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Venturing into the art market with costs in mind

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NEW YORK -- In the movies, art auctions always seem so glamorous. A hushed room full of people raise paddles to bid on priceless works of art. It's a chilly scene that seems reserved for the truly privileged.

Now as the art market struggles with the broader economy, you might be wondering whether there's room for you to start your own collection.

While auction houses such as Sotheby's remain too pricey for most people, it shouldn't be difficult finding works you love at summer art fairs and local galleries, where prices can start a few hundred dollars.

The key is to know what you're getting into, and that the value of art works can rise and fall dramatically and unpredictably. That's true even in rarefied circles where five-figure price tags are the norm.

"Art is not liquid, like gold or corn. It's not quantifiable," said Allan Schwartzman, an art adviser based in New York City and former curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. "Art as an investment is not a wise strategy for collecting."

Sotheby's, for instance, is expected to record about $2.5 billion in auction sales this year, down from $5 billion last year, according to Craig Hallum Capital Group in Minneapolis. The drop is the result of lower prices and jittery sellers waiting to put items on the block.

Those are trends being reflected in the broader art market, said George Sutton, a Craig Hallum analyst. So before you start buying, here's a strategy for building a collection.

Developing an eye

Before you even think about buying, take time to train your eye.

Find out about local art fairs and make a habit of visiting galleries and museums. The exposure will refine your tastes and ability to discern what you like. This learning process is vital, because the works that jump out at you as a novice likely won't be the same ones you count as favorites later on.

"It's just like one's taste for wine or one's ear for music," Schwartzman said. "One's eye for art evolves too."

There's no rule on how long you should take to hone your eye, but Schwartzman usually advises new collectors to wait at least six months.

Enlisting help

As you begin visiting museums and galleries, forge relationships with those who can educate you.

Don't be shy about talking to dealers at galleries. Their ultimate goal is to sell, but they can still offer valuable insight about the works on display and the greater art scene. To find a gallery near you, check the listings in the art section of your local newspaper or visit www.artinfo.com/galleryguide.

Museums often have discussion groups for collectors, and it's worth seeking out curators if you can.

"They're the ones who have the least financial interest and the broadest viewpoint," Schwartzman said.

If you can't make it to Sotheby's in New York, check out the auction house's online catalog. People are welcome to call or e-mail with a specialist who can give detailed background on listed items. Even if you're not sure you're ready to buy, talking with a specialist is a way to get your feet wet.

Hiring an art adviser is another option, but it's usually best suited for those looking to spend large sums of money. It's probably not necessary for making purchases of a couple thousand dollars.

Besides, there's probably someone with knowledge of art in your network of friends who's willing to take you around to galleries.

Making a purchase

The art market is fickle, so turning a profit shouldn't be your driving concern in deciding what to buy.

"It's something you're presumably going to be living with, so it's important that you love it," said Helen Allen, executive director of Ramsay Fairs, which runs the Affordable Art Fair in New York City. "It should be something that will keep your interest and grow with you."

With that in mind, work out a budget for how much you want to spend. You don't have to be a millionaire to get a collection started. At the Affordable Art Fair in New York City, works start as low as $65 and come from notable galleries around the world. Remember that prints, photographs and water colors are generally less expensive than oil paintings.

Once you decide how much to spend, figure out where you'll display the art and what would be appropriate for that space.

Most people buy their art from galleries, although auction houses can be good for specific pieces. Sotheby's might seem too rich for beginners, but the auction house has more affordable pieces starting at around $5,000 too. Art fairs are ideal for seeing a variety of work in one place, but be wary of the tendency to make impulse buys.

"One should avoid the souvenir syndrome," Schwartzman said.

The less formal, outdoor presentation of an art fair might not show the work in the same light that you'd see it in a gallery either, he said.

Before you buy, do your homework on the piece you're interested in. Ask the dealer who else is collecting the artist's works, and where else the pieces are being exhibited. Also check if the artist has been written about in journals such as Art in America, Artnews and Artforum.

The more established the artist, the more likely it is the work will maintain or grow in value.

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