HomeUncategorizedCollecting Art On a Budget

Collecting Art On a Budget


Today’s guest post comes from Larry who works in the software industry as a writer and multimedia designer, and has been collecting art for about four years. When he’s not traipsing around galleries in Chelsea or Williamsburg, he can often be found cooking, writing, and playing Beethoven very badly on his home piano.

Chances are you’ve got some free wall space in your home and wonder what you can do with it. You can always hang posters from a museum or photos of Aunt Nancy, but another approach is to display original art. Yet many people shy away from this, feeling the art is too expensive or too risky to buy since you don’t know if what you’re getting is genuine or if it will increase in value.

Everybody has their own likes and dislikes in art, and I’m not here to tell you mine or try to influence yours. Whether you’re interested in drawings or paintings, figurative or abstract, you can buy good-quality original art for relatively low prices. I’ve spent as little as $50 on fine-art photographs, and two of my favorite ink drawings cost me just $175 each, framed, from a reputable New York gallery.

Value. So are these drawings going to be worth 100 times as much in 20 years? Probably not. Unless you’re really well off and an established collector, you’re not going likely to acquire investment-quality art either by living or classic artists. Top dealers reserve their best work for their favored collectors, and even if you have a few million to spare, you’re not likely to get the latest Jeff Koons or a museum-quality Matisse.

The best strategy in my opinion for buying affordable, good work and avoiding fakes is to buy living, “emerging” artists who are just starting out and therefore less expensive than they may become later. I emphasize “may” because there’s no guarantee your purchase will increase in value, and a good chance it won’t. With thousands of artists and dealers all trying to sell art, prices are unregulated and highly volatile even for the “best” work, and collectibles cannot be included in an IRA or other investment plan. So in my opinion, if you want to buy art, buy it because it’s something you love to look at and you expect to continue loving as time goes by. If it increases in value, that’s great, but that’s not the reason to buy.

Basically you can buy art either from dealers at galleries, or from the artist direct – often over the Internet, but also at local arts or crafts fairs.

Galleries. Big cities are the ideal place to find galleries, such as New York’s Chelsea district which stretches from about 18th-30th Streets west of 10th Avenue. But there are galleries and local fairs almost everywhere. The stereotype of art galleries is that they’re snooty places where you’ll be sized up as an impoverished peon and treated accordingly. But in fact there are all kinds of galleries, with some being cold and distant and others warmly welcoming. How you’re treated depends a lot on your attitude, too.

Galleries are stores, no doubt about it, but they usually don’t mark prices directly on or near the artworks. Instead you can find a price list, with red dots signifying pieces that have been sold. Typically galleries show a single artist or a group of artists for about a month at a time, and each artist gets an opening reception that anyone can attend for free. But galleries also keep a larger selection of works in inventory, so if you can’t get to an artist’s show, you can usually still buy a piece you like if it’s still available.

If you buy from a gallery, your purchase price includes a good-sized percentage paid to the dealer. Don’t begrudge this. A good dealer is not just a middleman; he/she is also a manager, marketer, educator, career developer, art handler, and more. Most dealers will offer an interest-free purchase plan for 3-6 months and some will give you a discount. But don’t expect this on your first purchase, and it’s best to let the dealer offer it rather than asking for it.

Art fairs are also good places to buy, and if you can get to New York in the spring for the Affordable Art Fair, you’ll find reputable dealers selling work for as little as $100 (though prices top at $10,000). If not, at least log on to to find a list of exhibitors and work displayed.

But I would avoid galleries in airline terminals, near hotels, in high-priced tourist districts, on cruise ships, etc., as they are usually traps for the unwary. If the gallery claims it’s selling Picasso, Matisse, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Kinkade, Chagall, and the like, it’s likely to be a tourist trap selling overpriced fakes, and I would stay away.

Artist Direct. If you don’t have any decent galleries in your area, you can buy through gallery websites or use the Internet to buy from artists direct. Many artists can’t or don’t want to get placed with galleries, and instead they choose to go it on their own using personal websites or on-line artist marketplaces. This has the advantage of bypassing the dealer, which can lead to lower prices. But since you’re not viewing the art face-to-face, it’s a good idea to check the artist’s return policy in case of shipping damage, or if the piece doesn’t satisfy you when you get it. Do not, however, try to buy direct from an artist represented by a gallery in an effort to avoid the dealer commission, as this can create real problems for the artist-dealer relationship.

Many on-line artists offer works identified as “digital” or “giclee” prints. These are computer-generated prints and are often of very good quality, but they’re not truly originals. Still, they can be a good, economical compromise if you don’t have much money.

Here are some good on-line sites where you can get excellent deals on art:

eBay has art online too, but be careful unless you’re buying direct from the artist. There are lots of scams and fakes on eBay, and as an example, a dealer I know who sold a work for $100 from his gallery found it listed as “buy it now” on eBay for $700.

Framing and Care. If the work is offered framed when you buy it, it’s worth whatever extra you might have to pay, as you’re assured it will be properly framed and ready to hang. Not all work needs to be framed, but works on paper (drawings, etchings, lithographs) should be, and they need special care to be framed under UV glass or plastic that doesn’t touch the paper directly, and to be secured to the backing with properly designed hinges that don’t damage the paper.

A nice piece of art deserves care in your home. Handle the work with cotton art gloves (very cheap at but also, use a coupon), as oils from your hands can be damaging. Hang larger pieces on two hooks, and at eye level. Keep the art out of direct sunlight, and avoid areas of high humidity (near the sink or shower) or excessive temperatures (fireplaces, cold basements, hot attics).

There’s a lot more that could be said, but I think this covers what’s most essential. If you want to learn more — especially about other types of collecting like Japanese prints, native American, African art, etc. — a good book for further reading is Lisa Hunter’s The Intrepid Art Collector. But nothing beats going to galleries, hanging around artist websites, and breaking the ice by buying your first drawing or painting. Art collecting can become an addictive habit, but even for people of modest means it doesn’t have to be a budget-busting one.



  1. Although I’ve been living in the same place for months, I have NOTHING on my walls. I have lately been trying to figure out what to do with them, as my apartment feels like a prison cell. The other day I read about this site that is like Netflix for art… and am thinking about trying it out. The cool part about it is that you get points for each dollar you spend on your subscription towards actually buying an original…the downside is that you are limited to the 100 choices they have available. Anyway, thanks for the guest post–well written and (for me) quite timely!

  2. @Lisa: If you see things you really like on that site, then perhaps go ahead.

    But consider this: you are basically renting giclee prints that you have to return each 1-3 months and getting nothing permanent, just “credits” towards originals — some of which are in the $5000 range and nothing I saw cheaper than $500 list, which I suppose gets knocked down to $300. But even if you get the $19.99 plan, you’ll need 15 months of “credits” to get that $300 piece, and what’s more if you read their terms, “TurningArt is not directly involved in the transaction between consumers and artists. . . . TurningArt cannot ensure that a consumer or artist will actually complete a transaction for the purchase of original artwork.” And if you don’t get an original piece, you’ve given TurningArt from $10-20 a month with nothing to show for it.

    I think I would rather you have a look at the links I provided. They’re all reputable, you’ll have a lot more to choose from, and you get to keep the work you buy. Let me add one more site as well,, which sells original work from recent college grads and also offers a discounted piece every business day.

    If I can be of any further help, please let me know.

  3. I’m sitting in my living room and on one wall, I have an original art print from a local children’s book author, on the other, I have a framed poster of the creature from the black lagoon (a gift from my brother in law), on a 3rd, a picture my son drew when he was 3.

    We have a mish mash of random things in every room. From aboriginal dot paintings, to a creepy frankenstein black and white print in our office. No one ever notices Frank even though he’s being dissected right there on our wall. It’s amazing how 99% of the people who come to our home don’t even notice the details of this gory 4’x3′ print. I protested Frank at first but my husband assured me no one would even notice him let alone be disturbed and he was right.

    Art is awesome, even when I don’t get it.

  4. We have at least 15 paintings around the house but they range from $10-$400 per piece. We also collected them in spurts. The first 3 we made ourselves for a total of $30 using spray paint and burlap. We bought 7 on our first cruise that are prints and lithographs of work by Kraznyanski, Kinkade, and Billet. The others were all sidewalk art from different cities we have visited and one is one my husband painted himself with oil paints a few years ago.

    I think the key to collecting is to only buy or create what you enjoy and don’t equate price with value.

    • I agree. Valuation in the art world is unpredictable and there is no guarantee that anything you buy will be worth more or even the same amount 10 years from now. You can certainly buy some very worthwhile work for $500 or less.

  5. We buy art when we travel; unframed/unstretched art travels very well, and is original & cheap. If it’s paint that might crack if folded/rolled, I carry it on the plane. I have the canvas stretched when I go home which gets rid of any wrinkles – no frame. It’s a better memory than a bottle of liquor, ceremonial garb you never wear (anybody ever bought a kilt, sari, or lederhosen?), or overpriced jewelry – art is rarely overpriced abroad (except Europe!).

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