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The fine art of buying art

Starting to build an art collection can be a daunting task. Eleanor Ainge Roy talks to experts to find out their secrets.

Sir James Wallace in his Pah Homestead office in Auckland with a Colin McCahon. Photo/David White
Sir James Wallace. Photo/David White

Every second Saturday, come rain or shine, Sir James Wallace hops into his car and begins a day-long tour of Auckland’s art dealers. His staff will have prepared a tour of “20 or so places” in advance, and Wallace sets the day aside for what he loves most: being immersed in the New Zealand art scene.

“The art I buy is often not the one I have the most immediate reaction too,” he says. “Sometimes I go all around the exhibition and don’t buy the first one I like. Sometimes it is the less obvious one I purchase: the one I didn’t take much notice of at first but that intrigues me, that I don’t understand, that in the end I keep coming back too.”

It’s sound advice from a collector who buys 400-500 works a year on behalf of the Wallace Arts Trust and has amassed the finest private collection of New Zealand art in the country.

But wind back the decades and Wallace’s walls were not so heavily hung, so carefully curated or so valuable. Hard to imagine now, but he too was once an amateur collector.

Dipping your toe into the art world – either for pleasure or with an eye to future investment – can seem daunting. Make a wrong move and your walls may cause guests to question your taste. Make another wrong move and you stand to lose a lot of money.

But although New Zealand art experts diverge on how to begin a collection, they all agree on one vital point: be brave in your choices and bold in your taste, and buy the work you have the strongest reaction to, be that intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Buy work that makes you stop in your tracks, even if you don’t know why.

Art writer Hamish Keith says his wife, Ngila Dickson, always knows when he is serious about a work: his palms “get sweaty”.

“I bought my first piece of art in 1958, a Colin McCahon landscape for £5. That might not sound like much, but my pay packet was only £7,” Keith recalls. “I did eventually sell that piece 30 years later, and obviously it did well.

“But I only sell when I have to, when I want money to purchase another work I have become obsessed with. When people ask, ‘Should I buy for investment?’, I always say no. I say, ‘Buy because you’re passionate about a piece, you have a relationship with it and when you walk away from the gallery you can’t get it out of your mind.’”

Art+Object’s Ben Plumbly with a Gordon Walters koru painting
Art+Object’s Ben Plumbly with a Gordon Walters koru painting. Photo/David White

Art schools and fairs

Rachel Allan, a lecturer at the Dunedin School of Art, regularly buys works that are “completely impractical” such as tall, ungainly sculptural pieces, jewellery she won’t wear but instead displays, and large canvases she has no space to hang.

“When I fall for a piece of work, it’s love, and then I know I have to have it,” she says, “even if maybe it will stretch the budget a bit or I have no idea where I am going to display it in my already crowded home.”

At the School of Art, many students begin a collection by swapping works with their fellow artists, or they exchange pieces of art for a favour, such as car maintenance, practical jobs or a case of beer.

Allan – along with many other experts – is a fan of art schools’ annual graduate shows, in which hundreds of keen young artists across the country sell the pieces they have been working on all year. The prices are generally reasonable, usually well under the $1000 mark.

Wallace makes a point of attending the art school showings every year. He says if you find a young artist whose work you connect with, you should try to develop a relationship with them and begin to buy their pieces regularly, which will “form a diary of their career and also contribute to keeping them afloat”.

Allan – who has a limited budget – rarely buys art from dealers, devoting most of her time and cash to acquiring work from local Dunedin artists, students and fellow ­lecturers, or artists she has a personal connection with.

“The work I choose to live with in my home has to keep me very interested; it’s never mere decoration. I tend to go for work that is clever in some way and will hold my attention over the years. You can tell a lot about a person by what they choose to display in their home; it is an extremely intimate visual collage of who you are.”

Art fairs – in which hundreds of works from hundreds of artists (New Zealand and international) are on display – are another good chance to view works en masse, in a fun, light-hearted atmosphere.

Stephanie Post, a co-director of Auckland Art Fair, being held this year from May 25-29, says this type of event is a good place for beginners to get a feel for what they like. For unique works, the entry point for beginners at the fair is about $1000. Over the week, up to 12,000 people are expected to visit the fair.

“Probably the best thing about art fairs is there is a quality check on the work. It has been assessed by an independent selection committee,” says Post. “For beginners, that can bring a sense of reassurance that you are purchasing something of value. It can be a pretty full-on experience, but if you’re standing in front of a work and you’re unsure, choose with your heart, not your head.”

Sir James Wallace in his Pah Homestead office in Auckland. Photo/David White
Sir James Wallace in his Pah Homestead office in Auckland in front of artist Ian Scott's New Zealand Crucifixion. Photo/David White

Auctions for the time-poor

Ben Plumbly, art director of Art+Object in Auckland, is a fan of auctions for similar reasons: the wide exposure to a diverse range of works and the chance to educate yourself, as well as the chance to buy.

Art+Object holds 10-12 auctions a year, and with works available for public or private viewings beforehand, that is the perfect time to begin to build up your knowledge and understanding of what makes you tick artistically, Plumbly says.

“At an auction, you are often confronted with 50-300 works, from different artists and time periods and styles. You get a wide exposure and that can be really great for the time-poor, who don’t have hours to visit all the different dealers.”

Although Plumbly agrees having some money behind you “certainly helps”, he says spending time viewing works and building personal relationships with artists, dealers and collectors is “the cornerstone” to any thoughtfully curated collection.

“I think collecting art is not a rational process at all, and the only way you can begin to make sound decisions and develop a firm aesthetic is by seeing as many works as ­possible and as regularly as possible.

“As for choosing work based on future investment potential, I think it is a great irony that those looking to buy for investment’s sake often choose poorly and those who never think of investment often amass beautiful collections.”

Wallace agrees. “I never buy for investment; I think that it’s absolutely the wrong motivation and quite a punt for a young person to take.”

But Sophie Coupland, fine art director at Mossgreen-Webb’s auction house, says it is possible – and wise – to buy for love and as an investment, and that a new buyer can feel on firmer ground if they buy works that have a good chance of reselling on the secondary market.

Star Gossage’s Kikorangi Kotare. Artwork/Sir James Wallace Arts Trust
Recent acquisition: Star Gossage’s Kikorangi Kotare. Artwork/Sir James Wallace Arts Trust

“People always think buying art has to be for either passion or investment, but I firmly believe it can be both,” she says. “I think first and foremost when you acquire a work, you have to assess whether it will stand up in the future. You don’t just want something pretty to hang on your walls; you want to choose something that mirrors its time and place, that may reflect the politics and culture or be challenging in some way.”

Coupland also suggests choosing something that represents their “signature style” when buying from an established artist and, if you are cash-poor, buying the best you can afford – even if that means one outstanding piece rather than two mediocre pieces.

“I think you also really need to do your research; don’t operate or purchase in a vacuum.” This includes getting a condition report if the work is more than three decades old and investigating possibilities for resale if you change your mind or you need to free up some money.

“If you are starting out as an absolute novice, you really need to choose work that you are going to enjoy living with, at least as a starting point. But my feeling is there is so much great New Zealand art out there that you don’t have to choose solely on aesthetic grounds; you can find work that suits you for a range of reasons.”

Again and again, serious art collectors come back to the same point when advising those just starting out: build relationships, then buy.

Although most of the dealers and auction houses send out email newsletters and photographic pamphlets of pieces for sale, nothing beats heading to a gallery or dealer’s premises and inspecting the work in person, waiting to see how you react on first sight, then coming back again and again to determine which piece has the X factor for you and your home.

Sophie Coupland with Pat Hanly’s Girl on a Couch: when buying from an established artist, choose something that represents their “signature style”. Photo/Rebekah Robinson
Sophie Coupland with Pat Hanly’s Girl on a Couch: when buying from an established artist, choose something that represents their “signature style”. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

The risky end of the market

During the past few years, there have been reports of tourists knocking on New Zealand doors late at night, trying to flog off fake masterpieces as their own work to unsuspecting buyers. In some cases, they have asked for $500 for the fakes.

Buying art work off websites such as Trade Me can also be risky, so if you are new to the game, the safest approach is to buy from legitimate dealers or galleries and to always view the work in person first.

Associate Professor Peter Shand, head of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, has missed out on work before – and never forgotten it. There are pieces he didn’t buy decades ago, because of cost or timidity, that he still thinks of today.

“People need to stop thinking, ‘Will I get this right?’ They need to stop worrying about what other people will think of their artistic choices. At some point, you have to trust your own taste and take a leap.”

But before pulling out your credit card, or even setting foot in an auction house or dealers, Shand says, you need to figure out what you like. He advises researching the history, time period and story of work you respond to – the library is a good place to start – and then branch out into exploring the contemporary scene through magazines, websites and dealers catalogues – and, crucially, in person.

“The main thing is not to be ruled by someone else’s view of what is good taste – taste is the last thing that is involved in artwork. It is about what moves you. Works that you don’t fully understand are great, because you can spend the rest of your life nutting them out.”

Going, going, gold!

The works by New Zealand ­artists that achieved the 10 highest prices at auction, as recorded by the Australian Art Sales Digest, were produced by just three painters: Charles Goldie, Colin McCahon and Horace Moore Jones – for Simpson and His Donkey, which recently sold for $483,000, the only one on the list under half a million.

The highest price paid at a New Zealand art auction was for Goldie’s A Noble Relic of a Noble Race, a 1941 oil painting of 102-year-old chieftain Wharekauri Tahuna, which this year went for $1,339,500, enough to buy a modest Auckland villa. The picture is thought to be one of the last major works Goldie painted.

In second place is Goldie’s Kawhena ($718,750), followed by McCahon’s Let Be, Let Be ($704,000) and No. 2 ($671,000).

Fiona Pardington’s Sleeping Peahen, Ripiro Beach.
Fiona Pardington’s Sleeping Peahen, Ripiro Beach.

From New Zealand to the world

Although most New Zealand artists who regularly sell work on the international stage are probably out of the reach for beginner collectors, it can be useful to follow their careers and, if you can, buy one of their works. The list includes Michael Parekowhai, Fiona Pardington, Dick Frizzell, Peter Robinson, Euan Macleod, Oliver Perkins, Tim Wilson, Jasmine Middlebrook, Simon Williams, Lance O’Gorman and Lawrence Leitch.

DO …

• Hit the pavement. Visit as many galleries, dealers and studios as you can. Make it a habit to drop into your favourite places regularly, just like James Wallace.

• Form relationships, particularly with emerging artists. Their work is more affordable and might give you a chance to build up a collection from scratch.

• Research – books, magazines, websites, the lot. If you are attracted to a certain style or medium, try to figure out why. It may help you make more confident decisions down the line.

• Consider joining an art club. They’re especially popular in Auckland, allowing members to pool their money to buy works, which they then swap around their various homes, usually in three-month intervals. Sometimes you might end up with a piece you hate – but that’s better than having something that bores you.

• Consider buying established New Zealand artists who can be resold on the secondary market if you are still unsure. They will be more expensive, but might give you greater piece of mind.

• Check out myart.co.nz. It offers interest-free loans for people wanting to buy contemporary art works from selected galleries priced between $1000 and $25,000, to be paid back over a 10-month period.


• Buy the first picture that grabs your eye in an exhibition. Keep it in mind, but tour the gallery once, twice, three times – and then choose the picture that makes your heart sing and intrigues you after multiple viewings.

• Buy a piece because you think it will be a worthwhile investment. If you can’t live with a work day in and day out, don’t bother. There are safer places to invest your money than art.

• Spend more than you can realistically afford. Buy the best you can afford, but don’t go beyond your means. You don’t have to fill your home immediately – buy slowly and carefully and build a collection over many years that will reflect different stages of your life.

• Be dictated to by other people’s definitions of good taste – a huge mistake. It’s your home, your kingdom, your choice.

• Get stuck in a rut. Visit artists when you’re in the regions or overseas, have a cup of tea with a young artist in their studio or attend the art schools’ graduate shows. Remember, choosing art to live with should be fun, creative and exciting – if it’s not, maybe it’s just not your thing and there’s no shame in that.


• mossgreen-webbs.co.nz
• wallaceartstrust.org.nz
• artandobject.co.nz
• artfind.co.nz
• art-newzealand.com
• artnews.co.nz

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