Why buy art?


Tools of the trade! An auction catalogue and bidding paddle


By Caitlin Kelly

Isn’t that something only rich people do? Billionaires in salerooms like Christie’s and Sotheby’s (pronounced Suth-uh-bees with a soft, slurred th) flicking an eyelid to denote their multi-zero bid?

Actually no.

But buying original art — even a numbered print, (lithograph, engraving, etching, silkscreen, monoprint, linocut) — can feel intimidating until you learn the lingo.

My father is a documentary film-maker but also a talented artist working in a range of media, including oils, lithograph, engraving and even silver. He’s collected art  — from a Picasso litho to a Renoir engraving, (both of which I’ve spotted in Swann catalogues), to Inuit soapstone sculpture to 19th century Japanese prints.

I was very lucky to grow up with such eclectic beauty on our walls, and it absolutely informed how I see and what I enjoy. It also showed me that owning art is a lovely decision. You can go through a few sofas in your lifetime, but art you love is something to keep for years.

In my 20s, thanks to an inheritance, I bought a large silkscreen print, photos by Jerry Uelsmann, Andre Kertesz and Steichen and three colored pencil sketches. I did, I admit, make a calculated decision about the photos, and sold the Kertesz later at Swann.



The saleroom at Swann Galleries in Manhattan. The works are all on display for preview and you can ask to examine them closely without covers before you bid to know what their condition is and how much it might cost to restore.


If you’re on Etsy or Instagram, you’ll find many artists selling their work, some of it very affordable. Generally, it’s wise to frame paper artwork carefully with acid-free matt and UV-protective glass  and photos, especially, need to displayed out of direct sunlight.


But why buy art?


Good heavens, why not?

If you can afford $500 or $1,200 for a new cellphone or computer you can acquire art at that price.

Hanging on our bedroom wall is a gorgeous litho I got at Swann for $600 by Maurice Vlaminck, from the 1920s. Over our bed now hangs an etching by Raoul Dufy, from the same auction, for which I paid a bit more.

I read the catalogue carefully, decided which ones I wanted and decided what my budget was — the auction house always adds a “buyer’s premium” of 25 percent, sometimes less. I registered, got my paddle (which you raise to show you’re bidding on that item), and waited for hours til “my” pieces came up. There are hundreds of items in an auction, and its rhythm is carefully planned. There’s always an estimate given weeks in advance, which can go low or blast far above projections.

But you can also buy art at antique stores, galleries, graduating student shows at local art colleges, street fairs.

I love the explosive style, brilliant colors and Canadian landscapes of this artist, Julia Veenstra, who I found and follow on Instagram.

A splurge — $1,500 — was for an image I stumbled across at the Winter Antiques Show, a very fancy New York City affair I usually just attend to savor museum-quality material I could never afford. But…oh my…there was a photo exhibitor from California selling images by a man I had never heard of that stopped me in my tracks.

I now want all his work!

Here’s a link to the image I bought; the photographer is a man in his 60s, a Finn named Pentti Sammhallahti. Here’s the page of his work.  

I find it mysterious, quiet and deeply compelling.

I’ve been collecting photography since my 20s and Jose, of course, added some extraordinary images from his own collection — including a signed and numbered original print of The Loneliest Job in the World, the iconic black and white image of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy standing in his office, silhouetted against the window; Jose began his career at The New York Times working with the photographer George Tames, who signed and gave it to him.

Copies now sell for $50 from the Times’ archive — our print is very different, much darker and has a totally different feeling to it as a result.

So, where to start?


Go to a museum or contemporary art gallery — and take your time!


Notice which pieces move you.


Which make you stand still and stare, mesmerized?


What is it about them: color, period, artist, detail, scale, brushwork, subject matter?


It doesn’t have to be pretty or decorative.


Ignore everyone who snaps a cellphone image and doesn’t even look at the work.

Learning about materials and processes will make asking questions of gallerists and auctioneers easier.

I wish everyone could afford and would own some original art. Few things I’ve ever spent money on have offered me such consistent daily pleasure.


Do you own any?

Would you ever buy a piece if you could afford to?

Which categories appeal to you?

13 thoughts on “Why buy art?

  1. I’ve bought art from the local art fair in Columbus, from Etsy, and even from a friend of mine living in Denver (he made the most beautiful picture of an ocelot. I love thinking it’s watching over me while I sleep). And it really does liven up the apartment. What art you stock your home with says a lot about what sort of person you are and what sort of interests you have, and it’s always nice to get some. In fact, a lot of art is very affordable if you know where to look. I think the most I’ve spent on an individual print or piece may have been $90. Compared to some of the bills I pay, that’s pretty cheap.
    Also, this is a weird coincidence, but in a little over an hour, i’m going to a charity auction where art pieces will also be available for bid/purchase. I hope I find something I like there.

  2. I’ve always fully enjoyed art, though I’ve never purchased an expensive piece. I always have felt intimidated by the process, which is my own doing, and I’d like to overcome.

    I tend to buy art from a variety of artists who come to our art fair from all over the world. some I’ve purchased are from a Japanese artist who creates whimsical paintings, a photographer from the western United States who does stunning photography of scenes in nature, and small animals created in clay and metal by variety of artists.

    art is always worth it.

    1. Sounds like a great collection!

      I guess “expensive” is relative…just for fun, try checking the websites of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Swann and Skinner (Boston.) You will be surprised at how low priced some items are…I just got the newest catalogues for an Old Masters sale and there are works from the 1400s (!!!!!!) that are barely four figures.

      And most people are now bidding on-line or by phone. I’ve bid by phone. Not a difficult thing to do.

      You see very quickly who and what is in fashion.

      1. Right?

        The more you know, the more at ease you feel. I spent a lot of my Saturdays in galleries and auction houses when I lived in NH just getting a feel for what I liked, loved, didn’t like and could afford. It’s like anything we buy — but art feels so much less familiar (unlike buying a car, for example) and there are few less-than-wealthy examples of how to do it.

  3. I’ve purchased a photo once from a gallery. It was an old photo of a Chinese “junk” in the Hong Kong harbour. The rest are posters (mostly Georgia O’Keeffe). I’ve been to some art fairs and have seen some really nice art but never had the courage to pull the trigger.

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