Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on September 11, 1997 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


What Makes an Art Collection? A Collector

By Roger Dunbier, PhD


Some individuals own two, three possibly dozens of paintings and don't consider themselves art collectors. They are correct if they have not taken the first step in becoming an art collector, which is the conscious decision to become one. Without that decision, the ownership of art alone does not qualify you as a collector no matter how much you own in the way of art objects.

Beyond this first step is the serious consideration of what direction your collecting activities will take, what you want to obtain, to dispose of or retain. It requires some thinking, better yet a lot of thinking.

Art is a knowledge business. Collecting art depends on knowledge. Good or great collecting depends on your knowing as much as or more about the desired object than the other party with whom you're dealing---if you're buying,the seller; if you're selling, the buyer. This, of course, cannot always be done, certainly not in the case of each and every object. The fact remains, however, that the closer one can come to achieving parity or superiority in knowledge about any potential transaction, the better.

It is your correspondent's belief that a good start and for some the only starting point is knowing the parameters of particular areas of collectibility. This limitation allows the focus needed to accumulate knowledge and hence, the edge.

The following list of categories is included to illustrate the diversity and dimension of what could become areas of collectibility in original one-of-a-kind painting by American artists. These are produced by utilizing diverse filters built into the management of the ENCompass program of 20,000 North American artists linked to their auction and their literature. An unlimited number of sorting permutations can be obtained:



Alaska before 1940 129
Venice, views before 1940 113
California before 1900 581 
New Mexico prior to 1940 397
Grand Canyon--all to date 270
Armory Show--All 128
New England landscape prior to 1940 698
California Women Painters 635
Figures on the Beach 939
Topographic views prior to 1900 326
Indian Figure prior to 1900 435
Collage Artists 521
Trompe still life specialists 199
Super/Photo Realists 259
"Hudson River" landscapes 73
Portrait Painters prior to 1860 1133
Hawaii/South Seas (early) 142
Printmakers active 1860-1900 631
Birds Eye Historic Town views 81
Western Frontier prior to 1900 548
Niagara Falls, early views 75
East Coast Marine, prior to 1940 215
Wildlife Artist 853
Impressionists prior to1940 1413
Impressionist working now 311
Early Modernists prior to 1950 1709
Religious subjects 616
Horse specialty 889
Dog and Cat activities 212
Watercolorists, Marine subjects 1580 
Southwest Spanish churches/adobes 470
Paris prior to 1900 676
Mother with Child genre 274
New York City recognizable views 575
Artists New York residents 4608
Cowboy activities 961


Any of the above can, of course, be further cross-referenced. Taking the last two on the list, one can isolate 30 cowboy artists living principally in New York but hold the laughter--one of these 30 is Frederic Remington.

It must be emphasized here that the thrust of this exercise is not to demonstrate in a vacuum the ability to isolate areas of collectibility with accuracy and ease, something unobtainable prior to the computer. The greater importance of this exercise is the use of this information to establish areas of collectibility. From this monetary rewards are almost inevitable.

Remember there is very good art by lesser known artists available, but you have to know who they are. And if you are your own boss, what you pay will always be lower on an average than chasing what someone else thinks for you is "BEST."

How is this? Simply it flows from the following axiom. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE BEST ART, certainly not that which is the most expensive. More money does not necessarily obtain better pictures. Nobody can tell you what is the best and no bidding at auction can establish aesthetic value.

One need only to open one's eyes to see what preposterous prices today are being paid for even more preposterous art. By buying a painting only because it is the highest priced painting, one can only be sure of getting just that---the highest priced and not necessarily anything more.

There is obviously much more that could be said taking the conversation in this direction, but better let me suggest a tactic that makes consummate economic sense. Establish your own area of collectibility. Do it first or at least early on. As an example each of the sorts listed above contains without exception pictures by higher priced artists. But without exception, the majority of artists on every list are artists whose works are still available at bargain prices. Repeat---bargain prices.

Why not take your time, find the kind of art that you like, isolate all the artists who fall within that "genre," geographical area, time span, etc. Then take the time to educate yourself about the art and the artists. When you buy, the prices you pay will be both high and low. The average price you pay over time, however, is what counts.

Remember there is very good art by lesser known artists available, but you have to know who they are. And if you are your own boss, what you pay will always be lower on an average than chasing what someone else thinks for you is "BEST."

Why not suit yourself while at the same time invest less? It's win-win.

To draw an analogy, I quote David Babson, the noted investment counselor, addressing the traps that people fall into if they neglect to have a plan: "It is surprising how few investment portfolios are based on a consistent philosophy aimed at meeting long-term objectives. Most are mere collections of securities assembled over time for a variety of reasons which seemed compelling at the moment of purchase, but are not longer clearly remembered."

Substitute "pictures" for "securities" in the above and you have it. Think planning based on information. Then think price-averaging over a necessarily longer period of time. Read about the painters. Visit the museums. Now you are a collector.

© 1997 Roger Dunbier



About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

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