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B is for Best Deal

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”

Why best deal? There are so many other things that could be addressed in the world of collecting art with the letter b – buying, bidding and beauty for a start. But as my colleague said to me, everyone wants a deal… so I thought, let’s embrace that and talk about the best deal when it comes to collecting Art. So here goes.

My first thoughts are that there are very different ways of collecting art. What drives a collector and the success of a potential ‘deal’, like everything else in life, comes down to values and what you personally centre as important.

Chasing the deal is very different to collecting. For a collector the work of art is the desired end. For a trader the deal is the end. It’s about the transaction, the win, the turn and financial reward. It is not about the cultural value of the work that has been acquired. Success in any market place relies on proactivity, knowledge and luck. Timing and positioning is also everything.

This week I was sourcing a work for a collector who wanted to get the best deal. While an art consultant is in a good position to negotiate, owing to the fact they are generally more active in the market place and therefore able to secure best prices and preferential treatment  –  there are certain artists for whom no deals are available as their work is so sought after. Quite the opposite, the prices go up as the work becomes scarcer. While auctions represent good places for great deals, they can also can be the site of bidding wars and record prices as collectors chase the golden egg before it disappears from public view forever. At auction, set yourself a maximum you are prepared to go to and stick to it is my advice.

A spectrum of opportunity and risk underpins the process of collecting, and every collector is in a slightly different place and unique circumstance that will determine the appeal of an acquisition opportunity. As an art advisor, I can advise, but only you know intimately the importance of the work of art to you. Collections themselves become reflections of people, a mirror to their lives, tastes and values.

Buying for love and for joy is in my view the only way to collect. Markets change. You may be left with the work of art on your wall or in your garden. Be sure you love it.  Many of the best collections that came together were bought for love and for passion for the art and artists.

When is a deal not a deal?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase things that look too good to be true are too good to be true. The same has to be said when collecting art.

Certain artists are so successful that they are highly copied or reproduced and not everything you see is authentic. I refer you back to ‘A is for Authenticity.’  It’s not always the Hirsts and the Koons that are copied. You may be surprised to hear that Augustus John was perhaps the most copied artist I saw when working as a specialist at Christie’s South Kensington. Every single week drawings came in purporting to be in his hand that simply were not. John can be a great artist but also very sketchy and quite poor at times, and we mused that everyone’s amateur grandparent artist must have put their signature on their work in some kind of false admiration that now muddied the art market. For John, if there is no provenance, the works can be authenticated by his granddaughter Rebecca. However this is not possible for all artists. Provenance is key. Buyer beware.

Be careful about the prefixes used to attribute a name to an artist. ‘Manner of’, ‘After’, ‘Circle of’ and even ‘Attributed to’, are simply not good enough if you are after the real thing in my opinion. They are all various diminutives that suggest degrees of doubt to an attribution. I remember seeing a rather inspiring pencil ketch in the window of a commercial gallery with the label ‘Circle of John Constable’ and a huge price tag to accompany it. In my view, the price was quite frankly completely unsupportable and the attribution meaningless.

I have also come across prints purporting to be Francis Bacon for a mere ‘snip’ of £5,000. My fellow auction specialists valued this particular work bought by a client as ‘unsaleable’ at auction, less than £200.  What had been sold was effectively a photocopy of a print along with a photocopy of a signature that were separate but framed together. Sometimes things are too cheap.  Horrifying but it happens. In this particular instance I wrote a supporting letter for the client and am pleased to say they were issued a full refund by the rogue gallery. I am also pleased to say the gallery is now permanently closed.

Another time a client proudly showed me their Patrick Heron print they had recently acquired for a five figure sum. A beautiful work, it had a glaring problem to me – a huge  – and very visible to my eye – tear in the upper left corner that stretched around 3 ½ inches through the work. Tears in works on paper can sometimes be difficult to discern if you are not used to seeing them. Any tear or trimming to a print is really damaging to its future resale value and will make it almost unsaleable.  In this instance I also helped with reconciliation. Not something I really wish to make a habit of.

Don’t get me wrong – there are deals to be had – but these are ones where two people have a mutual understanding of the value of the work and an agreement is come to that satisfies both parties. The ‘Best Deal’ is one that has integrity: the right work for the right person at the right price makes for a successful transaction all round.

The Best Deal in the Contemporary Market

What does the best deal look like when working with a contemporary artist? There is a practice among some collectors of approaching artists directly to buy work. Where an artist is not in a contract or represented by a gallery this is not a problem. However when the artist was introduced to you by a gallery this is considered bad form.  It might seem an attractive route in the short term but it undermines trust and values and is quite a short term strategy for both parties. Galleries are there to help artists with their careers – gallerists are dedicated to championing and promoting artists and their work and undermining the relationship between artist and gallery is destabilizing and ultimately reduces exhibition opportunities for artists, and potentially their market too. Most artists really understand this and the value a gallery brings and why the system works and divert sales back to a gallery even if approached directly.  Collectors who wish to buy more than one work will often be offered preferential terms as a way of acknowledging the support and commitment, or first sight of new work and therefore first choice of what is available. It therefore pays to respect the system as those collectors will be in the best position to acquire the best work.

Creativity is the sign of a free world. Creativity is what makes us human. Wars are fought for freedom. We should value and cherish creativity.