Buying Art 101

The buying process can be daunting for a beginner, but the best way to discover or learn about a new artist, medium, or trend is to discuss it with an expert while viewing the piece. Here, the Tang Blog* breaks down five key questions that should always be asked of a gallery or independent seller in order to elicit all of the information needed before making a purchase.

1. What is this artist’s background?
How old is this artist? If she is young, do the prices reflect that? Is the artist from France or Zimbabwe, or another country? Is that obvious in his work? Background information may not tell you anything about the art, but it will give you an idea of who an artist is, and where she is in her career. Background questions are also a good icebreaker and can generally lead to more information about an artist without asking anything further.

2. Where else has this artist shown?
Is the artist moving up the gallery “food chain,” or is this the artist's first show? Sometimes artists are represented by more than one gallery. When this occurs, the galleries are usually in different cities or countries. This question also lets you know if there is another gallery to contact about whether there's more work available by this artist, and price comparisons can be made. Galleries should always provide a one-page write-up on the artists’ history that you can take with you.

3. Do you have some earlier work by this artist that I can see?
Seeing other work by an artist may help you understand the current work a little better. You can ask this question in a gallery or at an art fair. In a gallery, the dealer may pull work out of their back room to show you. At an art fair, dealers generally only have one or two pieces but usually have a book with images of older work.
It also may be informative to see how a gallery reacts to this question. Most galleries want you to focus on the current work and won't pull out other work. This is understandable since the primary goal is to sell the artist's current work. But if the gallery is willing to show you the other work, you know you've found a friendly space.

4. Can you tell me more about this particular piece?
Choose one piece in the show to ask questions about, and beware of artist jargon. If you get a response like, “the artist’s symbiotic relationship to being qua being,” or a description equally as confusing, ask more specific questions such as, “what does this green represent?” or “Why has the artist chosen to use this medium?” This will help to ensure that you understand the piece to its fullest. If you feel that you are getting a canned answer, keep digging.

5. Do you have a price list, and/or what work is still available?
Galleries should have a price list out that is available to everyone. It always helps to review the price list whether you're interested in buying or not. As you gain experience and develop an eye for art, you'll be able to make judgment calls on whether a work is priced fairly. It’s also interesting to see what work has sold and what hasn't. 

*Some information taken from The Art of Buying Art by Paige West.