Q&A with a Curator: How to Buy Expensive Art

Q&A with a Curator: How to Buy Expensive Art

Not sure about you, but I think I like the idea of buying expensive art more than the actual process of doing so. I own a couple of expensive pieces of art, as well as a piece that I commissioned (yes, really!), and the process was a little difficult, because at the time I didn’t know anybody who was into art, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.

That’s why I was quite excited to have the opportunity to sit down with Tessa Papas, the art curator at Provenance Hotels, a network of hotel properties around the country who are quite known for their art. Tessa has a lot of experience, and naturally had some rather practical advice when it came to talking about how to buy expensive art, as well as some words of wisdom on how to commission an artist, too. Let’s get into the Q&A.

how to buy expensive art

We’ve already talked about some of the common mistakes when people hang and display art; what are some of the most common mistakes people make when they buy art?

The biggest mistake is listening to the so-called experts (gallery owners can be guilty here, too) that say you absolutely have to buy that piece because the artist is on the way up, the piece will be worth so much more, etc. It is FAR more important to buy something that your gut tells you is “right” for you, something that you get that peculiar gut-wrench when you look at it. I don’t think it matters if you grow out of it down the line, but initially you should take great pleasure in looking at it.

I bought my first original oil, aged 19, when I lived in Australia. It was a very red landscape and it gave me enormous pleasure for a number of years. Today, 50 years later, I’d probably dislike it, as my taste has changed and become more sophisticated, but that doesn’t matter.

I remember visiting an exhibition of Steve Martin’s collection in Las Vegas. The first piece in the show was a smallish Victorian oil of a sailing ship in rough moonlit waters, and honestly, it was pretty bad! The caption stated it was the first piece he bought, aged 18, and that he had kept it to show how his taste had changed! Never buy anything just because you think its value might increase.


Tessa with a few pieces from her personal collection.  Those abstract landscapes?  She painted them herself.

The act of buying art that is “expensive” (recognizing that expensive is in the eye of the beholder) can be intimidating for anyone. Do you have suggestions on what’s the best way to spend an art budget? Where does one even start the search?

Many galleries will allow you to buy over time. When I had my gallery, I did not charge interest, and I’d allow people to spread payments over 6 months. To be honest, it made budgeting easier, because with a gallery there are times when you never had an idea where your next dollar was coming from. In addition, many galleries will give you something of a discount if you buy more than one piece. I frequently buy original prints (not giclees) at online auctions. A good one is Aspire Auctions.

I own a custom piece of art, and I sort of accidentally “fell” into the commission. The process was interesting – I think I kind of rushed through it – but it all worked out in the end.  The artist told me that the main thing she needed to know was what I planned on doing with it, and wanted a picture of the room it was going in.  What are your tips for finding an artist for a custom piece, and how does one ensure the artists has enough of your “vision” without stomping all over their creative genius?

Commissions are always problematic.  My late husband, Bill Papas, did a number of commissions all over Portland, and I don’t think a single person said “that’s perfect.” He had to always make a few changes.

I feel that one can never get what one really wants, as so many times it is impossible to articulate what one does really want. That said, once I commissioned a young artist named Oliver to do two pieces for an awkwardly sized space in an apartment building. He was a joy to work with because aside from getting my approval, the pieces had to pass by a committee of three women who did not know a great deal about art. Changes were made during the first go-round, but both Oliver and I agreed that they made the final pieces much better – so be sure your artist is open to feedback and includes a collaborative period in the process.


Tessa’s handiwork at the Hotel Murano – check out my art-inspired trip to Tacoma, Washington.

What’s some good advice for someone who wants to buy a piece of art that is “timeless?” Is there such a thing? Are simple pieces better, photos better than paintings, etc?

Mmm … one person’s timeless is another’s crap! Art is so very subjective. Of course, there are timeless pieces: the Renaissance painters, the Impressionists, NY school,  etc. — but the average person cannot even think of buying them unless they have a trust fund. (I personally would give my eye teeth to own a Bonnard!) So what to do? Buy something that is timeless to you but that is affordable. Buy original prints (never giclees or so-called lithographs), buy at reputable auctions online, scout garage sales (usually not much there), and look at online sites for young artists in all countries. But buy only what affects you viscerally.

And when in doubt?  Paint your own.

Thanks, Tessa!  Still feeling perplexed?  Perhaps our guide to the psychology of color in the home will pique your interest.

Q&A with a Curator: How to Buy Expensive Art

Andy Hayes

Andy Hayes is the founder and creator of Plum Deluxe. He authors our award-winning weekly email newsletter, The Blend and curates our popular organic tea of the month club.

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