Art Basel

Looking to buy art? Consult an art advisor

Can’t tell the difference between a Rauschenberg and a Rothenberg or a Manet and a Monet? Not to worry. If you want to build a fine art collection but missed Art History 101, consider a professional art advisor.

With literally thousands of artists in the market today, even the most passionate art lover may not know all the players. An art advisor’s job is to keep abreast of emerging and established artists by visiting galleries and attending art fairs, such as Art Basel Miami Beach, and can help narrow the search for quality art for your home or office.

Here’s how it works:

Before any purchases are made, the client and advisor meet and discuss the client’s interests and goals. Together they can determine the appropriate emphasis of collection and the price range.

You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to collect good art. The good art advisor not only knows how to help grow a solid collection, but also knows what you should be paying — and sometimes even manages to secure a discount.

Most art advisors will then accompany their clients to art fairs, galleries and auction houses. For those who find the process overwhelming, an advisor can handle everything from selecting the art to negotiating the sale. In essence, the advisor is the collector’s agent, and to avoid any conflict of interest, should be paid only by the collector rather than taking any commissions from galleries or artists. Typically, an advisor receives 10 to 20 percent of the purchase price, though on higher-priced works, the percentage should shrink.

Finding a savvy advisor that fits your own personality and needs may take a bit of work.

“I’ve never seen an art advisor advertise,” says Wendy Cromwell, president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, which bills itself as “the only organization that promotes and upholds ethical practices in the advisory field.”

Cromwell suggests two ways to begin the search: Ask the advice of a trusted art dealer and search the APAA website. Before you engage an advisor, research their credentials. Find out much experience that person has in the art world, and in what capacity. Cromwell recommends someone with at least five years experience, either as an art advisor or in a gallery, museum or appraisal company, “because you are relying on this person for her relationships, and it takes a few years to build those relationships.” Ask for references of other clients, then call to find out if those clients are satisfied.

Think globally, she says, but hire an advisor who is local to where they live. “It is important to be able to talk to that person and have that person available to you,” she says. But it’s also critical that the advisor be familiar with the worldwide market, not just local galleries.

While many institutions offer advice to their high-end clients regarding buying and selling art, Cromwell cautions to beware of conflicts of interest. “Auction house specialists and client reps do provide advice, but it’s not neutral advice, as they represent both seller and buyer,” she says.

Many wealth managers also offer art consulting services.

Suzanne Gyorgy serves as the managing director of Citi Private Bank Art Advisory & Finance. The department has been around since 1979 and consists of five people with degrees in art history who have participated in curatorial work at museums. She, too, is a member of AAPA.

“The main difference of someone using an art advisor in a private bank is that we’re in a fiduciary capacity,” Gyorgy said. “We’re salaried, so whether a client buys art or doesn’t buy art doesn’t affect us. We don’t have any incentive to push a product, quite frankly, or to encourage people to buy or to sell. We’re really here to help people put together a meaningful, thoughtful art collection.”

The fiduciary aspect comes with scrutiny.

“We’re highly regulated,” says Gyorgy, “so every transaction is completely transparent. If we negotiate a discount for a client, it’s all completely transparent.”

Regardless of how he or she is found, a good advisor should know art history well and translate that background into an understanding of how artists address the past or might influence its future.

“How do you determine what is interesting when it’s an emerging artist and the art world hasn’t yet baptized that artist?” Cromwell asks. “You have to have a really deep background in art history and very solid understanding of how the market works, and excellent relationships with dealers, because often the emerging artists, when they become hot, they’re not that easy to get. You want someone who has access to that, and a good advisor usually does.”

Most collectors hope their art will increase in value. But buying art as an investment is no sure bet.

“Art is not a stock,” Cromwell warns. “It’s silly to buy it for investment purposes,” in part because no one can predict precisely which artists will become hot.. “You buy it because you love it, but you want to spend your money wisely. You don’t want to overpay for something, and you want a reasonable idea of long-term value.”

The key is to buy something that you welcome into your life.

Says Cromwell: “You have to be prepared to live with it for a long time.”