How to Collect

For more than 20 years I’ve been collecting paintings, and for the past dozen years I’ve given in entirely to my love of art as the proprietor of a San Francisco gallery. It has been fun.

During these two decades I’ve found many generous people willing to share their enthusiasm and their knowledge about collecting art. As a gallery owner, I’ve had the privilege of passing along some of what I’ve learned, and of gaining new insights by walking alongside patrons passing through the “post-poster phase” and into the promised land of original art. In the process, I’ve found that a few simple rules can help shape a collection.

Don’t be too quick to buy. Especially when you’re first beginning to collect, it is much more important to look than to buy. Go to the very best museums and the top galleries and auction houses. Let your eye learn what is good and what is better — what you like and what you love. Later on, when you find yourself still remembering the one that got away, you’ll learn the corollary to this rule: Don’t be too slow to buy, either, when love comes along.

Focus your collection. Especially at the beginning, as you start to learn what excites you most, concentrate on one or two things. It could be cityscape paintings, or tonalist landscapes, or work by young Asian artists. This will give your looking a focus and let you begin to accumulate knowledge as well as paintings.

Collect in depth. Find a few artists whose work moves you and invest in them, in the fullest sense of the word. Buy multiple examples of their work that show the full range of their talent. This will often provide the added satisfaction of forming a bond not only with a piece of art, but also with the artist.

“Stand on your tiptoes.” Someone advised me early on, “Stand on your tiptoes when you buy art,” and it was good advice, if somewhat mysterious. What he meant was: Stretch yourself and buy one strong painting, even if it costs more than you’d planned to pay, rather than buying half a dozen inexpensive or minor works. Ask if you can pay over a period of a few months. This will increase the anticipation and raise your standards — and also limit the stack of “but it was cheap” things that end up in the closet when you grow tired of them.

Be aware of the pecking order. Oils are at the top of the art world hierarchy and carry the highest prices and values. Acrylics and pastels are a step down. Original works on paper — watercolors, drawings and the like — are generally valued lower, but the flip side is that the prices are also lower, which make them an attractive way to begin or build a collection. When you get down to prints, the price and value go down still more, depending on the reproduction process and the number of prints.

Consider plein air paintings. Artists have always worked on location, never more than today. By its very nature, work done en plein air must be completed fairly quickly, before the light changes, and often are small, and thus less expensive, as a bonus. These will become some of the most treasured paintings in your collection. The best plein air paintings have a spontaneous quality that captures a moment, or offers a fresh insight into a familiar scene.

Buy what you like. I encourage people to buy art with their gut, not with their head. If something speaks to you, or makes you smile, or stays with you, pay attention. Chances are that connection will endure and grow richer through the years. And another corollary, also important: Like what you buy, because you’ll likely be living with it for a long time. Aside from the Picassos and Monets, there is a limited resale market for art. So be sure what you invite into your home is something you will always want as part of your life.

— THOMAS REYNOLDS

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