big trend that helps would-be buyers. Experts also say these online transaction platforms could eventually increase valuation of art because they add liquidity to the lower end of the market.

Think of it as the younger generation coming in and saying “‘there’s got to be a way to make this accessible to us,” said Tze Chun, CEO of online art marketplace Uprise Art.

Chun’s company sells the work of contemporary emerging artists for $10,000 or less and gives the option to pay off some works in unlimited monthly instalments of $50 to $100, without interest. Also online, Artstar sells limited edition fine art prints, but if it’s the originals you’re after,  there’s Paddle8 and Artnet. Always remember to read the website’s terms and conditions.

If you need to limit your options and want the satisfaction of walking away with a painting under your arm art fairs are becoming increasingly popular. The global Affordable Art Fair visits the Americas, Asia, and Europe, selling pieces between $100 and $10,000.

Art to profit from?

If you’re looking for long-term value, Australia-based curator Amanda Love, a private art consultant, said it is important to first set a budget and then invest in major works within that price bracket. Quality should play into your decision, but remember that a work develops historical importance based on its critical acclaim in the art community — which can take time — she said.

“There’s no point in buying a fifth-rate Picasso when you could buy a fabulous Rebecca Warren sculpture for the same price,” Love explained.

Love charges a per-annum $2,000 retainer to guide her clients through the art world, helping them forge relationships and educate themselves by previewing works in museums, galleries and through her members-only archive. It can take two years or more for some clients to decide on a purchase.

Many large auction houses like Sotheby’s in Beijing and Zurich have consultants who match private buyers and sellers and advise on auction sales.

Can’t afford a consultant? Websites like Artsy and ArtDiscover help buyers research the work of some 18,000 artists from around the world. 

And you could still learn a thing or two at auctions, even if you don’t go to buy. Diana Wierbicki, head of art law at Withers Worldwide in New York, said some people are attending the sales just to gauge pricing trends and artist popularity, later buying works privately.

To finance a pricey work, banks will typically lend art buyers 50% the value of the piece with interest rates of as low as 2%, said Jim Minich, managing director at CTC Consulting a part of BMO Financial Group's Chicago office. Buyers can take a personal loan to finance less famous works. Post-purchase, some owners use their collection as collateral and borrow money against its value, investing the cash in stocks or mutual funds.

The fine print of ownership

New buyers beware: there are many logistical elements involved in the acquisition process. You might want to hire a lawyer to ensure loans taken out by the former owner of a piece of art are paid off. Some people take loans to finance their purchase while others might put the art up for collateral on another loan. It’s critical on pricey works to make sure the art isn’t tied up in a loan.

“It used to be a hand shake-type industry, which was fine when prices were lower. Now that it’s an asset class, it needs to be treated more like real estate,” Wierbicki said.Always negotiate contracts and pricing. If you don’t negotiate (and understand) the terms laid out in the contract, Wierbicki said, later on if, say,  you find out the work is a forgery, it can be impossible to get your money back. Newbies may not know that just because someone presents you an invoice with a price, that amount is not a concrete asking price, she added.

You should also always familiarise yourself with local laws when purchasing overseas. At auctions in Paris, for example, a museum has the authority to trump a buyer.

To ensure authenticity, buyers must also secure an official bill of sale. Forgeries are near impossible to spot if you aren’t trained and art stolen by the Nazis during World War II has recently emerged on the market, adding to ownership questions.

Art insurance covers physical damage, accidents or theft and can be added onto your home insurance for $2 annually per every $1,000 of coverage. For low-value works, a homeowners policy should be sufficient.

Passionate collectors like Dimas and Wiltshire say they enjoy art collecting as a lifestyle, not necessarily an investment. To that end, the pair opened aMBUSH Gallery to help develop Sydney’s street art scene.

“We had been buying art from the heart and decided to give these artists a fair go,” Dimas said. “Seven years, 86 projects and over 3 million visitors later, we’re still going.”

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