How to shop for art

Posted on by Beyond Bespoke

Where to go, what to look for and how much to spend? Daniel Morris from leading art advisers Corfield Morris delivers his 10 point guide to dodging the pitfalls - and making sure you end up with a piece you really love

In 2013 the global art market reached £40 billion in total sales of art and antiques, with Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud becoming the most valuable work of art ever sold at auction, fetching $142.4m. With headline-grabbing numbers like these it’s no surprise that more and more people are beginning to sit up and take notice of the international art market. But dropping a cool $140m at Christie’s one evening is a far cry from spending £1,000 at one of the Affordable Art Fairs.

So what should you look out for when buying art? Firstly, where to go? With their big marketing budgets and strength of brand, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are the obvious place for so many. Paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings are being knocked down at an almost constant rate at any one of their worldwide auction locations. And it’s not just the big names and big prices - lesser works by lesser artists are frequently offered for sale below £3,000. While the big auction houses offer you the comfort of an in-house specialist who can talk you through a picture, provide you with a condition report and ideally an under-bidder giving you a sense of comfort that you haven’t overpaid, beware… they are acting on behalf of their clients who are the vendors and they will sting you with a buyer’s premium of up to 25% plus VAT on top of the hammer price.


So what are the alternatives? A traditional art gallery doesn’t have to disclose anything like a buyer’s premium, but there will obviously be a degree of profit depending on their overheads and how well they have bought the work in the first place.

The ever-increasing number of art fairs popping up all over the world gives a buyer a good opportunity to see a large amount of broadly similar pictures under the one roof. Buying can be more pressured at fairs due to the number of visitors defending on one location for a short space of time.

Once you’ve found where you are comfortable buying art, what next? Use your eyes and instinct. Don’t be swayed by the crowd. Buy what you like and what you want to look at every day, not what you feel your friends would like to see in your home when they come round for dinner. Having said that, it’s no surprise to find more personal pieces of art in the private rooms in a house and the odd statement in the more public areas such as the dining room.


Ask questions. Plenty of questions. If it is a work by a living artist, don’t be afraid to try to contact the artist directly (not to buy directly from them and thereby annoy the gallery representing them, but to learn more about them as individuals and their art). Always ask a gallery about the pictures they have. Research the artist and, if possible, try to obtain some recent market history on the artist. It’s always better to avoid a picture that has been unsold at auction. It’s a harsh rule, but the market has made it clear that unsold paintings, for whatever reason, are tainted in the short-term.

Condition of any artwork is paramount. When buying at auction, always ask for a condition report. Request detailed photos if buying from the internet.


As for authenticity, try and ensure that the person you buy the work of art from will guarantee its authenticity and refund the cost of purchase if issues arise.

Beware of export issues, the Artist’s Resale Right and hidden costs. Transportation, installation and adequate additional lighting all add up.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. With market data now readily available on the internet, the buyer is often in a strong position knowing exactly what the current owner paid for it. But don’t be too greedy…everyone is entitled to make a profit!

Corfield Morris