A beginner’s guide to collecting
EUGENIA UHL photographs
There comes a point in many people’s lives where décor from one’s college years and sofas from chain stores found in every corner of suburbia are no longer fitting the bill. Achieving a look that expresses who you are doesn’t require that every piece you own be museum worthy. But mixing in art and antiques is often part of the equation. Luckily New Orleans is home to world-class antiques and a thriving arts community. Here, local experts in the fields of art and antiques offer advice on how to start collecting. Limited knowledge and a beginner’s budget need not stand in your way. There are plenty of ways to sharpen your own expertise and invest in things you’ll love for years to come.
Where To Start
Laura Roland of Fireside Antiques in Baton Rouge recommends tearing pictures from design magazines, then studying them to see if there’s a pattern to what you like. Erin Jacobs of Abode also advises reading the article that accompanies the photo spread for pertinent information like the origin of a piece or the place it was purchased. “No matter what your budget is, you want the best your money will buy, so do your homework and find a resource you trust in,” says Katie Koch, owner of Katie Koch Drapery and Katie Koch Home. Artist, designer and gallery owner Kevin Gillentine adds that nothing compares with hands-on experience gained through shopping brick and mortar stores. “The main thing is to get into the shops and see what is actually available,” says Gillentine. “Go to reputable places where people know what they’re talking about.” Adds Koch, “Shop where you know the owner has a good eye.”
Explore The Marketplace
Gaining exposure can mean shopping locally, exploring when you travel or searching online. Learning about periods, styles, furniture makers or artists, will not only help you appreciate genres, but will help you make informed decisions about condition, quality, cost and more. “You have to develop your eye,” says Bill Rau, owner of M.S. Rau Antiques, now in its 103rd year. Rau suggests visiting museums, auctions and galleries and “asking yourself what speaks to you.” Artist Garrett Haab recommends looking locally (especially in smaller, lesser known galleries), as well as out of state and internationally. (Locally, Haab is represented by Hyphen Gallery and Studio M, but this year, the list of venues exhibiting the sculptures he welds with repurposed metals also includes New York; Venice, Italy; and Miami). Once you’ve looked around, the next step is making a purchase. “You can’t really understand a piece until you’ve lived with it a while,” says Rau.
Consider Your Living Space
“You have to address width, height, scale and factor that into the shopping process,” says Jacobs. “If it doesn’t fit or function somewhere, it’s of no use.”
Says Rau,“You can’t fit a 13-foot table in a 12-foot room.” Nevertheless, Rau believes in purchasing a piece you love and finding a place for it. “The greatest homes I’ve been in are the ones where the people bought what they loved and made it work.” If there is some doubt or you change your mind over time, he notes that many dealers will work a trade for another piece. To be sure, ask about the dealer’s policy.
Talk to Dealers and Artists
“All good dealers are willing to share their knowledge,” says Rau. Seasoned dealers also can help collectors decipher why they like something or what is missing from a piece, adds Koch. The most important thing, according to Jacobs, is knowing which questions to ask. “Whether you’re searching on Craigslist or at events such as Round Top, have a list that includes things like era made and country of origin,” she says. When shopping for antiques, Gillentine suggests adding finishes to your list of questions. A new painted finish could devalue an old piece for example. Another caveat Gillentine offers beginners: “Be careful to look at words like ‘antique-style’ versus antique.” As for art collectors, gallery openings provide an opportunity to speak directly with artists as do art fairs where artists are on site. “You can find some great deals on up and coming artists,” says Haab. “My biggest advice is that art is not just for the elite. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The old adage that there are no dumb questions really applies.”
Seek Out Works by Emerging Artists
Dealers and designers often recommend that fledgling collectors of contemporary art look at artists just beginning to be noticed. “They’re new and affordable,” says Francis. At the same time, she points out that those interested in acquiring works by well-known artists should consider doing it sooner than later as the price of such works often increases over time. Works by living artists who no longer produce original pieces and works by recognized artists who’ve died are limited to what already exists so they may come at a premium. Koch cautions beginner collectors to opt for those works that they really like rather than artists or themes that are trendy. She also seeks out works by emerging artisans, citing an example of a local ironworker who made an impressive reinterpretation of a brutalist banister. If you’re unsure about a new artist, Gillentine suggests emerging artists represented by galleries. “A good gallery will stand behind a piece,” he says.
Cover a Variety of Venues
While galleries are a wonderful resource for art, they’re not the only game in town. Penny Francis advises beginners to get creative in their hunt. Among her favorite places to seek out bargains are art fairs, student exhibits at art schools, consignment shops, auctions, and estate sales. Online sources abound as well, with sites like Craigslist, Etsy and eBay offering bargains, and sites like 1st dibs providing a world-class roster of dealers. Francis also recommends social media and city searches for databases of local artists. “A lot of artists today do self promotion through social media,” she says. Abode’s Jacobs suggests following several artists you like on Etsy, then expanding your online research of those artists. “It’s free to look and you can do it from the comfort of your home,” she says. Thanks to sites like 501auctions.com and mobile apps, notes Francis, anyone (including novices who may be intimidated by live or silent auctions) interested in auction items can also shop from home – or wherever they may be. Billed as the premier charity auction website, 501 lists artist bios, information about each work, and more. It also allows you to preview lots, track what is happening and bid in real time.
Start with Limited Series Works
Works such as giclées, numbered prints, and lithographs are generally more affordable than original works, notes Francis. “When a room needs a big piece and you don’t have the budget, giclées are a great way to go,” agrees Jacobs. “I could see going for a striking lithograph in a limited series; something you don’t see everywhere,” says Koch. As a dealer of antiques for more than 30 years, Rau underscores the important distinction between works in a series and rare, hard-to-find antiques and art. He considers the former a design decision if you’re going for a certain look and the latter a valuable commodity for years to come. “If it looked good 100 years ago, it will probably still look good 100 years from now,” he says.
Buy What You Love
Go with your gut, follow you instinct, buy what you love are mantras shared by our experts. Art, especially, should evoke emotion in the buyer. Otherwise, it’s being purchased strictly as a monetary investment, rather than an object to be enjoyed. For Jacobs, buying a piece she loves may even extend to the story or history behind it. “Something interesting about a piece may provoke me as much as the piece itself,” she says. Because antiques and original art are often one-of-a-kind, Gillentine recommends buying something when you see it rather than waiting. Unlike newly mass produced merchandise, antiques are not subject to deep discounts and can’t be duplicated or reordered. “Antiques are valued because of their rarity,” he says. “If you find something you really love, chances are you won’t find it again.”
Mixing periods and styles doesn’t mean putting together an incongruous assortment of finds just so there’s variation. It’s really about creating a collected look, a living space that illustrates your own aesthetic, and a design scheme in step with today’s interiors. If you’re drawn to clean lines, Roland suggests staying with a clean-lined style of antiques (such as Louis Philip) for large pieces likes buffets and armoires, then stepping outside of your comfort zone, to something more ornate and curvilinear perhaps, for smaller pieces like chairs and accessories. “Unequivocally, do mix things,” advises Rau. “Your grandmother may not have done it, but definitely do. It looks better. If you have a room full of brown Georgian furniture or a room full of gilded Louis XV pieces, nothing stands out. When you mix periods, they do.”
Antiques also work well with vintage, quality reproduction pieces, contemporary designs, and custom furnishings. Vintage furnishings (20 to 100 years old) are usually more affordable than antiques, though not always. Certain designers, well-known company names and select eras can garner very high prices. In keeping with today’s tastes for mixing antique, vintage and new, many dealers offer multiple categories of furniture. Fireside sells antiques, custom furnishings and fine reproductions. Koch, who personally prefers using “a broad spectrum” of styles with a healthy dose of vintage, suggests using an extra discerning eye when evaluating a reproduction. “I’m tough on a reproduction,” she says. “It has to be really well made and I like a little age or patina.”
Think Of Collecting as a Long-term Proposition
“Start collecting as soon as you can,” says Gillentine. “A collection takes a lifetime to build. It’s a question of things that are thoughtfully collected versus things that collect dust.” In addition to being surrounded by things you love to look at, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve invested in items that are esteemed for their authenticity and have good resale value, and you will have been financially wise, spacing out purchases rather than buying everything at once.
“Everything is expensive now, new and old,” say Koch. “But new pieces don’t always have the integrity of old. If you take an old piece, like a sofa with good bones, and refurbish it, I think you’re making a better investment. Buy one with good clean lines that can transition well into any room.” To get even more bang for your bunk, Koch suggests going with pieces that are a little edgy instead of “safe” and moving things around periodically so you don’t tire of them. When possible, Roland also advises clients to go for old over new. “Who wants to live in a house where everything is a copy?” she says. “Why not live with the real deal?” Adds Rau, “Buy the best you can afford when you can afford it. If you have to buy it on time, do it. Buy for the long term.”
One of the best ways to create a canvas worthy of carefully curated pieces is by using high-quality paint. Fine Paints of Europe, made in Holland, offers such a superior product that museums such as Mount Vernon use it. (Closer to home, Antoine’s Restaurant chose the brand for its famed Rex Room). “The first thing you want to do is set the tone for your art and antiques,” says the Vermont-based company’s Staff Colorist Emmett Fiore. “The right paint enhances art and antiques.” What makes the line so unique is the fact that it’s finely ground. Fine consistency equals a higher concentration of pigment, which in turn yields better coverage and luminosity. Though the paint is more expensive than most, Fiore says it makes financial sense over the long run. “There’s economic value to better paint,” he says. “It lasts longer.” In addition to being an excellent way to frame the things you love, Fine Paints offers historic colors (The Mount Vernon Estate of Colours collection includes 110 colors). If you’re a purist, you can pick the appropriate color to go with your 18th-century American finds. The line also is used by artists. Its artist quality and commercial sizing are especially suited to large works and installations. Fine Paints of Europe is available at Helm Paint.