Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Jane Finigan
Louisa Buck and Judith Greer, Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook, Cultureshock Media Ltd., 2006, 296 pp., £14.95.

The word "entrepreneur" is used more frequently in today’s society than ever before. To be an entrepreneur is now a legitimate vocational aspiration, and with magazines and newspapers regularly compiling lists of "The Power 100" and "Britain’s Richest," we are constantly encouraged to enter into the competition. Art is a part of this measure of status and wealth, of course, and with the emergence of high-profile art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze, art collecting has never been more appealing.

No surprise, then, that we have a new guide for the novice collector. Published to coincide with the opening of Frieze, Owning Art aims to prepare its readers for entry into what is widely considered a mysterious and daunting industry.

The authors themselves are familiar faces in the art world. A writer and broadcaster, Louisa Buck served on the judging panel for the 2005 Turner Prize. Judith Greer, who is a keen collector herself, was the director of international programming at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

Their guide is nothing if not basic. "Contemporary art," they write, "engages with the immediate here and now," "can assume an infinite number of forms" and, perhaps most importantly, allows interested collectors to meet and engage with artists, "gaining a privileged insight into their work and practice." Just what do they mean, "engage with"?

The authors have given their book the format of a user manual, a tried and tested system that was employed by Cennino Cennini in his 15th-century Craftsman’s Handbook, among other places. The five chapters of Owning Art cover the key areas that any collector needs to know, from where to buy art to what to do with it once the purchase has been made. Special sections are devoted to art fairs, auction houses, art insurance, art transport and the like.

But despite its "user manual" layout, the book is readable and fairly amusing, marked by writing that is lively and peppered with wit. What’s more, the text includes hundreds of quotes from artists, dealers, collectors and art advisors -- often showing the human side of the business. Museum of Modern Art board president Agnes Gund, for instance, reveals that she purchased a sculpture by Martin Puryear that was so large that it wouldn’t fit through the door or windows of her home. "I was fortunate," she says, without much irony, "that the Museum of Modern Art arranged for its display as a promised gift in its lobby." 

The authors are collectors themselves, and offer examples as well from their own experience. Buck explains that "writing a book about how to buy art doesn’t exempt you from disaster: a Grayson Perry pot I kept on my mantelpiece recently fell victim to two bored teenagers bouncing a ball. (It’s been stuck back together, but will always bear the scars of its ordeal.)" The incident is a reminder of the importance of insurance, one of many subjects handled in the chapter titled "Money Matters."

Here the authors scrutinize the financial aspects of the art market, from comparison shopping and VAT (value-added tax) to tax breaks and reselling your purchases. Money is, of course, an integral part of art collecting -- one dealer, when asked for the secret of art collecting, answered "have lots of money!" Indeed, the authors give one important piece of advice to nascent art buyers -- be sure the funds you spend on art are what is euphemistically called "disposable income."

Collecting is a compulsive activity, needless to say, a passion that often sends its roots down deep. The most celebrated art collector in the U.K., for instance, Charles Saatchi, started out collecting Superman comics and jukeboxes. So the enterprise clearly has psychic rewards as well as -- sometimes, with luck -- financial ones. For beginners in the art collecting enterprise, Buck and Greer provide a guide that is refreshing, accessible and thorough.

JANE FINIGAN works in London for Début Art illustration agency and the Coningsby Gallery. She writes on art for the Art Newspaper, Pixelsurgeon and Artnet Magazine.