The must-read guide for making your first purchase or adding to your collection

Feeling like complete morons, we stood staring at each other as three men continued their conversation, puffing on cigarettes, sipping their coffee and completely ignoring us. We could have walked out with a Chagall and they would have been oblivious. An almost apologetic “excuse me” in a barely audible whisper had zero effect; the men kept on talking. We approached the table where they were sitting and they kept on talking. We sat down at the table and they kept on talking. Finally, in a desperate Pretty Woman type move, I shrieked “We have money to spend. Can you help us or not?” In that moment, we lost all art buying credibility and our social standing. Reluctantly, one of the men got up from the table and looked down his nose at us until we ushered him over to a few pieces we’d spotted. Needless to say we left the gallery empty handed. Our credit card may have been spared but not our dignity.

I’ve been buying and collecting art for over 10 years but there are still a few galleries that scare the living daylights out of me. I’ll shuffle past the door three or four times and walk away without crossing the threshold. I try telling myself I didn’t see anything I liked in the window or the quality of the artwork didn’t meet my exalting taste but the reality is that anxiety gets the better of me. So what’s the fear? Prices beyond my budget? Having to mask the choking sounds as my throat tightens with every zero on the price tag? Unconvincing play acting? “Oh, that’s very reasonable, I thought it would be more.’” Feelings of inadequacy and guilt linked to my humble northern England roots?

The reality is that buying art is much more accessible than we may think. Now I own a gallery, it’s important to me that buyers and collectors have a really positive, affirming experience looking for artwork and making a purchase. After all, owning an original piece of art is a joy to cherish.

Having seen life from both sides of the table, here are my top 10 tips for making your first purchase or adding to your collection:

(1) Buy art that you love, that moves you, that stirs some kind of reaction in you or that you connect with aesthetically or emotionally. The art market is volatile and unpredictable and the unfortunate reality is that few artists make it into the big leagues. Those that do, do so for a host of reasons, not all of which have anything to do with their work. As such, the likelihood of seeing a significant financial return on your investment is small. You are going to be looking at the piece for many years so you’d better love it. That said, make sure you get a certificate of authenticity from the gallery and keep it somewhere safe, together with the invoice. You may need it for insurance purposes or if you have discovered the next Damien Hirst.

(2) You don’t need a degree in art history but it is worth you getting a feel for the market and prices, which means doing some research. Visit a range of galleries, search online, stop by art fairs and ask friends. If you are looking at the work of a quality emerging artist in a gallery you can expect to pay in the region of $500 to $5,000 depending on the piece itself, the size and the medium. You can pick up small pieces on paper for less but larger, more significant pieces will be more. Expect to pay an inflated price if you are buying art in tourist locations or resorts.

(3) As you do your research, you’ll also refine your preferences and start to zone in on certain styles and genres. This may happen without you realizing. Use something like Pinterest to save images of pieces you love or mark them in a book or magazine. Then take a step back and see where your taste has taken you. You can then target galleries that match your style. Anecdotally, I have seen collectors’ tastes shift over the years, moving from figurative and representational to expressionist and abstract.

(4) Once you’ve identified a couple of galleries, build a relationship. Like buying houses, you might land on the first piece you see or you may need to look around and go back for several viewings. If you build a relationship with the gallery, you’ll have someone who can look after you, help you navigate the gallery and find the right piece.

(5) Ask questions. Find out more about the artists, their background, the inspiration behind their work and their point of view. You might also want to know about how long they’ve been producing art, what other galleries represent them, what shows their work has appeared in and any awards or prizes they’ve won.  Also ask whether there are any more works by a particular artist that aren’t on display or whether you can commission the artist through the gallery.

(6) Prints, particularly limited edition prints, are a great and potentially more affordable route into art buying and collecting. However, I’d encourage you to buy original pieces. Knowing the work was created by the artist’s hands and is truly unique is a hugely satisfying part of the process.

(7) While art buying and collecting is largely an emotional, intuitive experience, pragmatism also plays a part. Measure the spaces you have in mind for the piece and check it will fit. Can you carry it home? Will it fit in the car or will it need to be shipped? Factor in the price of shipping and framing, if necessary, into your purchase.

(8) Imagine the piece in your home. Artwork can look spectacular in a white-walled minimalist gallery but how will it look in your space? In the past I have printed an image of the piece I’m considering and taped it to the wall to see how it looks.

(9) Sign up to gallery newsletters and follow art blogs. This way you’ll be able to see new work from your favorite artists and new artists joining the gallery or emerging on the scene.

(10) If you already have a collection, think purposefully about the pieces you want to add. Do you want to diversify your style or keep to a theme? Do you want to collect more pieces from the same artists or do you want to add the work of different artists? There are no right or wrong answers but be intentional in your thinking.

Neil Jacobs is the owner and curator of The Road Gallery (, a contemporary, curated gallery representing the work of some of America’s finest emerging artists. In addition to viewing and purchasing artwork through the on-line gallery, work can also be seen in person through studio tours, special events, exhibitions and private showings.