How To Begin A Contemporary Art Collection

26 Jan 2018

How can I find out more about the contemporary art world?

“I think the best way to find out more about the contemporary art world is to experience it for yourself… immerse yourself in it,” says Annie Vartivarian, co-founder of Letitia Gallery, a new contemporary gallery opening in Beirut in February. “Attend gallery openings, museum exhibitions, talks, auctions and if possible visit artist’s studios. This experience will not only give you a perspective on which artists are relevant and popular in today’s market but, also the price ranges in contemporary art, where you can acquire it and consider how good an investment the work might be now and in the future”.

Eileen Cooper (1953), Under The Same Moon, 2017. Oil on canvas, 122 x 92 cm. Exhibited at the Letitia Gallery, Beirut.


What should my budget be for a first time buy?

The professional verdict is: it doesn’t matter. Collector and gallerist Marwan Zakhem, who is the founder of Gallery 1957, suggests, “A collection can be started with any budget, so adapt your first buy to whatever you can afford. At the end of the day, the work’s monetary value won’t dictate the level of excitement you get from looking and purchasing. My first 10 or 15 pieces cost me less than $100 each. Collecting has a tendency to become an obsession so make sure that you stick to the rule of buying within your means.”

Vartivarian agrees that a large budget is not important when you’re starting out. She reassures us that “the first purchase is always the most difficult and I have always felt that it should be made primarily on instinct. In that I mean the work speaks to you perhaps through its colour, its composition or its meaning, as in conceptual art.” Frankie Rossi, Director of Sales at Marlborough Fine Art, adds, “Buying prints by established artists is a good way to start a collection. Begin with a modest budget, and increase it with your own self confidence.”

Allen Jones (1937), Pour Les Levres, 1965. Oil on canvas, 76.5 x 50.8 cm. (30 1/8 x 20 in.), image courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art. 

Which artists are relevant right now?

“The international arts scene is now rightfully taking greater notice of contemporary art from Africa - especially West Africa,” says Zakhem, who’s gallery is based in Ghana. “[This is] where a large part of my personal collection is from – so I naturally recommend this growing market as a good place to start. Serge Attukwei Clottey, who we are showing as part of a gallery takeover at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai later this month, is one of Ghana’s best known artists, alongside more established names such as Ibrahim Mahama. From Nigeria, El Anatsui and Ben Enwonwu are hugely popular with international collectors, but there are also more emerging names to watch out for such as Yaw Owusu, Gerald Chukwuma, Jeremiah Quarshie and Zohra Opoku; in August this year we will be showing new works from the Nigerian-based Modupeola Fadugba, who is certainly one to keep an eye on.”


Simon Tovey, head of Phillips’ New Now Sales in London, recommends two artists: “Shara Hughes and Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, garnered broader critical attention this year when they were included in the Whitney Biennial and now have achieved greater market support after being included in our New Now sales.”

Yaw Owusu (1992), Gold Rush, 2017. Treated Copper Coins on Wood, 72 in. diameter. Showing at Gallery 1957.

Where should I go to buy?

According to Tovey, “There are a number of options available to a budding collector, from galleries and artist studios, to art fairs and auction houses. Auctions are a great way of getting access to material you can’t find on the primary market.” Tovey believes we must demystify the auction house, suggesting they really are open to everyone. “People can be intimidated by the idea of an auction house, especially if they haven’t worked with one before, however we are a tremendous resource for collectors. Auction houses are a democratic and transparent process in terms of understanding values and costs and what your money is actually buying. Talk to us, and ask us questions. We’re very open about what we do; we have a passion for art and we want to try to pair you with works that you love and want to live with too.”

This sentiment is supported by Mattia Pozzoni, resident expert at MutualArt: “The good thing about auctions is that they’re democratic. If you like big names, auction is a good bet." Pozzoni adds, "If you’re interested in getting to know an artist, go to a gallery, and try to befriend some gallerists before you start buying. That way you’ll get first dibs on the available artworks. If you follow an artist from the ground up, you’ll be the first in line when they make it big.”

Paa Joe and Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, Ake yaaa heko, One does not take it anywhere, installation. 2017. Courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra.

How can I be sure of authenticity?

"The provenance of any artwork is key,” says Tovey. “Knowing the history of the work, where it has been sold, and who has owned it is very important. This is easier to ascertain with contemporary works of art, however, with older works this requires far more thorough research. As an auction house, we have a fantastic international team with a range of specialist expertise, and it is our duty to ensure that any work of art that passes through our hands is authentic.”

One way that auction houses and collectors can check for authenticity is by collaborating with the Art Loss Register. They run the world’s largest database of stolen art, and work closely alongside experts and international police organisations to confirm the provenance of artworks, ensuring that they haven’t been faked or stolen. A private collector at any level is encouraged to register their collection with ALR, so that’s another way you can be sure of authenticity. 

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer (1979), Ceviche and Peruvian Meat, 2011. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61 cm. (30 x 24 in.). Price Realized: $23,750 (Estimate: $10,000-15,000). 

How should I display my artworks?

"However you can enjoy them most,” says Zakhem. “Personally, I believe that artworks should be lived around and involved in part of the everyday conversation. I am lucky enough to share part of my collection in the Kempinski Hotel in Accra, as I am passionate to get as many people as possible to experience these exciting works; I’d encourage all collectors to share their works where they can.” For Tovey, the way you display your artwork is a matter of instinct; "it is entirely personal and depends on the artwork and the space."

Pozzoni suggests “You should have a feeling when you’re buying something that you know exactly where you want to put it. Arguably more important than the location is the framing. Sometimes you see even Picassos in terrible frames. Think about the use of colour, the use of paper. This makes a huge difference. A good option is to work together with an art advisor and an interior designer, but most of all, go with your feeling. Follow your instinct."

Shara Hughes (1981), Untitled, 2005. Oil, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 122 x 121.6 cm. (48 x 47 7/8 in.). Price Realized: £56,250 (Estimate: £8,000-12,000).

Should I go for big names?


The general consensus is that chasing big names is not the be all and end all. “Obviously big names usually means big investment,” says Zakhem, “so firstly it really depends on your budget. I feel the focus should always be on the work, rather than the name itself. ‘Big names’ are always changing – apart from a golden few - and you could be overlooking an emerging artist destined for great things.” Vartivarian agrees, “A collection should be a personal commitment to artwork which you will either keep for over a number of years for your own enjoyment or perhaps build a unique collection which can they be lent to institutions in the future. Whether it is a big name you are after or an emerging artist, try to like the work yourself and you can’t go wrong.”Tovey reiterates this position, saying, “It is important to buy what you like. Rather than just chasing the freshest and en vogue artist, new and aspiring collectors should be inspired by their love for the material. The most well-rounded and important collections, not to mention most interesting, are those informed by personal passion, determination, and a good eye. There are always galleries, curators, collectors who really have their finger on the pulse and it’s good to keep up and see what they’re up to, along with looking around the auctions!”

Serge Attukwei Clottey, (1985), Out of Converation, 2017. Plastic, wires and oil paint, 170.18 x 180.34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra.

Should I buy as an investment?

"It may seem like the obvious cliché, but when buying art you really should buy what you love”, Zakhem argues. “Investment is very important to some collectors, but for me that should never be the primary motive — you can never really be sure.” As with chasing big names, it seems that investment should always be considered secondary to your attachment to the art itself. Vartivarian feels that “building an art collection or opening a gallery, as I am about to do at the Letitia Gallery in Beirut, should be a labour of love. There must be something that drives one to contribute to the importance and the future of contemporary art in society believing it to be a cultural necessity which enhances life throughout the world for everyone.” Art is a cultural object before it is a material or commercial one.

For Tovey, “Anyone collecting art, in any category, should be driven by their passion and a discerning eye for the art foremost, and not by the prospect of financial gain. That said, every collector should always evaluate artists of interest, the quality and provenance of each work, and how that piece sits within the artist’s oeuvre. Be guided by the thought if you buy a work which you love and then it subsequently goes up in value, you have won twice!”

Jeremiah Quarshie (1985), Shooter, Yellow is the Colour of Water series, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra. 

How can I use my collection to support artists or institutions?

"Collecting is support in itself”, Zakhem suggests. “That’s where Gallery 1957 grew from, a desire to support local artists by investing in them. Another important part of support can come through being a member or patron of an institution. I sit on the board of the Tate Africa Acquisitions Committee, and there are so many similar roles at all levels in all types of institutions, from Young Patrons to Platinum members – find the one that suits you.”

Pozzoni's advice is: "Lend it. If you buy from a gallery, they’ll keep a record of what they’ve sold to whom. So if an exhibition opportunity comes their way, they’ll put you in contact with the gallery and even facilitate the transport of the artwork. This gives the work another life, and there’s also a commercial interest in lending, as the more the work is shown in its correct place, the more it will grow in value." Pozzoni adds that to support artists "you can become a patron in non-profit organisations that fund residencies, studio programmes, bursaries or artist prizes. You can also give money to universities to support the artists emerging there. And remember, by purchasing artworks you are immediately supporting artists. 



How To Begin A Contemporary Art Collection