You don’t have to be a gallerist to know that walls look better with art on them. But many people find the art world intimidating, auctions daunting, and works of art way, way, wayyyyyy too expensive.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. We talked to Sotheby’s American Paintings Specialist Elizabeth Pisano for her insider tips. On the eve of their online auctions, she gave us the lowdown on art collecting, how auctions work and advice for finding pieces you love, even if you’ve only got a few hundred bucks in your bank account.


Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s, featuring Elizabeth Pisano.
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s, featuring Elizabeth Pisano.

Got $50? Then you can start a serious art collection.

Even Sotheby’s, one of the largest, most established auction houses in the world has affordable works of art. Bids for their current online auctions start as low as $50. “It’s a really great opportunity for young collectors who don’t necessarily have the means or desire to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get really high-quality interesting pieces,” says Pisano.

Let yourself get caught up in the excitement.

Ever seen an auction portrayed on a TV show or in a movie? That’s not too far off from how they actually are. “There’s a lot of excitement in the air. The auctioneer keeps the pace up really well and it’s just a fun event to be a part of,” Pisano explains. Don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated by the thought of an auction. Be sure to do your research ahead of time, set your budget, then enjoy yourself.

See works in person before purchasing.

“The emotional connection you have to something is really about standing in front of it,” Pisano says. Even if you’re planning on buying a piece online, try to see it in person first. Both of Sotheby’s online American Art sales are actually on exhibition for the course of the auctions, so if you’re in New York, you can check them out before you place your bid.

William James Morley Clayton, Americana / Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
William James Morley Clayton, Americana / Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Talk to specialists and learn about the artists and pieces that interest you.

Trying to decide if a work of art is a worthy investment? That’s where specialists like Pisano come in. Learn all you can about the piece, its condition, and the artist. Even if you don’t end up buying it, the more knowledge you have of art in general, the better your future collection will be.

Buy what you love, not what you think you should own.

“I think the number one mistake people make is buying something they think they should buy as opposed to buying something they actually want to own and live with,” says Pisano. Listen to your gut reaction. If you discover a piece and feel moved by its every detail, then it’s a good buy. It doesn’t matter if it’s worth something to anyone else.

An investment doesn’t mean blowing all your money on one “important” piece.

“A collection can be serious in a lot of different ways. It can be serious because you know so much about it and it’s a big part of your life, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to its monetary value.” Start small and purchase pieces that have personal value to you, not those that have dollar sign value to the art world at large. Art world tastes and valuations can be fickle, so be sure to buy something you love.

Shirl Goedike, The Arena Crowd, Madrid / Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Shirl Goedike, The Arena Crowd, Madrid / Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Introduce yourself to the art of collecting through emerging artists.

Don’t have to have unlimited funds to start an art collection? Pisano recommends getting your foot in the door by exploring the work of emerging artists. “Lesser known artists, those that don’t have as big of an auction track record tend to be less expensive.”

If you must go big, go with safe buys.

“Right now, I would say the strongest component of our market are the American modernists,” Pisano says. “Big names like Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove, semi-abstract pieces and those with bright graphics seem to be what people want right now.”

Vincent Jannelli, Cityscape with Airplanes and Dirigibles / Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Vincent Jannelli, Cityscape with Airplanes and Dirigibles / Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Before buying a piece by a contemporary artist, look at the artists who influenced them.

Everyone may want the Richard Prince piece, but it’s important to remember that contemporary artists draw incredible influence from those who came before them. “The most famous, well-known, and highest valued contemporary artists were often influenced by and looking at older American artists,” Pisano remarks. So do a little research and you may be able to find a similar work in a different market.

Visit your local galleries and determine what speaks to you.

“One of my favorite things to do is wander around the city and pop into small galleries and stores. Just because something is inexpensive or you find it an unexpected place doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value or it won’t have meaning to you,” says Pisano. “Learn all you can, read about what’s going on in terms of arts and culture where you live and I think you’ll find that it’s not that difficult to seek out awesome things. I just think as a base line you should buy the art that attracts you. You really can’t go wrong if that’s the rule that you live by.”

Made in America: 19th Century Paintings and American Realism 1960-2000 will run online through Sotheby’s from July 15-July 30.

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