BlogApril 8, 2010

Canadian Art Collecting Guide



Canadian art is a relatively small but expanding field.  New or experienced, buyers today are confronted with artwork in an great range of styles, sizes, colour and media from which to select.  At this point, I think we are well served to distinguish between the two general market-types that exist in the field of fine Canadian painting and sculpture, the field in which our gallery specializes. There is the decorative market, in which the vast majority of works today are sold. And there is the market referred to as the resale market, secondary market or collectibles market. This is where the genuinely valuable works in are traded. I will refrain from commenting on the other art types and their markets, since they are not my field but in our experience the process I will outline below is the most effective way to begin building a great Canadian art collection.


Collecting Interests and Objectives


Establish general objectives Art collecting comes in as many styles as art itself. Some are looking simply to buy artworks they like at a fair price while others are looking to combine their passion for art with their financial investment interests.  Some artworks you will encounter may allow you to accomplish only one goal but not another. Although your collecting interests may change and you may also occasionally elect to work outside of them, establishing a set of objectives can help you throughout the entire collecting process and allow you to make easier and better decisions.


In our experience most people decide what you like even within the fields of painting and sculpture, prospective buyers are faced with hundreds of galleries, and thousands of artists and artworks to choose from.  We are of the opinion that deciding what you like is the first tangible step towards building a collection. This exercise can involve visiting museums, galleries and even auction previews to rinse one's eyes as much as possible. In this process you will inevitably encounter enormous variances in the quality and type of art on display.  Exposure is the primary way to focus you collecting interests.




Consider your budget Once you've decided what you like you will likely have to consider a budget.  Whereas it is obvious that what you can spend will have a significant impact on what you can buy, what many prospective buyers don't know is that not all collectible art is expensive! For example, important and outstanding landscape paintings by Goodridge Roberts, a founding member of the Contemporary Arts Society who has twice been celebrated with national traveling exhibitions, are fairly inexpensive. There are astute buying opportunities to be found even among some of the rarest Canadian paintings by artists from the turn of the twentieth century, and in virtually every other category.


Decorative Art vs. Blue Chip Art


The word "decorative" is often used in the fine art world to denigrate paintings, signaling their lack of originality or maybe that the artist paints 'to the market' rather than with pure integrity. I'm using the term here to describe a painting that people will pay to own for their enjoyment but for which there aren't buyers in the re-sale market. Buying a great decorative painting can be thought of in the same terms as buying good quality furniture. You will pay a retail price, own it for a number of years, but when you want to get sell it, you may only get a small fraction of the money you paid.  


One of the most common errors made by novice collectors is the assumption that when the price of a living artist's work has been raised, that the market value for all of  artist's paintings has 'gone up'.  In reality, only the retail selling price of the new work has gone up.


By contrast, in the collectible Canadian art market, most paintings that would be described as "blue chip" are worth over $10,000 but they can range from around $2,500 into the several millions of dollars. These prices are determined by the marketplace and factor in many of conventional economic principles such as supply and demand, albeit not always in an even or predictable fashion.


The final point is that, obviously, paintings can move from one market to another. Works that were at one time decorative can become collectible. The work of A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Sam Borenstein, and many of the Beaver Hall Group artists once hung in our gallery as decorative art but is now considered collectible.


What to buy


This is different from deciding what you like. Since you will also now have established a budget and a set of objectives, your collecting options should now be more focused. If your only wish is to buy what you like, then you will likely find great purchasing opportunities in many places. If, on the other hand, your collecting objectives involve a combination of desirable artwork, an interest in quality, and that which has value as a collectible, one of the first major lessons of art collecting that is often overlooked by novices is to stick to recognised artists. This means artists whose work is recognized in the artistic and academic communities, exhibited in mainstream galleries in different cities, and/or (depending on your objectives), whose works have a verifiable history of sales helps narrow the prospective purchases into an even smaller group. These can signal a verification of an artist's ability in the eyes of a diverse group of art professionals and collectors.




This, however, is only a first step, since it overlooks major concerns such as the quality of a specific work of art and the crucial issue of authenticity. For these, you must defer to reliable professionals, which I will cover in the next section on where to buy. One of the more common disappointing inquiry-types that we at Klinkhoff regularly contend with is from the novice buyer who has made a purchase taking for granted one.


For novices concerned about the quality and/or value of the work of an artist they may collect, we cannot sufficiently emphasize the notion of confining one's purchase considerations to the field of recognized, mainstream artists. The art world fringe is a dangerous place for commercial professionals, and a minefield novice collectors.


Where to buy


Once you've decided what you like and what you can afford, the next and obvious step is to figure out where to buy it. In the field of decorative art, once budgets have been established the other major consideration is the amount of enjoyment a painting will bring, however, it is always better to do due diligence. Perhaps read a little about the artist, and browse a few galleries that carry the artist's work.


It is also probably advisable to check the credentials of the gallery you are considering buying from. The top commercial galleries in Canada are elected members of the Art Dealers Association of Canada (ADAC), a national not-for-profit organization that admits to its ranks only galleries that conform to a high level of professional standards which are based on the following criteria outlined on their website:


1) Membership to ADAC shall be limited to professional commercial galleries and art dealers;

2) Applicants may apply for membership and be admitted upon fulfilling the following requirements:  

  • Has operated a bona fide exhibition gallery and/or commercial business, open to the public during normal business hours and/or by appointment, for a continuous period of five years or more*;  

  • Provides evidence of stability and intent (based on criteria such as exhibition policy, reputation in the community, bank or accountant reference);  
  • Operates an ethical business generally accepted in the community;  
  • Has a primary concern for the promotion of art and artists of merit in Canada and internationally;
  • Evinces a concern with accepting and promoting the basic mandate of ADAC, with particular regard to the maintenance of professional standards and ethics.
  • *An art gallery that has been in operation less than five years, and meets the criteria as specified above, may be invited or apply to make application to be admitted as a General Member of ADAC at the discretion and vote of the board.
  • To apply for membership, applicants should prepare a portfolio containing an artist roster, descriptions of the gallery, and exhibition cards along with three letters of recommendation from ADAC members.
  • A letter from a bank or other financial institution is also required in order to confirm the gallery's stable financial standing.
  •  Although at the outset there is no way to tell definitively if the operators are trustworthy, a good indicator of that gallery's status is its track record. If a gallery has been operating under the same ownership for a long period of time, it is often testimony to that gallery's good standing among collectors and its ability to stay on top of the market.


Collectors occasionally make the mistake of believing that their interests are protected when they buy privately, because if something is amiss they can return a purchase for a refund or sue.  The mistake lies not in is in the assumption In a field of unique objects wherein values for works of the same size and generation can differ by hundreds of percent, the kind of guidance an expert dealer can provide can save collectors a lot of money.


The Risk at Auction


In our opinion, for a number of reasons, novices should avoid buying at auction unless with the assistance a reputable art market expert. With the acknowledgment that novices cannot especially trust their senses, auctions do not present a selection of paintings vetted for quality.


As Sotheby's Canada President (?) David Silcox said in a recent teleconference, auction sales have the "best and the worst". An additional and no less significant problem faced by novices at auction is that of determining value. The estimates printed in auction catalogues and on auction house websites do not, by their own admission, represent an opinion as to the value of those works of art. For this reason, it is also doubtful that one should seek the opinion of an auctioneer or auction house employee for advice related to value for the obvious reason that they work on a commission bases for the consignor.


One of the more common difficult inquiry-types we at Klinkhoff contend with involve novice collectors seeking an evaluation or expertise concerning a recent purchase from an internet source, at a gallery or at auction that has been made without sufficient regard for expertise. For obvious reasons, as a third party we cannot intervene in these matters, nor would we want to.  


Commission - Terms Comparison

  • The final bid price (hammer price)

  • Buyer’s premium and, where applicable:

    • Taxes and/or VAT, import tax, customs duty, and any local clearance fees applicable for your country

    • Artist’s resale right

    • Shipping expenses

    • Loss/damage liability fee to cover shipment of your lot amounting to 1% of the purchase price


Importance of Reliability & Trust


In the final pages of his memoirs, my grandfather wrote accurately that dealers "have never much sympathy for people who, trying to buy very cheaply, find that they have been cheated." (1993, p. 48).  Although it may sound self serving, as with deciding what paintings to buy, in our opinion the best way to avoid a disappointing experience is make purchases from people you can trust.


Taking advice It is entirely possible that private art dealers sometimes fail to expound the benefits of taking advice because it sounds so shamelessly self-serving. Unfortunately, because relying on professional advice is both a critical element of the apprenticeship process, and because it could save you thousands of dollars and many mistakes.


I would be remiss if I overlooked it for a conflict of interest. Once you are satisfied that you have located a mainstream dealer you can trust, one of the more self-serving pieces of advice I would be able to give to a novice is to take advice! Historically, the most successful collectors of Canadian art, John MacAuley, Michael Dunn, and the Late Kenneth Thomson all sought the advice of art market experts even as they had absorbed enough knowledge to successfully make decisions themselves.


One of the final and most difficult obstacles to building a collection is writing a cheque. This is a critical juncture where some of a collectors realize what in retrospect appear to be the greatest disappointments: missed opportunities. Few collectors do not experience this… There comes a time when every collector has to do it but, admittedly, it takes courage. Missed opportunities can also generate a great deal of motivation, and often it is precisely the incentive needed to move beyond this final hurdle.


What Galerie Alan Klinkhoff Offers: A Tradition of Trust, Expertise and Quality since 1949

Alan Klinkhoff Gallery is rooted in three generations of trust and experience in Classic Canadian art. Now with galleries in Canada’s two largest art markets, in Montreal and Toronto, we invite you to contact us for all your fine art related needs.

Montreal 1448 Sherbrooke Street West, Tel: 514-284-9339

Toronto 113 Yorkville Avenue, Tel: 416-233-0339



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