Palette Magazine

The Art of Buying Art

By Shayne Benowitz

Sies + Höke, Art Basel Miami Beach 2014
Sies + Höke, Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 © Art Basel

When the international art scene descends upon Miami in December for Art Basel Miami Beach, the city transforms into North America’s largest art market. In that brief time, deals will be made and works by today’s most dynamic contemporary artists will find new homes with seasoned art collectors and first-time buyers making their first acquisitions.

Miami gallery owners, Nina Johnson-Milewski of Gallery Diet and Robert Fontaine of the Robert Fontaine Gallery — both in Wynwood — offer advice on how to buy art.

Strategy... What Strategy?

The first rule is: “There are no rules in art,” says Fontaine.

“People come to Art Basel to be surprised, to learn more about things they haven’t seen. There’s a certain level of spontaneity,” he says. “With so many fairs, you can’t see it all, and I’m not sure it’s even worth trying. Sometimes no plan is a plan.”

Johnson-Milewski stresses the importance of slowing down and not getting caught up in Basel fever. “Don’t feel pressured by the energy of the week and wind up making a $50,000 mistake.”


Tricks of the Trade

But she also cautions against being too gun shy, saying first timers may psyche themselves out by doing too much research or looking at too many pieces. “It’s a learning experience. Go ahead and take the leap. It’s living with these objects that gives you your taste.”

Similarly, Fontaine suggests emerging collectors shop emerging artists. “There’s a beautiful and romantic parallel there,” he says. “You get to watch an artist flourish over the course of his career and be rewarded for having good taste.” He recommends Scope, Miami Project, X Contemporary and Context as top fairs for this kind of purchase.


Coaching the Experts

Seasoned collectors looking to round out their collections may want to fill in the blanks either chronologically or with a new medium they have yet to explore.

For instance, Fontaine has a client whose collection includes pop, abstract and surrealism. She’s currently buying works from New York City’s abstract expressionist movement that spans the late 1940s through 1950s.

Johnson-Milewski suggests exploring uncharted territories. “There’s a generation of collectors with an aversion to new media and video work. They can use Art Basel to see a whole breadth of artists and gain an understanding about this medium.” She also suggests visiting Design Miami/ to experience the best of the design world.

Think Creatively

When spending a great deal of money, every buyer wants to make an informed decision and hopes to buy work that retains its value and cultural significance. However, there’s no foolproof way to do this.

Ultimately, she says, “You want to buy something because you love it, and you’re going to live with it. There’s no sense in owning something that increases in value 10 times that you hate.”

Fontaine echoes her sentiment. “Art is about the human experience. It can’t be manufactured on the assembly line. It’s about the person behind it,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful coincidence that it’s also an investment, but that shouldn’t be the driving mechanism.”