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How to start your art collection


Ready to start collecting art but not sure how where or how to begin? We asked the experts for their advice on how to establish a collection that you will treasure.

If a year peppered with stay-at-home orders has left you contemplating how to do away with your bare walls, it might be time to take the plunge and start the art collection you’ve always dreamt of. But for those who don’t consider themselves in the know when it comes to the art world, beginning your search can seem a little daunting. “People want in, and it’s like there’s a glass wall in front of them – how do you break that down?” says Tim Melville, above, owner of the eponymous gallery in Auckland.

These days, collecting needn’t be intimidating. As Melville explains, the concept of the exclusive and expensive ‘white cube’ gallery that exists to make you feel intellectually inferior is outdated. “Galleries know now that being snooty doesn’t work,” he says. “It should be fun, it shouldn’t be a scary thing. It should just be something where the more you look, the more interesting it becomes.” So now that you’re reassured that rookie collectors are always welcome, here are some tips to get you started.

Tim Melville

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear about how to begin collecting is simply to look, look and keep looking. “You have to look in the galleries, the public galleries and the private ones, see what there is out there and talk to people in galleries,” says Melville. “Sign up for galleries’ mailing lists, follow their Instagram and Facebook pages, look at their websites, read the art magazines – and there are a few art websites as well that are worth having a look at.”

One such site is, an exhibition and event listing platform that has now expanded to showcase art books, essays and limited edition artworks. The platform was founded by Stephanie Post and Hayley White, who are also co-directors of Auckland Art Fair. Post, a collector herself, points out that attending Auckland Art Fair is a great way to start a collection because there are more than 30 galleries all in one place. “There are also lots of gallery owners and staff there who want to talk to you, so it’s the ideal opportunity,” she says. This year the Fair debuted several new initiatives designed to inspire future collectors. One such initiative was the introduction of a wall dedicated to artworks priced at or under $5,000. Another was a new In Residence section, showcasing five artist-run spaces where artists are encouraged to experiment with exhibition-making and their art practice. “So that’s an area that perhaps can suit an early career collector, but it’s also interesting for established collectors because it’s something completely different,” says Post.

Stephanie Post at the Gow Langsford Gallery stand, featuring paintings by Grace Wright, at the 2021 Auckland Art Fair. Photo: Luke Foley-Martin.

It can be hard to articulate what we like about certain pieces and that’s because it’s usually our gut telling us when something feels right, so don’t be afraid to embrace that instinct when you are looking for art. As a rule when making a purchase, Melville advocates trusting your own tastes. “If you’re thinking about buying something, if you don’t love it, don’t buy it,” he says. While Post agrees that generally you should buy works that you are enthusiastic about as you’re the one who will have to look at them, she’s also not opposed to a little risk taking. “Sometimes go out on a limb, buy something you’re not absolutely sure about and chances are if it’s good art you’ll start to like it more and more as you live with it,” she says. “Go and see things, read things, watch things – that’s my advice about starting to collect, develop your own tastes, because there isn’t really a right or wrong.”

When Melville is looking for new artists to represent, he looks for art that intrigues him. “I look for work that makes me feel something. I want something that I’ll keep coming back to…something that sort of bothers me,” he says. “There’s plenty of art out there that’s gorgeous to look at, but if it’s only gorgeous, it’s not enough.” Sarah Hopkinson, art consultant and former gallery owner, is also of the opinion that you should buy something that challenges you. “Don’t just get the prettiest thing, because I think if you just want something that looks good you should spend your money on design, but if you want something that challenges you and makes you think then that’s why you would spend your money on art,” she says.

Hopkinson is an advocate for collecting practices that support and encourage artists. This includes buying from primary galleries, where usually the majority of the money from works sold goes to the artist, instead of from secondary market outlets such as auction houses where the money goes to the person selling the work from their collection. “That’s quite a crucial differentiation when you’re thinking about collecting,” she says. “If you want to support artists to be in the studio, you’ve really got to buy from galleries that represent artists and are getting that work from studios. Of course, the secondary market has a place too because there are some things that you can’t get from primary galleries, for example work by artists who are deceased or really rare pieces that aren’t produced anymore, but typically we encourage people to buy from galleries.”

If you’ve got your eye on a big-ticket item at a gallery but are not currently in a position to make a full payment upfront, a solution that will allow you to take the piece home while still ensuring the artist gets paid is by taking out an interest-free loan through My ART. The idea for the non-profit, which was established in 2016 by husband and wife Glenn and Sonja Hawkins, came about at an opening attended by the pair. “It was a fabulous show and everybody loved the work but the price point was inaccessible to some collectors, so we got thinking about how we could help the galleries sell their artists’ work and in return support their artists’ practice, but also help people live with the art that they really wanted, so the idea of My ART was born,” explains Sonja. “Through my husband’s experience in finance we set up an interest-free loan scheme, so it’s art finance if you like, although not with the intention of profiting but with really supporting the art community.” Once the buyer finds a piece they can’t live without, a 10 per cent deposit is placed with the gallery and My ART pays the gallery the balance. It means the gallery doesn’t have to chase up payments, and they can pay their artists immediately.

Glenn and Sonja Hawkins. Photo: David Straight.

If you want to start collecting without having to take out a loan, there are ways to ease into it without spending a fortune. Buying prints or editioned works allows you to take home an affordable piece from an artist who would normally command much higher prices. Melville’s own collection started with a print that was gifted to him. “I didn’t even think about collecting art, and then someone gave me a print and that was the beginning,” he says. “I was living in London and every year I’d come home and I’d buy another print and take it back to London with me and it would be like a piece of New Zealand on the wall beside me.” Melville recommends checking out endemicworld on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, which has a fantastic selection of prints and paintings from emerging and independent New Zealand artists. Or do some research to find out which local galleries also sell prints and editions from their artists.

Melville also suggests attending art school graduate shows to buy pieces directly from budding artists. “You can get oil paintings for hundreds of dollars rather than thousands of dollars, and you’re giving the artist a shot in the arm as well – it’s such validation when their work is bought,” he says. Hopkinson also advises young collectors to seek out the work of emerging artists. “There’s this tendency where people start collecting and they think they’ve got to get a Hotere or they’ve got to get a Shane Cotton, but I think it’s more meaningful to buy from your generation because it’s more likely that the work is going to reflect your experience,” she says. “And work by young artists is going to be more affordable. Yes, there’s a little bit more risk involved because they may or not go on to become super famous or important, but when it’s affordable and you love it, that other stuff maybe doesn’t matter so much.”

Sonja suggests not to buy purely with investment in mind because collecting should be about “the joy of living with the art”. “If the art holds its value or gains some value that’s the real bonus but it’s the time spent with the art and just the emotional connection that I think is really important,” she says. Melville agrees that you shouldn’t get hung up on profit when starting out. “People get worried about value and losing money and at the beginning that shouldn’t be the concern, at the beginning just buy something that you love,” he says.

However, if you are entering the collecting game with money in mind, it’s worth having a chat to Charles Ninow, Head of Art at Webb’s auction house. He has some tips for what to look out for, given it can be difficult to predict which works will go up in value. “What I would suggest is make it a regular thing to go and look at the auctions and the dealer galleries around the city where you live and figure out what artists you like and then go and do some research,” he says. “Read some books about them, and figure out what their pedigree is. In terms of value, an artist’s pedigree is very important because when you buy an artwork you’re as much buying the artist’s brand, their reputation, as you are buying the specific artwork. So look at things like whether or not the artist is in museum collections, whether or not they’ve gone to a good art school, whether or not they’ve had a lot of major exhibitions – those sorts of things will tell you about how the artist is going to be viewed in the future and what the progression of their career is like.”

Ninow’s top tip when investing in art is not to be put off by a big price tag. “I think the number one thing I would say to people looking to buy art that they want to serve as a long-term investment is don’t be motivated by price, because quality always comes at a premium. If you buy because it looks like you’re getting a good deal, there’s usually a reason why, so what I would say is to always buy quality and let that motivate you.”

Charles Ninow



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