The broke art collector: How (and when) to start collecting

This is the first in a series of posts about why and how to collect art -- even when you don't have a lot of extra money.

I don't know if this counts, but the first piece of "art" I "collected" was one of those Paper Moon art-deco greeting cards that were popular in the '70s. Yes, I was a little kid then with nothing more than babysitting money to spend at the mall, but I couldn't keep away from the fantastic images. I started buying them just so I could study them, enjoy them, and display them on my bedroom wall. I planned on being an illustrator or comic book artist when I grew up.

Alas, in college I discovered that I am more nimble with turn of phrase than I am with a Rapidograph pen (this is pre-computer, remember),so I opted for journalism instead. But imagery and color continued to lure me.

My first job out of college was for a weekly paper in an affluent community. Wealthy, urbane people lived there, and I was sent out to interview many of them. I got to into their lavish homes and oggle their fine furnishings and beautiful artwork. And it is here, gentle reader, that my story really begins.
In talking to various art collectors of wealth and note, I began to realize that art transcends the wallet. Collecting art, some of these collectors told me, was not about waiting until you had the resources, but about just getting started.

One noted collector couple, the Andersons, told me this. "You begin collecting art when you find something you can't live without."

Another couple, with tongue only lightly in cheek: "Buy art when you can least afford to."

A third told me, "Art debt is the highest form of debt, you know."

I had already started by that time, picking up small pieces from artist friends in college, and following the work of a couple of local potters making the summer art show rounds. But I internalized this advice. I realized that you don't have to be wealthy or even that sophisticated to start collecting art. Collecting stems from your love of and desire to be around it.

My first real "acquisition:" A woodblock print by the architect and printmaker Pedro de Lemos, of the San Francisco skyline as seen through a bank of cypress trees on the East Bay. At the time I was living in the art studio behind his mansion, so there was a personal connection that prompted me to take the plunge. I loved the piece so much the $500 price tag only daunted me a little (it should have daunted me a lot: since it was half my take-home pay at that point). The gallery owner seemed to take the idea of paying in installments as a given. And the rest, as they say...

Twenty years later, I also see how it can get out of hand. Indeed, several gallery owners of my acquaintance tell me they got their start simply because their private collections got too big. "We just had too much we loved to fit in our house so we started a gallery..."

In coming posts, I'll take a look at a few factors to consider before buying art, where to find art, and how (or if) to frame it.
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