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Home is where the ART is

It doesn't take a pile of money to beautify your house with art. A guide to demystifying the process.

A few years after Doug Freed graduated from college, he was still coming home to posters on his apartment walls. The Hopper, Matisse, and film posters were framed, but other than that had not changed since being tacked up in his dorm room. He had thought to supplement them with real art, but something seemed to stand between him and beginning a collection.

"I've always been intimidated by galleries, because the prices seem high and I'm never sure how negotiable they are. And they're not usually the most friendly people," says Mr. Freed, who is a film buyer in Los Angeles.

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At some point after the IKEA phase and before retirement, many people have the idea to wean themselves from posters and clothe their walls in the real thing. But from a layperson's perspective, the art world - with its white galleries and headline-making auctions - can seem mysterious and even off-putting. The truth, however, is that it's easy to educate yourself about art - it mostly involves getting out and looking around - and there are plenty of places to find works that you like and can afford, even without a gallery owner pacing behind you.

"Don't be intimidated. There are many ways to buy art at reasonable prices," says Cindi Maciolek, consultant and author of "The Basics of Buying Art" (Grand Arbor Press, 1996, $15).

Art through the back door

Freed slipped into the art market by attending the Venice Art Walk, an annual event in his community where visitors can tour several artists' studios and bid on donated works in a silent auction. "It sounded like a cool event. I didn't go expecting to buy anything, but then I saw something I liked that was fairly inexpensive," he says of an oil pastel of a door entrance that he took home for $200.

The next year he went back and got another piece, then another. Soon he was bidding at a silent auction fundraiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and then raising his paddle at a Christie's auction. In five years his collection has grown to six pieces, he feels much more in the know, and his apartment has more personality.

The first step in buying original art is to look and learn before you buy. Amateur collectors do not have to understand the subtleties of technique to learn what they like. "The worst thing you can do is rush out and immediately lay out all your cash," says Charles Mason, a curator at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio.

At first, he says, just take in the scene. Go and look at art at museums, galleries, auction previews, antique stores, on the Web, at offices, or at the corner coffee shop that exhibits local artists' work. To get a feel for what style and shapes you like in a residential setting, experts suggest leafing through a magazine like Architectural Digest.

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"Start a scrapbook. Rip out pictures of art you like from magazines, postcards, clips from galleries," Ms. Maciolek advises. "Eventually you'll see a trend of what you like and you can look for that to buy."

To arm yourself further, peruse books at the library or pick up magazines like Art in America, ARTnews and Art & Auction. Ask local museums if they give art talks or have a collectors gathering where a curator teaches about art. But even the experts say that the best way to train your eye is by looking at a lot of work and seeing how it strikes you.

When many people think of purchasing art they think of galleries, but there are also art fairs, estate sales, online auctions, antique shops, student shows, and even thrift stores. Some museums from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Flint (Mich.) Institute of Arts have showrooms where artwork is for sale or rent. And, yes, galleries are also a good source. "You don't have to go to a gallery on Fifth Avenue," Mr. Mason says. "There are plenty of perfectly normal galleries around where the people aren't too frightening or high on themselves."

When art dealers do give the impression that by coming into the gallery visitors are trespassing, just "learn to brush it off," Maciolek advises.

Student work: the right price

Art schools can be a prime place to acquire affordable art. Call the school and ask how it promotes the students' work and when there are shows or openings the public can attend. An art school in San Jose, Calif., holds an annual juried exhibition and silent auction. New York's School of Visual Arts runs three student galleries in Manhattan, one of them right in SoHo, with prices ranging from $200 to $2,000.

"The prices are significantly lower than they would be at a professional gallery," says Rachel Gugelberger, associate director of the student galleries. But a lower price does not reflect lower quality, she says. "Art is very much priced according to how well known the artist and the work is. With students, it's much harder to appraise. They're fresh, and for most of them, this is their first exhibition."

Auctions may seem scary at first, but can become an addiction. Many are enjoyable events and a way to acquire all kinds of art. Maciolek recently bought two paintings - probably created by a television studio prop department - that were hanging on the set of "Melrose Place."

"I paid an outrageous amount of money for them," she admits, "but I love them!"

For more formal auctions, catalogs are available before the sale. Reading the catalog as well as asking the staff questions at the preview, which is generally free and open to the public, are excellent ways to learn even if you're not planning to bid. "You can see everything up close and start to get a feel for what makes a certain piece valuable," Freed says.

To place bids requires registering and getting a paddle with a number on it, which you raise to place a bid. Remember to budget about 25 percent above the price to pay for taxes and commissions. And as the Christie's Web site proclaims: "Scratching your nose is not a secret signal to bid, but ... the process of buying at auction is that simple."

The Internet has opened up a whole new venue for buying art. Several sites, including Sotheby's and eBay, hold auctions online. Sites like iTheo.com, icollector, onview.com, and NextMonet can be good places to learn by browsing and reading. At Auctionwatch.com, one can search all online auctions for an item, and also read information and market reports written primarily for beginners rather than collectors. The Web is also making it easier than ever to find out what a piece is worth by providing are searchable databases (such as a free one at icollector) that will dig up the price history of a piece.

Buying online is more risky because buyers do not see the actual work. "It's very much a buyer-beware situation," Mason says. "It's like a giant electronic flea market."

Onview.com and NextMonet offer a money-back guarantee, and while shopping at Sotheby's costs more, buyers can be fairly certain that they're buying what was advertised.

Buy for love, not investment

Once you have figured out what you like, the next hurdle is knowing what to spend. "If you're just getting into art collecting, my big advice is: Do not expect something to go up in price," Mason says. "Do not go into it thinking of art as an investment." Art experts are always saying to buy a piece only because you love it.

Original art can be purchased on any budget. For even $20, something can be found at a flea market, yard sale, or the Goodwill as long as you can tell the difference between art and a picture on cardboard, Maciolek says. "There's a lot of junk out there," she warns. She sums up that category in four words: Elvis on black velvet.

Art buyers on a budget might want to start with works on paper - like prints, watercolors, or drawings - rather than an oil painting on canvas, which is usually more expensive.

"Starting an art collection is much easier on your wallet if you start with multiples rather than one of a kind," says Jori Finkel, a senior editor at Art & Auction magazine. Multiples means prints like lithographs that come from an original plate and are usually limited to a certain number of copies.

Just make sure you know what you are buying, especially with the big names. A print might be signed not by the artist, but by the artist's estate or relatives. Then there is outright fraud - a big problem in the art world at large and especially online. A recent eBay seller went out of the way to prove a signed Picasso was genuine by showing a closeup of the watermark from the paper Picasso used. But the watermark turned out to be one used by the paper company only after the artist's death.

Something else to watch out for: the details of limited editions. "If you're buying a print from a limited edition, how limited is it? Are there 100 images just like yours, or are there 10? Or 500?" Finkel asks, adding that a standard large edition is 100 and she considers a small one to be 10 or 20.

Some artists churn out limited editions of lithographs in several different sizes. Each run is limited and numbered, but with different sizes there are actually several thousand in circulation rather than the limited number it looks like.

It's easy to make mistakes in the process of buying art. But even then, collectors can save themselves. "A little-known fact is that many of the better galleries will refund or credit you for a piece that you don't like or that just doesn't work out," Finkel says.

Even if the art wasn't purchased at one of these galleries, "there are always ways to get rid of it, even if it's at a garage sale," Maciolek consoles. Or for that matter, she says, "Hang it in the garage. I have friends whose garages are full of art they've outgrown or don't like anymore."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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