Shaping an Art Collection: Strategies for Acquiring Works of Art

with an emphasis on American Representational Art


If you are a casual collector, your acquisition strategy may consist of visiting galleries in your community. If you wish to become a more serious collector, a more complex strategy may be in order. Following are several building blocks for strategies that will help you towards successful acquisitions.

TFAO strongly recommends self-education in your field of interest before acquiring expensive works of art. You may seek out lectures by curators and other experts offered by museums. Joining museum councils, described in Councils for museum members, is always useful. Essays and articles in books and magazines provide vital information. A TFAO keyword search will access thousands of articles and essays published online in TFAO's Resource Library, plus much more. You are able to find further texts not published in Resource Library by visiting TFAO's list of authors, A wealth of knowledge is available through TFAO's catalogues, directing viewers to museum exhibit information, artist biographies, online audio and video, DVD and VHS videos, paper-printed books and other materials.

Resource Library has published a series of essays titled Fine Art Valuation by Roger Dunbier, including the essay What Makes an Art Collection? A Collector? TFAO suggests reading this essay and Dr. Dunbier's other essays - often humorous - in the series. Also see Plein Talk by Connie Kirk, in which an artist offers her perspective on collecting.

If you are building a collection, fundamental decisions are needed on an approach. Instead of a helter-skelter approach, consider questions such as:

What is my vision for the scope of the collection, considering both objective and subjective screening criteria enumerated in "Scope of collection" policy?
How much time do I wish to allocate to research, based on the depth and breadth of knowledge I judge to be appropriate, plus acquisition activity?
How much money can I afford for building my collection?
What strategy will I use to obtain new works? Options include -- in any combination -- hiring a private curator, working directly with dealers, auction houses, other collectors including members of museum councils and establishing a website.
Would I be better served buying the finest works by living artists in my topic of interest, or mediocre works by deceased artists?
Will there be enough works become available in a reasonable amount of time to allow me to reach my goal?
Should I buy many small-sized works of lesser cost per object or fewer works of a more heroic size?
How should I approach use of space in rooms available to display the collection in order for the works to harmonize with each other and the available space? Collectors may eventually attach new wings to existing buildings or build separate facilities to provide additional space rather than overcrowding existing space. Collections may be housed in both homes and offices.
Once existing exhibition space is used up should I plan for storage space to allow further growth of the collection and rotation of works in the exhibition space?
Will my strategy include lending works from my collection to museums for special exhibitions, creating a website to share information about my collection, or founding an art museum?

While educating yourself in your field of interest, you will see names of experts who have written texts regarding your favorite topics or artists. Write down authors' names along with notes on how to reach them. such as information on their employers or publishers. Many times the authors will be professors in universities or curators in museums. If they are retired, the institutions where they worked may graciously contact the author on your behalf or share contact information with you. Many savvy collectors contact relevant experts before contacting dealers, galleries or auction houses.

Sometimes retired or part-time art museum curators (see Definitions in Museums Explained) also act as private advisors or curators for individuals building collections. An advisor or private curator, working on a fee basis, can be of enormous benefit as you form a collection. They know reputable dealers and perhaps other sources of works difficult to access. They can acquire works discretely on your behalf, help you use your dollars wisely, and guide you to experts in conservation and other fields. If you wish to acquire outstanding examples of an important artist's work, you may be faced with an extraordinary challenge: most of the best works of the artist may have been already acquired by public and private museums. The most informed consultants and dealers will be needed to meet this challenge. Some advisors are affiliated with the Association of Professional Art Advisors, which makes available names of its members on its website. An article in the February 2, 2015 Wall Street Journal describes the services of APAA.

If you are not using the services of a fee advisor/curator, when seeking an outstanding work to fit into your collection, your strategy may entail further steps. You may wish to prepare contact lists. Separate lists may be compiled with names of authors, presently employed museum curators, dealers, gallery owners and auction houses. Authors and museum curators might be contacted first to gain their general advice. Also, they may lead you to other collectors (including collectors who prefer to have their artworks in exhibits be identified only by the tag "Private collection") who may share information or even sell or trade with you directly without a transaction fee. Names of collectors sharing your topic of interest may also be gathered from checklists accompanying Resource Library articles and essays, at the back of exhibit brochures and catalogs, or directly from labels for artworks in museum exhibits.

After allowing sufficient time for the authors and museum curators to respond and further time to exhaust their leads, you may then decide to contact dealers, gallery owners and auction houses. When writing to multiple sources for an acquisition with specific criteria, it may be advisable that you make clear to each party that you seeking the acquisition from multiple sources and that there is no exclusive arrangement intended.

Once satisfactory self-education in a field of interest is accomplished and the focus of a collection has been settled in your mind, you may elect to enlist the services of a primary dealer, or a small group of dealers, instead of contracting with a private curator or conducting extensive networking. Several dealer associations with a code of ethics for members exist to help collectors choose trustworthy dealers. The use of dealers as main sources of building a collection has satisfied many individuals over the years.


Other online resources:

Many online pages offer advice on collecting. Although some tips are repetitious, the following pages contain worthwhile perspectives.

On April 7, 2009 the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced the launch of, an online community created to showcase art-based video content. The site allows visitors to explore works of art online through a collection of interviews with artists and curators, original documentaries and art installation videos. Incorporating cutting-edge technology, ArtBabble features high-definition video, full text transcription of all the videos on site and interactive features including viewer feedback and video sharing. One of the topics covered by ArtBabble is "Collecting Art."
ArtSlant, dedicated to New York contemporary art, published a page titled "Useful Hints for Starting or Building your Art Collection."
Among strategies used to obtain new works is establishing a website. An example is
Alan Bamberger of gave a speech titled "How to Collect Art Like a Pro - Building a Collection" to the Friends of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. The transcript offers several anecdotal points in developing a collecting strategy. is a comprehensive website by Nancy Moure covering many aspects of representational California art. See the Archives section for biographies of collectors within News & Events. The biographies delve into the evolution of important private collections. See TFAO's Author Study and Index for links to essays by Ms. Moure published in Resource Library.
The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) website includes an informative page within its Educational Resources section titled "Collector's Corner." Thirteen important topics are covered on issues such as "Provenance Research," "Verifying Authenticity," "Determining a Work's Condition," "Documenting Your Collection" and many more. [accessed February, 2014]
The Kimbell Art Museum was featured in a KERA video featuring Lee Callum speaking with Kimbell Art Museum Director Eric Lee In the 27-minute 2014 video Lee "...discusses the sleuthing behind acquiring notable works of art." Accessed June, 2015.
William Newton maintains Blog of the Courtier, covering various topics. On 6/23/11 he posted an article titled "Building Your Own Art Collection: The Example of Huguette Clark."
For the website Matador Life, Julie Schwietert posted an article on 7/7/09 with a negative perspective on art consultants and other suggestions titled "How to: Start an art collection."
The Business of Art: Evidence from the Art Market, an exhibit held March 16 - July 25, 2004 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, provides insight into the inputs of value Accessed 12/14
The Wall Street Journal published an article on 1/20/12 titled "Tips to Starting a Collection" by Margaret Studer. Ms Studer offers her perspective on various aspects of beginning a collection.
Mark Sublette has created a channel of YouTube videos on topics relating to paintings and Native American carvings, weavings, pottery and carvings. Titles regarding "How To Buy, Sell, and Research Artwork" include:"What art collectors should look for in paintings, the subtle details that make a great painting" and "Red Flags For Buying Art In A Gallery."

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Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

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