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How to buy contemporary art

PUBLISHED: 10:32 13 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:33 13 April 2018

Alan Halliday, 'Tangier' (c) Picasa

Alan Halliday, 'Tangier' (c) Picasa


It’s easy to buy a da Vinci just transfer $450 million to your current account and keep bidding. We talk to Cheltenham’s Fresh: Art Fair co-founder Anthony Wardle about the nuances of buying contemporary art

What is ‘contemporary’?

Contemporary art is generally seen to be work by living artists although the boundaries are pretty flexible. There is a large body of work that often looks contemporary in style but is classified as Modern or Modern British, usually dating from the 1880s (post-impressionism) to the 1960s. A Picasso print would fall into this category, or a John Piper landscape.

‘Contemporary’ encompasses an enormous body of work that ranges from new graduates through established professional artists to famous names like Sir Peter Blake, Damien Hirst, Bridget Riley and Cornelia Parker. It is the sheer enormity of choice that can make buying contemporary art a challenge.

A rose is a rose is a rose, part of a triptych by Sir Peter Blake, Wet Paint GalleryA rose is a rose is a rose, part of a triptych by Sir Peter Blake, Wet Paint Gallery

Where do you buy it?

Five years ago I would have said any good art gallery, but these days, it’s more complicated. There are of course many excellent galleries but people seem to have much less time to visit. Online shopping now dominates our lives. Art will always be more difficult to buy online so the impact on galleries is considerable.

You may have spotted a ‘pop-up’ gallery or exhibition in recent years. These are often art galleries that have given up the struggle for footfall, closed the shop and gone ‘virtual’. This means they exist online and rent empty shops or arts venues to run their exhibitions. You can buy from a Pop-up but also see all the gallery’s work on their website and either buy online or contact them by phone or email. Most will be happy to bring the work to you so you can see it in the flesh, or they’ll ship it, with a guaranteed refund if you change your mind.

You can of course buy and sell art at auction but it’s mainly pre-contemporary. If you do buy in this way you lose the benefit of a gallery’s expertise. Best to sell your old art at auction and fill the space with contemporary work bought from galleries. Fine Art Auctioneers Bonhams will be at Fresh: Art Fair again this year to advise our visitors on selling their pre-contemporary work.

John Davies Gallery: Landscape, by David PrenticeJohn Davies Gallery: Landscape, by David Prentice

The art fair phenomenon

With diminishing footfall, art galleries need to go out to their market. Art fairs provide the perfect way for them to reach thousands of art buyers over three or four days.

In the same way, by bringing together 50 or more galleries in one convenient place, art fairs make it easy and enjoyable for art lovers and collectors to see thousands of paintings and sculptures in two or three very enjoyable hours.

Art fairs come in all shapes and sizes. Fresh: Art Fair at Cheltenham Racecourse aims to be the leading contemporary art fair outside London. This year there will be 46 galleries from UK, France and Ireland, a new outdoor Sculpture Park, artists painting and sculpting live, expert Talks, two Fresh Café’s and unlimited free parking.

Fresh: shows 5,000 mainly contemporary works including Blake, Hirst and Riley and over 400 outstanding established and emerging artists. There will be original prints, paintings, sculpture, ceramics and glass, offering a huge choice to suit all budgets from £100 to £50,000.

A good crowd on the Fresh BalconyA good crowd on the Fresh Balcony

Buyer or collector?

Most people buy contemporary art for love. Some need to fill a gap on the wall and are guided by interior design considerations. But many get the bug and become collectors. Why?

There are collectors at all levels of the art market, from my former colleague Charles Saatchi, to novice art lovers who develop an intense interest in an artist, genre, medium or subject. There is a joy in spotting a rising talent, collecting across a range of their work and seeing them win honours and acclaim. There is a satisfaction in acquiring some expertise in a genre.

I visited Monet’s house at Giverny last year and was delighted with his rather unexpected but fabulous collection of Japanese prints. One of our artists at Fresh, Alan Halliday (exhibited by Camburn Fine Art), has a large number of works in the collection of St John’s College, Oxford, one of the biggest institutional art collectors in the UK.

If owning art is a pleasure, then collecting is its journey, with infinite diversity and no discernable destination.

Adventures in a Hat, by Irene Jones, Hybrid GalleryAdventures in a Hat, by Irene Jones, Hybrid Gallery

Fresh: Art Fair will be in the Centaur building at Cheltenham Racecourse from April 27-29, with a Private View on the evening of April 26.

Fresh: is in partnership with The RWA (the Royal Academy in the West), The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and Gallery, and Cheltenham’s Wilson Gallery. Fresh: is sponsored by St James’s Place.


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