The Art of Collecting

Collector and art advisor Emily Greenspan shares advice on beginning and shaping your own art collections.

Written by:Diane Conrad
Photographed by:Genevieve Garruppo
an entryway with boldly patterned wallpaper, a lapis buffet with two green chairs beside it, and two colorful paintings hanging side by side.

Interior design by Richard Mishaan.

You might say that Emily Greenspan has fine art in her blood. She grew up around—and later worked for—her family’s New York City art and antiques gallery, Newel Art Galleries, and discovered her own path in the business as a young, newly married adult. “Art really grew into a passion for me when my husband and I started looking at and collecting contemporary art as a couple,” she says.

What began as a hobby has grown into a business. In 2007, Greenspan founded Tag Arts Art Advisory Services, a consulting firm that provides its clients with comprehensive advice on the acquisition of contemporary artwork and the development of collections. And although the contemporary art market Greenspan specializes in often realizes prices well into the stratosphere, her advice for new and developing collectors is practical and applicable at any level.

Ask the Experts

When starting out as collectors in the 1990s, the Greenspans learned from the pros: the artists themselves and the gallerists who exhibited the artists’ work. The contemporary art market is far more competitive today, but even as experienced art-world insiders, the Greenspans still take advice from the experts. “As our taste and collection has matured, we’ve gotten involved with museums and befriended curators. Now those relationships influence our direction as collectors because they have a great insight into which artists are important, and what will have staying power,” says Greenspan.

Those sources of expertise—artists, gallerists, auction-house specialists, curators—are still your best bets for educating yourself about whatever type of art you find yourself drawn to. Expand your knowledge by spending time visiting galleries, museums, and auction previews (or looking at images online), asking questions, talking to the artists themselves whenever possible, and reading experts’ descriptions and essays to learn as much as you can.

a bold dining room with burnt orange walls, a green bench, two tables, and a full-length wall painting.

Interior design by Leyden Lewis.

Find Your Fit at Fairs

If you’re not sure what you’d like to collect, a great way to begin is by visiting large art fairs, says Greenspan, such as Art Basel Miami, held in Miami every year, and the smaller satellite fairs that happen at the same time: NADA Miami, Untitled Miami, and Context Art Miami.

The volume of art displayed at fairs can be overwhelming, but spending some time wandering through the exhibits can give you a sense of the kinds of things you gravitate toward: genres (painting? photography? mixed-media?), color, theme, time period, and more. Once you have a better understanding of what you want to collect, you can look for galleries that specialize in that type of art and artist.

If you hope to discover up-and-coming artists, or want to start collecting without making huge investments, look for notices of MFA studio tours at top art schools around the country, or for galleries that specialize in emerging artists.

A seating area with green and gold wallpaper, a shiny gold piece of art hanging on the wall, and several seating options.

Interior design by Katie Leede.

Buy What You Love

Don’t worry too much about making a “smart” buy, at least not at first. “Even now, we don’t buy art just as an investment,” says Greenspan. “We have to love it as well.” Of course, you want to be thoughtful about what you’re buying, especially if you’re spending a significant-to-you amount, but there’s no reason to buy art you don’t want to live with. “I like to walk by the art we’ve collected; it makes me happy to see it every day,” says Greenspan. “And that’s what I tell my clients: Be sure you love it. You’re spending real money on these things, so make sure they’re good investments, both financially and emotionally. You need to be happy either way.”

an entryway with boldly patterned wallpaper, a lapis buffet with two green chairs beside it, and two colorful paintings hanging side by side.

Interior design by Richard Mishaan.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Your taste and your acumen as a collector and investor will grow and mature as you do—and you will make mistakes along the way. That’s how you learn. “We still have pieces from the early days,” says Greenspan. “Some have quadrupled in value and some have stayed the same. We love them equally, just for different reasons—some for their sentimental value and some for their financial value.” But sometimes it’s easy to feel decision-paralysis. And that’s where an art advisor can help you. “A good art advisor won’t let you buy something that’s just decorative art,” says Greenspan. “That’s a big mistake that young collectors get caught up in. You see something, and think ‘I love that!’ An art advisor might respond, ‘Yes, it’s inexpensive and you like it, let’s find something similar from an artist with more credibility, who’s had some gallery shows or museum shows—so in five to ten years that early piece you bought might be worth a little bit more.’” Greenspan also helps clients create a diverse and well-rounded collection. “I think it’s more interesting to collect across several genres, not just paintings, for example, but paintings, photography, and sculpture,” she says. The best way to find an art advisor? The same way you’d find a skillful, reputable contractor: word of mouth. Ask friends who are collectors, gallerists, or auction-house specialists who they’ve worked with and trust. 

Collecting on a Budget 

Whether you have a lot to spend or a little, there are plenty of options for art collectors at all levels. Even a well-known art fair like Art Basel Miami has art at accessible prices, says Greenspan. One smart way to find deals is by scouring the exhibition catalogs (they’re usually posted online) for auctions in smaller cities, off-season. “You probably won’t find a great deal at a big New York City auction house in the fall, but you might at a smaller auction house in, say, Houston, in the summer. Not as many people are looking there, so you could find something others have missed.” You won’t have to attend the sale yourself. Just figure out the highest price you’re comfortable paying for the work and call or email the auction house with an absentee bid—they’ll bid on your behalf up to that point and no higher. And you could end up winning the artwork at a much lower price if no one else is bidding against you. Another option: Start by collecting works on paper (prints or drawings instead of paintings) or “editions”—prints, posters, or photographs made in multiple editions instead of one unique work of art. 

What About NFTs? 

You may have heard of NFTs, “Non-Fungible Tokens,” raking in record-breaking art world sums. In the simplest terms, NFTs can be anything digital—an image, a text—that’s part of the Ethereum blockchain. When you buy an NFT, you have ownership of the unique original file and certain usage rights, but the file can still be viewed, downloaded, or copied by others. It’s a little like owning the original painting of Van Gogh’s Starry Night—and seeing a print of it on the wall of a local copy shop or on a calendar in your dentist’s office. In the case of an NFT, however, you don’t have the benefit of a physical original to appreciate (no three-dimensional painting that’s been touched by Van Gogh’s actual hand), just the knowledge and public record of your ownership of the original. You’ll also have the benefit of knowing that your purchase of the NFT benefits the artist now—and again, should you sell the NFT. Because of the transparency of blockchain, every sale is fully public and visible, and the artist benefits with every sale, not just the first time the artwork leaves their studio. So artists can share in the huge profits collectors and investors make from their work—as Van Gogh, among many, many other artists, never did. 

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