The Saatchi guide to collecting art
October 12, 2011 | By:
When Charles Saatchi began to collect Brit Art, his ex-wife held his hand. Kay Saatchi tells us how to swim with the sharks

Kay (right) was an early collector of Ron Mueck, whose massive 'Big Baby' (left) once sat in her drawing-room

In these days of financial uncertainty, more and more people are interested in art as an alternative investment to a portfolio of stocks and bonds. I don’t believe that great collectors of art are interested in it only as an investment; to collect art is to enter a journey of a lifetime.

So this article is not aimed at people with a lot of cash who want solely to make money in the art market. They can hire advisors and buy the big names at auction. But if you have a vision of becoming a collector, here’s how to get started:

  • Go to look at everything. Train your eye. See all the major museum shows, and established and emerging art gallery exhibitions. Invest in museum memberships, so you can go back any time you have a spare moment, as you will probably want to see some shows several times (e.g. Tate, Whitechapel, Serpentine, Royal Academy).
  • Buy art magazines and read them. Don’t just look at the pretty pictures. Re-read your copy of Jansen’s History of Art. (Start with antiquities and press on.) Read all the art reviews in the newspapers, get to know the different critics’ opinions, and follow the ones you relate to. Watch any TV programmes about art.
  • The internet makes looking at art easier, but is never a substitute for seeing work in person. Go to all the auction previews, as they are a great way to see amazing art that may not emerge again for many generations. Go to all the fairs, such as the recent Frieze, where you can see a lot of art in one place and start to know the prices, leading dealers and established and emerging artists.
  • The more you see, the more your instinct for art that is genuine, innovative and true will emerge. The way to knowledge is study – and this purpose is very gratifying – but you need to have some guts to do this.
  • Instead of taking, say, a beach holiday, travel to New York’s MOMA to see the Willem de Kooning exhibition, which runs until 9 January. On the flight, take the five hours to learn all about his work, his influences, and his pivotal role in the bridge between abstraction and representation. Study who influenced him and whom he influenced.
  • After MOMA, grab a hot dog and eat it on the way to all the uptown galleries, finishing off with the Metropolitan. Passionate art collectors never break for a long lunch when there is so much to see and so little time.  Eat at night, after dropping by the opening of a new exhibition.
  • When there, talk to other new collectors who are seriously interested in art. Ask what shows they recommend, which artists they are buying and what excites them. But never act like you know more than you do, because you don’t. You won’t have a tan after this mini-break, but you should have something more. And if you didn’t enjoy this journey, then call your stockbroker.
  • You enjoyed it? Good. But next time, wear comfortable shoes.
  • Once home, start to evaluate what art moves you emotionally. Abstraction? Video work? Photography? Sculpture? Try playing art games, such as ‘If you could only own one work of art, what would it be?’
  • Be bold and daring. Buy something in your budget. Buy something you love and will love living with, not as a financial investment. Buy something that shows your intellectual investment of time and energy.  Buy the work of an artist to whom you relate and whose vision you admire. Or, if you are not ready for this first step, buy a work in your mind. (I have ‘owned’ a large Richard Serra sculpture for over 25 years, although I do not physically possess it.)
  • Finally, have fun – but take note of this warning: art collecting is addictive, and can be bad for your marriage…

Further reading

Works from Kay Saatchi’s collection recently sold for £4.3m

The top five art websites

Art materials: quick on the draw

Private view: one man’s pictures of the art world