Lessons Learned: The Masterpiece That Wasn’t

Sometimes, even those of us who know a fair bit about art can get it wrong.

I recently acquired a work at a Connecticut auction [N.B. not the picture shown below this piece] that I was convinced was by an important French artist, someone whose work I didn’t know well – or indeed particularly like – but whom I had been reading about a fair amount of late. I thought I‘d made the deal of the century, because the piece was being offered for a far lower price than what that artist’s work normally goes for. I was sure that, if I chose, I’d be able to sell the piece for a very handsome profit, indeed: one that would pay for my vacations to Spain for decades to come.

Unfortunately, once the piece arrived at the Fortress, and I was able to take a look at it close up and out of its frame, I discovered that it was by someone else. While I hadn’t overpaid for the picture, it wasn’t the big win that I had been imagining. And now that the sting of my error has subsided somewhat, I think this is a good opportunity for your consideration, gentle reader, as I reflect on how I went about acquiring this piece in completely the wrong way.

My first mistake was in going after a piece from a period which I don’t know a great deal about. Yes, I’d been researching the particular artist whom I thought the picture was by, and I probably know more about them than the average collector, but I certainly wasn’t familiar enough with their work for me to roll out the old leap to conclusions mat. It was presumptuous of me to think that, just because I’d had past success in other areas of art collecting, areas in which I *did* know what I was talking about, that I’d have an equal level of success in an area of art that is most definitely outside my area of expertise.

In the past, the successes I’ve had in acquisitions have almost always been in areas of art that I’ve known for many years. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a general knowledge about, or am incapable of coming to learn more about, artists or artistic movements that reside along the edges of my knowledge area. Nevertheless, while taking a chance once in awhile is not necessarily a bad thing, sticking to what you know is a much better course of action to follow.

The second mistake I made was in being motivated by a desire for profit, rather than out of love. Now, I don’t mean to say that someone who deals in art for a living is wrong in discovering a picture, acquiring it, and then turning around and reselling it for a profit. Discovery is one of the constant themes in the art market, as pieces constantly vanish and reappear later, often in unexpected places. My mistake, if I want to cast blame upon myself, is in attempting to do so as an amateur, albeit one with a graduate degree in this sort of thing, with respect to a piece that I didn’t really know anything about, and didn’t really like.

There certainly wasn’t any love involved in what I was doing. At the end of the day, I didn’t even really care for the picture itself, since it wasn’t the sort of thing that I’d normally pay any attention to, if I saw it hanging in a museum or in someone’s home. Almost everything else that I’ve collected over the years has come into my possession because I loved it as soon as I saw it, and I was fortunate enough at the time to have the means to acquire it. With this piece, however, not only did I not really know anything about it, but I didn’t love it, or even intend to keep it if I could manage to turn around and sell it at one of the major auction houses or dealers.

So what are some of the takeaways from this experience?

The first must be the first rule of collecting: buy what you love. If something really speaks to you, and you’re able to acquire it, then that’s usually the best reason for adding it to your collection. Forget what the very wealthy do, i.e., buying ugly art that no one really likes for speculative purposes, and instead go buy what you love. You’re the one who’s going to have to look at it over the sideboard every morning, after all.

The second rule is – and this is just as important as the first – that you really do have a much better chance of doing better when you acquire what you know. In the past, when I’ve made good art acquisitions, it’s not only been because I liked the pieces I acquired, but also because they were from times, places, and artistic movements that I already knew well. They’re the sorts of things that I’ve done a great deal of looking at, reading about, and studying for decades. This is why continuing to educate yourself matters, both as a collector and indeed as an adult, since the more you know, the better you can trust your gut instinct.

Now, I can’t say that I’ll never take a gamble like this again in the future, whatever advice I may have just committed to these virtual pages for your consideration. After all, that’s one of the fun aspects of collecting art, at the end of the day: the possibility of making a major discovery of a lost masterpiece. Yet to temper that impulse, perhaps what I’ll need to do is hang my disappointing picture somewhere where I can see it, so that when I’m flipping through auction catalogues I can remind myself that whatever I think I’m about to do, I could very well be wrong, and should behave prudently.

In that respect, perhaps my latest acquisition will turn out to be of even greater value, after all.


One Comment on “Lessons Learned: The Masterpiece That Wasn’t

  1. Pingback: Art News Roundup: Lead Balloon Edition – William Newton

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