Art Consultants - Can They help You?

Some can and some can't , but how can you tell the difference?

The Great Art Consultant
  • Has an intimate knowledge of art, and the art market.
    An art consultant does not have to be an expert in all fields of art, but must have established a wide enough network of contacts and sources to be able to procure and find out about any area of the art world from antiquites to South American textiles to American prints from 1930's.
  • Functions as a good pyschiatrist by helping you understand your taste and what you really want from collecting art. She works with you to get to know your sensibility and finds good art at the best prices that reflects you. But she doesn't stop there. Based on her knowledge of available art and a clear understanding of your personality, she presents you with options that stretch your taste and your intellect. She opens your mind.

  • Teaches, advises, and happily shares her knowledge with you. She introduces you to her sources and takes you to artists' studios. She hopes that, eventually, if you want, you will become so enamoured of the art market that you'll strike out on your own. You won't need her any more, rather, you will refer her to your other "less experienced" friends.
  • Is totally transparent financially so that you have a complete understanding of your art costs and how much she makes from each transaction. Most likely, she charges by the hour, plus a percentage of the total budget or, if she may make her money on her trade discount. Either way she should tell you exactly how much she is making.

Recent History of Art Consultng

By the mid 80's it seemed as if everyone was becoming an art consultant. Hundreds of suburban women looking to get back in the work force took it up as an easy way to create a business from home. Primarily, most consultants depended on business from start-up corporations interested in collecting art, and worked with private clients as a secondary source of business. Some were very competent and reputable but many more were not. 


To this day there has never been any sort of regulation of art consultants. However, there is one important association that tries to establish standards of quality and fiduciary responsibility - the APAA or The Association of Professional Art Advisors. Their members have been trained in art history and all have track records of helping major corporations build important collections. 

The primary criterion consultants for joining APAA is not based on the size or splendor of the collections they have built, but how they operate their businesses. APAA members cannot have inventory and cannot earn their money on the discount that dealers might give a reseller. They must charge by the hour, by a percentage of the value of the entire project, or some combination of the two. They believe, as do I, that an art consultant should be treated the same way as any other professional - a lawyer, accountant, etc., and that consultants who own inventory or earn commissions from dealers, have inherent conflicts of interest and cannot objectively acquire a piece of art. Whatever discounts are received by a consultant should automatically be passed on to the client. The discount structure or the ownership of art is not a factor in the decision to buy. 

General Lack of Standards

To date, the attempt to universally impose these standards has not been successful. Many very competent art consultants do not belong to APAA, and use all sorts of fee structures based on their clients' desires.

Typically people prefer not to pay by the hour because they believe it to be more expensive in the long run. An art consultant who charges $125.00 per hour is seen as expensive; it is believed hourly rates somehow escalate more rapidly resulting in a larger total sum. But, like an accountant or a lawyer (professionals who normally charge by the hour) an art consultant is also a professional. Typically, the total sum, based on an hourly rate, is equal to or less than a set fee.

How to Buy at Auction

Once again, Do Your Homework.

If you see something you're interested in, go to ArtNet or Adec - both are online databases which track the sales and pricing of artwork sold at auction. Look up works by the same artist, the same size, the same subject, at the same point in their career as the works in which you are interested. Although Artnet and Adec are the best online sources, both charge a monthly access fee. I just found another source, however, and its free!  It is icollector  - this site, however, does not have the most up-to-date auction prices and does not have many illustrations. Remember, the market value of a certain piece of art often varies depending on the subject matter as well as the period of the artist's career in which the work was done. You'll often find that still lives by a famous artist will sell for a lower price than her landscapes, or vice-versa. 

Always check condition. Works sold at auction may be by a famous artist, but even Sotheby's and Christie's will not disclose a condition problem or the fact that a piece has been restored. 

Many auction companies that sell "antique" furniture also try to pass off artwork by artists such as Erte or Miro as originals when, in fact, they are not. Many of these items are photomechanical reproductions and have no value. Look very closely at the artwork through a piece of glass. Can you see the dot structure of a screen? If so it's been reproduced on a printing press. 

The History of the Auction Houses

Since the early 1970's the auction houses have had a major impact on the contemporary art market. For decades auctions were the purview of a small band of dealers that understood the market and purchased at lower prices for resale. 

The first major jump from this rather self-absorbed little society into the larger cultural consciousness came in the early '70's when Robert and Ethel Scull sold a portion of their late 60's Pop Art collection for a huge profit. The auction market hasn't looked back since. If you recall, art was touted as a hedge against the rampant inflation of the'70's, and more retail money started flowing in. 

In the mid - 80's Alfred Taubman, a real estate developer, bought Sotheby's and changed the auction world by marketing to the masses. He established the Arcade auctions, which sold works of art at lower prices and drew in hundreds of new retail clients. Through marketing he attracted the new money from the Wall Street Boom, plus the seemingly never-ending supply of money from the Japanese. The art market was no longer made up of club-like cliques.

Sotheby's and Christie's liquified the auction market by extensively increasing their client base. Because of this liquidity, for the first time, art could be - and unfortunately was - viewed as a commodity in which one could invest.

Furthermore, art bought at auction was truly chic. Important CEOs, when persuaded to attend auctions, found themselves surrounded by peers and collegues alike. Their acquisitions received great press appearing on Page Six column of the New York Post. As a result, prices continued to sore. I remember one auction at which a Jasper Johns print sold for a ridiculously high price. My friend, a print dealer who had the same print in stock for much less, had to keep herself from jumping up and yelling "Don't buy it here. Buy it from me!". 

The music ended in 1990 and the auction market tanked, leaving the Japanese with thousands of overpriced mediocre Impressionist paintings and many Wall Street tycoons, with a lot of art they really didn't want in the first place.

So how is it now? Well, things are strong again. Excellent work gets excellent prices, but there is not the sort of tulip bulb frenzy that reigned in the late 80's - Thank God. And the print market, which suffered the most, has yet to come back with the same force as the market for painting and sculpture. Collectors, today, are rationally cautious. How the internet will affect this in the future is anyone's guess. Sotheby's will start on line in the Spring. We'll see.

The Net and The Art World - A New Dynamic

The internet is now three years old, and the amount of art on the net is enormous. Just put "art" into a search engine like Yahoo and you'll get millions of results. And yet, the art world remains relatively unchanged. What you see is a migration of the same three basic markets- the local, the tacky, the legitimate - from physical to virtual space, and as you would expect, the most ubiquitous art site is that of your neighborhood artist. There are literally millions of artists who have put their own personal art sites on the net. Not to mention thousands of awful galleries. In order to spend your net time wisely, follow my links under web resources.

The net has made it much easier to find auction price history for specific works of art. There are two sites which have huge databases that trace auction prices over the past five years - Artnet and Adec. They both charge a small fee for montyly access. The majority of auctioned works on these sites have images so that you can compare your Renoir print with others. It is a lot easier than going to the library and sifting through tons of old catalogs. I find it to be an indispensable source.

When I asked a very prominent dealer several years ago if he would put his expensive works on the net, he said, "Of course not." He said that if anyone could compare his Dubuffet that cost six figures with other Dubuffets available on the net, his might not look so special. He, of course, now has his Dubuffet on line, but he's right. It doesn't look so special. Much of buying an expensive piece of art is context, ambiance, and pure face to face salesmanship. The web, therefore, is not appropriate for all expensive objects. It is also important to remember people prefer to sell their expensive works through art dealers rather than auction houses because they require a certain level of discretion. No one has ever accused the internet of being discreet

Following the success of Ebay, the big auction houses have decided to go on line. Sotheby's will soon hold its first major auction and ArtNet just opened the first site selling expensive material- both to a smashing success. It should be interesting to see how well expensive art sells online. Also in the mix, Ebay just bought the prestigious San Francisco auction house Butterfield and Butterfield.  But judging from what I see on Ebay, I assume there will be a few bargains. Internet fever seems to take over the otherwise rational minds of auction buyers, and the most mundane items frequently sell for more than they would otherwise. 

Collecting Photography

The modern photography market is a recent phenomenon, which began in the early 70's with a wonderful dealer named Harry Lunn, recently deceased. Harry and a handful of other dealers, started insisting that the art world look at photographs as a form of legitimate artistic expression. They exhibited photographs, made catalogs, books, and published limited edition prints from the estates of deceased photographers. 

The primary distinction in value of a photograph is whether it is vintage or modern - vintage, being printed by the photographer within 3-5 years of the time the negative is made. Modern reprints, prints from negatives either done late in the photographer's career, or made posthumously by the photographer's estate, are considered far less valuable from a market standpoint. Despite the fact that the image may be equally appealing. Other factors have to do with paper, condition, and edition size. It's a highly technical market which defies easy understanding. If you are going to spend under $1000 on a photograph, enjoy. If you're going to spend more than that be sure to do your homework.