The Moment of Purchase: Finding the Balance of Emotion and Caution

Sep 15, 2016

The decision to purchase a work of art, whether a contemporary installation, a fauvist streetscape, a folk art masterpiece or a continental porcelain garniture, is a moment that follows an emotional response to the work.

This response can range from desire and fascination to hope and excitement, whether you see the work as an image that can’t be lived without, something that fills the perfect spot in a growing collection, or a way to diversify your investment portfolio.

Unfortunately, often missed in making this decision is an important question: how do I best conduct due diligence before making this investment? Art is the only major asset class where deals are still done on a handshake, people make decisions based on the seller’s reputation, and objects are purchased without having the work inspected prior to the sale (all of these scenarios took place in the Knoedler Gallery’s sale of faux Abstract Expressionist works). However, the sophisticated collector is becoming increasingly educated and realizing how to navigate today’s often opaque market.

As someone who has spent her career answering questions about the authenticity and state of preservation of artworks by studying the presented materials, I can recommend the following questions to consider before purchasing an important artwork:

  1. Is the work made with period materials? A 17th century Dutch golden age painter will have a much more limited palette available to the artist than the 19th century landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, for example. Make sure that the palette of the considered artwork is appropriate to the period, whether buying an oil painting, a pastel, porcelain or even a duck decoy.
  2. How much of the piece has been restored? It is estimated that about 20% of what you see in a museum reflects the work of conservators rather than the artist’s hands. This makes sense for objects that are hundreds or thousands of years old, but a large amount of restoration is unacceptable for any purchase unless all of the conservation has been fully disclosed and the price reflects this condition.
  3. Is the work a marriage? This is a major concern for period furniture, classic cars, silver, and objects of vertu. It is not unusual for these objects, which were in daily use, to have replacement parts given their original functions, but these parts should be disclosed and again the price should reflect these changes from original condition.
  4. Does the work have inherent vice? This means that the work is made from materials such as masking tape, for example, as physical elements that were never meant to have sustained, long-term use and function. Another example is a Naum Gabo sculpture made from cellulose acetate or a mid-century design chair filled with polyurethane foam. These works are made from materials that literally cannot survive into the future. Understanding the question of inherent vice is critical for purchases of modern and contemporary art.
  5. Is the work actively degrading? Although it is well-known that textile dyes are highly light sensitive, the field is just starting to understand that the pigments which the Impressionists, the post-Impressionists and the early modernists (including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet) used are extremely light-sensitive. When purchasing an artwork from this period (roughly 1880s – 1920s), it is critical to examine the state of preservation of the pigments and to understand the parameters that will be required properly to display the piece to minimize further change over time.

By having these questions in mind and taking the time to answer them to your satisfaction, collectors can get carried away with their emotions in the best possible sense – to feel free to fall in love with your artworks and to know that you have found a passion in your collecting which will sustain you for years to come.


Jennifer Mass

Ph.D., President at Scientific Analysis of Fine Art

Jennifer L. Mass, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art (SAFA), LLC. She founded SAFA in 2007 to address a growing need for objective material assessment of works in the art market, complementing connoisseurship and conservation assessments. SAFA assists lawyers, insurers, collectors, dealers, auction...

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