Tips on Collecting Unusual Mediums

Jan 4, 2023

When you first become an art collector, things can seem extremely complicated and most aren't even contemplating collecting unusual mediums. There are so many special terms for auctions, retail galleries, and buying directly from the artist. Plus, there are a head spinning number of things that go into the value of a work of art. That makes deciding on a big purchase difficult, especially at the beginning. But then your journey continues for a time, and you start to get your feet under you. You know all about how to value a print, what’s a good deal at your local gallery, and you’ve maybe even attended a few auctions. Your collection is starting to really take shape and develop a character. You’ve done it!

Yet that old excitement starts to haunt you. The memories of those early days when you were a little lost, when you had to work to keep up, when art thrilled you to no end — you want that excitement back. So what do you do? You start collecting unusual mediums. All of a sudden, everything you’ve learned seems out the window. Well, not quite so fast. When collecting unusual mediums, there certainly are special considerations you need to make. But you might find no matter what the medium is — even if an artwork is made out of a banana and duct tape — things can work more or less the same.

What is an unusual medium?

In art, mediums are the supplies and materials that an artist uses to create a work. For instance, acrylic paint is a medium, as is watercolor and charcoal and brass casting. An unusual medium is one that is simply not as common as others. Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of these works, especially with the dominance of social media. Unusual mediums are often instantly delightful, generating a lot of engagement on platforms like Instagram. These can range from the innocuous to the controversial — like Damien Hirst’s use of animal bodies or the strange history of using body fluids in art (which is cataloged in this rather out-there Wikipedia article).

Should I collect unusual mediums?

This is the most important question to answer, and in some ways it’s the easiest. It comes down to the same fundamental calculus you need to make anytime you buy artwork: do you love it? If you love a work of art, and it is worth the asking price to share your life with it, then the medium doesn’t really matter.

Now, if the medium is perishable, you’ll need to think about the timeline. After all, if something is going to disappear in a short amount of time, will it still be worth the money? But even after taking all that in, it’s still the same decision it always is. The only major barrier that unusual mediums have for collectors is that, given they aren’t standard, it can be difficult to tell how the artwork will hold up in your home or office in the years to come. Are you reacting to the brilliance of the art, or temporarily won over by its strangeness? That can be hard to tell when you’re first venturing into unusual mediums. For that reason, it might be good to start small and see how the weird and unique elements of it age over time for you. Every collector will be different in this regard.

Is it a good investment?

This is the next big question. And it’s one of the more complicated to answer. After all, this can be difficult in the most standard, banal circumstances. When you throw in unusual mediums, it can get even weirder and hard to pin down. The benefit to buying in mediums like ceramic sculpture, oil painting, and other “normal” mediums, is that you can get a much better read on how they would fare on the market.

Obviously, no estimates are 100% perfect, but they improve the more data points you have. In the last five years, think of how many oil paintings were sold. That means you have information you can check, and that provides a lot of comfort when buying art as an investment. Unusual mediums, by definition, don’t really have that. But they do still have some other factors that can be used to determine potential future earnings, such as:

  • the artist and their career trajectory
  • the era and style
  • any previous sales

These should look familiar to all forms of art buying. And just because you can’t rely on as many data points doesn’t mean these aren’t solid things you can look at.

How do I take care of artwork in an unusual medium?

The next big challenge comes when you actually take the artwork to your home or office. As with all the other considerations, this one is a lot more difficult because you have less information to go on. In some cases, things will be more or less straightforward. A sculpture made out of recycled grocery bags can probably hold up if treated with general rules of thumb, like:

  • avoid direct sunlight
  • avoid extremes in temperature and humidity
  • avoid dramatic fluctuations in temperature and humidity
  • keep out of high traffic areas

But what happens when you collect unusual mediums that are much less stable? The best you can do is make sure to ask plenty of questions of the gallerist or, if you are buying directly, from the artist. Even if you buy on the secondary market, you should try to reach out to the artist if you feel confused about how to take care of your art.

The Joy of Going Beyond Normal

Unusual mediums can be a great way to expand your collection and shake up how you see fine art. They also bring up a bit more confusion when buying, but there are many joys that await you once you collect them.

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