The 8 Rules Every Art Collector Needs to Know

Phillips auction house’s Robert Manley shares the secrets to building a successful art collection…

Amassing an art collection can be an art unto itself. The challenges are many: What to buy? Where to acquire it? And how to compile a collection that possesses both value and meaning? To answer these burning questions, Robb Report turned to the experts at Phillips auction house. “So much of art collecting boils down to making tough decisions,” says Robert Manley, Phillips’ deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art. “Art buying is a passionate thing, and there are mistakes of passion that are made. It’s part of the process.” Read on for Manley’s eight tips to help every collector—from the nascent newcomer to the art aficionado—build a world-class collection. (phillips.com

Buy What Excites You

“Buy the things you’re going to love to live with. Although some people buy art for investment, my personal rule is to buy what excites you, what you’re passionate about, and what you’re going to love. We can talk about the pros and cons of investment, but as an investment vehicle, it’s very tricky. If you buy for love, you’ll always get your value out of it—you almost can’t go wrong.”

Do Your Research

“This is arguably the most exciting time to be a collector because you can literally find just about anything you like. But it’s all about the detective work. Where do you start? Online resources are unparalleled for discovering new things and ideas, but it can be a rabbit hole. If you aren’t sure what you’re looking for, the internet can be extremely confusing. You have to get out there. Go to museums. Go to galleries. The more you do, the more you’ll be able to target what you like. 

“A shortcut for collectors—particularly young collectors—is to go to art fairs and auction houses. Auction houses are great editors because they focus on the artists that are most actively traded in the market. That gives you a certain amount of comfort that you’re seeing artists that have been vetted. Similarly, if you go to the top art fairs—any of the Art Basel fairs or the Armory, for instance—you know you’re going to be seeing artists that have a certain track record or a certain potential.”

Always Buy in Person

“People love to talk about how art is moving online, but frankly that’s not reflective of the reality of art collecting. There’s nothing better than using online resources to hone in on the things you like—but when it comes time to seal the deal, invariably you’ll want to see it in the flesh. There’s no substitute for seeing a work of art in person, because you’re going to live with it in person. Buying art is a real commitment—and on your phone, everything looks the same size. In real life, you get a sense of the size and scale and tactile quality.”

There Are No Shortcuts

“One big misstep that the majority of young collectors make is to start buying too soon. They get excited about the idea of owning something, and they jump before they do enough research. Then, three months later, they realize they’ve made a mistake.

“Collecting requires discipline. People underestimate how quickly they can amass a collection. If you buy just one or two pieces a year, in five years you’ll have a small collection. You see these exquisite small-scale pieces and you just want to have them. But for a collection to have focus, you’re far better off buying one or two more valuable pieces per year than a larger number of lesser works.”

Collect with a Focus

“Having a focus—or two or three focuses—really helps you develop a richer collection. The relationships between the individual works are going to be a lot more compelling if there’s some glue that holds it all together. And though choosing a focus may seem like a limitation, it isn’t. Even if you only wanted to collect one artist—say, Picasso—and you only wanted to collect his prints from the 1930s to the 1960s, you’d have hundreds, maybe thousands, of pieces to choose from.”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

“The amazing—and frustrating—thing about art is that no one can get everything. Not even Ken Griffin can get everything he wants. Bill Gates could offer $3 trillion to the Louvre for the Mona Lisa, but he’s not getting to get it. Just like everyone else, he has to buy what he can. There’s some comfort for smaller collectors to know that we all have to make the same kinds of choices.

“Of course, one of the wonderful things about auction houses is that they are completely democratic. Everyone is welcome, and anyone can bid on anything, and, regardless of who you are or what kind of collection you already have, if you are the last man standing, you will get that piece.”

Enlist an Advisor

“At some point, what starts out as a passion becomes a responsibility—both a financial one and a physical one. Some art simply needs to be taken care of, especially as it becomes more valuable. And a very valuable collection needs to be properly insured and properly maintained. Having a trusted advisor who knows you, knows your taste, and is committed to helping you in the long haul is invaluable.

“That’s one way in which auction houses are very important resources to a lot of major collectors. We help them with their appraisals and research. We think of ourselves as a whole art business. We’re big enough and we have the expertise across so many categories that we can really help collectors in a comprehensive way that few organizations can.”

A Collection Is Never Done

“Once you have figured out what you like, and you’ve done your collecting, you reach this never-ending phase of refining and upgrading. You’re always looking back and sometimes you’re really excited about things you bought, and other times you realize you can afford something better. Or maybe it’s not a matter of money. Maybe it’s just a matter of something better becoming available. That’s why, for real collectors, you are never done.”


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