Miami art collector Dennis Scholl remembers his first purchase. It was 1978. He was 23 years old. And he was immediately smitten with a Robert Motherwell lithograph, ‘Brushstroke,’ which he negotiated down to $157.
“I was terrified when I wrote the check,” he says, almost 35 years and 1,000 art purchases later. “That was a lot of money for me.”
It all begins with one print, a photograph, a first sculpture.
“If you have two of something and buy a third, that’s it, you’re a collector,” Scholl says.
But how do you get started, particularly when you don’t have a lot of money?
Owning art isn’t just for the wealthy. Many South Florida collectors started on budgets, and they say it is possible to shop around in the $300 to $2,500 price range to start building a respectable collection.
First rule: Avoid early impulse buys.
“Look, look, look and look more,” says Stefanie Reed, a fine art consultant and VIP Relations Manager with Art Basel.
She and others recommend taking advantage of Art Basel Miami Beach, its satellite fairs, Miami’s art museums and the city’s growing number of galleries to educate your eye, speak to dealers and get in touch with what resonates with you.
Lisa Austin, a fine art advisor and appraiser, suggests visiting smart, alternative spaces like Locust Projects in the Design District and art fairs that deal with emerging markets, such as NADA and PULSE, because they have a strong selection of artists who are gathering international interest but aren’t at the high price levels of Art Basel Miami Beach.
“You should look at 1,000 objects before you think about buying one,” Scholl advises. “People get excited and impatient. But the object you would choose before you look at 1,000 is going to be completely different from the one you choose after you look at 1,000 … you need to have context, and the only way to get context is by looking, not buying.”
Along with museum memberships, subscribing to magazines such as ARTnews, Art in America and Artforum and viewing websites like artinfo.com can help saturate you in the art world. Artnet.com is an online resource on the art market, with an exhaustive list of galleries and artists, Austin says.
Starting to collect a certain medium (photography, drawings) or theme (South Florida artists) can help inform your collecting decisions, but it’s not necessary.
“Art is very personal, and what is important is what moves you, what makes you think and what appeals to your taste,” says Dennis Leyva, Miami Beach’s Art in Public Places coordinator. “Intelligent buyers buy something that speaks to them. Regardless of the price point, never buy something you ‘like,’ but something you ‘love.’ ”
Most collectors warn that beginners shouldn’t buy art expecting it to increase in value. The real financial investments are at the highest end of the market. But if you’re lucky enough to pick a work that does turn into a wise investment, it makes for a great story.
Fine art appraiser Denise Gerson, former associate director of the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum and a Board of Directors member for Bakehouse Art Complex, says the first work of art she purchased — a silkscreen by Tom Wesselmann — was paid for with the first fee she received for teaching an art history course at UM. Purchased in 1986, it’s still in her possession — and worth about 10 times what she paid for it.
Most beginning collectors should aspire to have their artwork hold its value over time. If you’re absolutely bent on trying to make an investment, Scholl suggests what he calls “the couch threshold” to make an informed purchase.
If you’re spending more on art than you would on a couch, then you should have done enough research to be assured that the work at least has some residual value. Ask those in the know. Request the artist’s resume, which should include a list of solo or group exhibitions, as well as collections that have acquired the artist’s work. Find out what the art has been selling for, and whether the price has been going up.
Usually more affordable, prints can be “absolutely, positively worth collecting,” Gerson says. They are a great opportunity to purchase the work of an artist whose originals are beyond your price range. Scholl and his wife, Debra Scholl, primarily bought prints during their first 10 years of collecting. He calls them the “gateway drug to the art world.”
Levya suggests going for small editions. Reed recommends prints produced by high-quality printmakers. Austin says it’s important to learn about the different types of prints and how they differ from reproductions.
“I bought prints by Franceso Clemente during my early years as an advisor, and loved them,” Austin says. “I don’t know why I sold them. I wish I still had them!”