Priceless: A Chat with Gillian Blitch on Art and Investing
The world of art is so often glamourized and mysticized by entertainment and media—full of heists, tragedy, intrigue, forgery, and high stakes gambles.But the truth is that fine art, like any creative product, is made to be experienced and appreciated, and it’s important that we continue to engage with all the arts if we hope to see them survive. On a more practical note, however, if you do your research and choose well, art can have the compound benefit of accumulating value over time, doing double duty as both a stunning addition to your home and a smart money investment. But where to start? The sheer volume and variety of the art market can be intimidating to someone with little to no prior knowledge or experience, and that alone can be enough to dissuade many from getting their feet wet.
To help us gain some insight into this industry, we have a conversation with someone who was a beginner herself when she first became involved: Gillian Blitch.
Could you give us a quick overview of what you do, in your own words?
I’m an Art & Business Consultant, specializing in collection management (which covers, for example, acquisitions, sales, curatorial services, art market research, financial records and reporting) and largely focused on Fine Art of the American West.
How would an outsider go about getting involved in investing art and the art world?
Start with thinking about what you like! Visit local museums, move on to local galleries. When you see something you like, find out about the artist and how this artwork might be classified: is it Modern? Representational? Abstract? Find some more examples of the artist’s work, and look for examples by other artists who fit that definition or “school.” There are amazing on-line resources in the art world today, allowing you to explore exhibitions all over the world, and most galleries now have a virtual presence in addition to retail space. A growing number are only virtual galleries, and all the major auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christies, Bonham’s) and many local auctions can be accessed on-line too. Make friends with the gallery staff whether you’re in person or on-line; don’t be afraid to ask questions! They are there to help and happy to provide background on an artist, their market prices, and what that artwork might represent. The more expensive the artwork, like any other investment, the more important it becomes to understand how it relates to the market for that artist’s work (Picasso produced pencil drawings, sketches on paper, ceramic items as well as magnificent oil paintings!) and where it falls in the scope of the artist’s career. There are usually options for many budget levels, starting with prints, more valuable if they are one of a limited edition (say, only 200 were ever produced), and/or signed by the artist, other works on paper, working up to paintings.
For an example case, let’s take a look at Ed Mell, an active, living artist. His work appears in museum collections as well as high-profile private collections, so the market for his work is well-established at the very least. Works can be bought directly through galleries that represent the artist, but you can also find them on the “secondary market”—at auction or from galleries that don’t necessarily have a contractual relationship with him. For instance, the gallery that Gillian directs, Mitchell Brown Fine Art, has several of his paintings right now.
Mell’s works—as with many contemporary artists—can also be found in a variety of mediums and sizes, including limited edition lithographs (prints) as well as both small and large-scale oil paintings; the range means that you can be sure to find one that suits both your taste and your budget.
Of course, despite the accessibility of the contemporary art world, choosing art as more than just objects of beauty and decoration can be a complicated process. As Diana Britton says in her piece exploring the issue, “Not only that, often what makes one piece any more “valuable” than another is up to subjective judgement and changing tastes—so, why take the risk? In an article for her clients at Mitchell Brown, Gillian writes: “[A]rt has proven over the generations to be a tangible object which can offer many people more peace-of-mind than securities, stocks and bonds. If the stock market fails, the money may be lost forever, but even though a painting may diminish in value, unless it is physically destroyed, it is probable the value will eventually go back up given a long-enough time frame. An engaging work can provide its owner with a lifetime of visual pleasure.” You can own one piece for years and still discover something new every time you look at it—that is something that can’t be priced, something that can be passed to your children, and their children after them.
Her article closes with a quote from Warren Buffet himself to keep in mind:
Specialize. Define your circle of competence and collect inside it.
Buy the very best piece(s) you can. It’s better to buy a great piece at a fair price than a fair piece at a great price.
Work only with dealers you like and trust.
A good, trustworthy dealer or consultant can be as priceless as the work they curate, when it comes to navigating the art world. Especially if you’re only getting started, it’s important to have research and experience behind any decisions or commitments you make; while you can do some of the legwork on your own, it helps to have someone in your network who can guide you through the process.
So, ready to jump in?
What are some good resources for people looking to become more familiar with prices, value, quality, etc.?
Many gallery websites will provide biographies of an artist whose work they carry. ArtNet is a great resource for many aspects of the global art world, and AskArt is another, more focused on American Art. Auction prices are usually only available with a subscription, but all the more reason to communicate with a gallerist or art advisor who will gladly provide background information. Artsy is a great resource for beginning art collectors and education. Most importantly, again, find a gallerist/advisor you like and trust, explore likes, dislikes, size, budget. Buying art is an emotional investment before it is a financial investment!
You can follow Gillian at @mitchellbrownfineart on Instagram, or look through the art she works with at www.mitchellbrownfineart.com.
You can find the work of Ed Mell directly at www.edmellgallery.com.
Featured header image Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.