It’s all about the art

A collector is driven by the person’s special interests. Regardless of the nature of a collection multiple factors enter into the choice of a purchase. For collectors of art there is the aesthetic appeal of the art, the artist who created the work, the presentation (framed or unframed), condition, origin of the work, and related considerations.

In my case, aesthetic appeal has always been the first and last consideration – be it a painting, a sculpture, or ceramic object. For me, it has always been about the art – what I find appealing about the object rather than who created it or how much its value. When I look at a painting I either like it or I don’t. The signature (if there is one) means nothing more than validation based on the reputation of that artist’s body of work. When I’ve bought a painting because of it’s visual appeal and then discovered the artist had achieved success, there was a special feeling of vindication and satisfaction that my instincts were good! More often than not, when I’ve bought a painting that was unsigned, and the artist was never revealed, I’ve enjoyed it as much as one signed by a notable artist. Occasionally, I’ve been able to establish to my own satisfaction that an unidentified painting was the work of an exceptional artist but vindication was only possible when the painting was offered for sale.

At Crail, watercolor by Robert Gemmell Hutchison

One watercolor acquisition (bought in an antique shop specializing in crystal) was consigned to Phillips in Edinburgh. The painting was inscribed and signed with the artist’s initials which were meaningless to me when I bought it. A few years later, with the knowledge that those initials were the signature for Robert Gemmell Hutchison I was sufficiently confident to set an adequately high reserve to confirm my attribution. Phillips offered it as a confirmed Hutchison watercolor and though it did not reach the reserve the price offered vindicated my attribution. Fifty-two years later, the painting hangs in my bedroom!

This is a good place to mention the effect of inflation on art. When I was aggressively buying in Edinburgh, inflation was staggeringly high and the demand for Scottish art was at an all time high. The bidding for my Gemmell Hutchinson watercolor went beyond 1,000 percent of the price I had paid about three years earlier! Now, nearly fifty years later I would be lucky if the painting sold for twice the top bid back in 1974. Fashions change, too. The appeal of modern British art has replaced traditional art, though good works by artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries have held their value reasonably well against inflationary trends.

I think of myself as a “generalist”. I can see as much beauty in an industrial subject as the quintessential English country garden. A shipping scene offers me pleasure equal to a pristine sea with voluminous sails under billowing clouds and mixed sunshine. Thus, my collection has featured both types of paintings with a variety of still life, portraits, and figurative painting mixed in.

One of my watercolors is a rusty bucket! Another that has been sold featured an abandoned, worn-out boot! An artist uses color, form, and juxtaposition of elements within a subject to reveal beauty that isn’t so obvious at first glance.

Collections are about a lot more than appeal, however. What one can afford is usually the predominant force determining the nature of a collection. I quickly discovered that watercolors offered much more for the money than oils and that outstanding original prints (sometimes limited to a very small edition) were even better value. Occasionally I would discover an oil that met my severe judgement at a price I could afford and after years of buying I was sufficiently confident to sometimes spend more than I could afford. By being forced to focus on watercolors, though, I developed a deeper appreciation for them than for more costly oil painting.

Knowledge and confidence comes with experience. Early in my quest for art I met Mrs. Humphrey. She and her husband owned an antique shop on Victoria Street in Edinburgh. Mrs. Humphrey had a special interest in art and maintained a shop-front across the street from the antique shop. It was more of a storage facility than an active shop but there I found her one day. I explained to her my desire to learn about watercolors and her advice guided my buying from that day forward. It was simple – buy what you like! She explained to me that buying a painting and living with it for a while was the best way to learn. After all, she said, you can always sell it and often for more than what you paid! She then explained to me that there were regular auctions of art in Edinburgh, a fact of which I was unaware until that moment.

After meeting Mrs. Humphreys, I met her a few times while attending auctions. My collection includes a couple of paintings, a watercolor and a small oil, that Mrs. Humphreys may have allowed me to buy by abstaining or dropping out of the bidding! These two paintings hang side by side in my house today!

Most of my time previewing auctions was unproductive, but if I saw something appealing I returned on the day of the auction and sat through scores, and sometimes hundreds, of lots noting prices and observing dueling buyers. I did my research, too, and acquired knowledge allowing me to buy things that didn’t fit my collecting scheme and permitted me to purchase something for a quick turn-around – simply consigning them to another auction. One such item was an antique coastal chart. I knew it was a valuable original work by a collectable map maker. My bank account couldn’t sustain the price paid but I was the owner of a rare map! I had no further means for acquiring anything else that day, so I anxiously paid for my purchase and as I headed for the stairs to the street I was approached by a well-dressed gentleman who declared that he had arrived too late to bid and would I be interested in selling it. He offered me about 50% more than I had paid, so he acquired the map for a price that made us both happy! As well as my bank manager!!!

Interestingly for those who don’t know the workings of an auction, had the map collector arrived in time to bid he would likely have paid the auctioneer no less than he paid me. His presence would have increased the interest in the bidding with the chart selling for at least one bid higher than mine – but probably more as the audience recognized renewed interest in the bidding. Map collectors are crazier than art collectors! While the wise practice is to determine what you can afford and stick to it, in reality that’s usually not the way auctions work! Auction fever, a mixture of emotion and greed, sets in and most of us are unable to resist one more bid. Added to that factor are “games” that often are played by the seller and/or auctioneer to further increase the bidding.

One auction “game” is a reserve the seller has left with the auctioneer with a third party planted to bid up to the reserve. If that “game” is operative, the third party bidder will be aware of the two bidders contesting for the prize and patiently wait until the bidding nears the reserve before announcing his interest. The auctioneer is obligated to continue recognizing the active bidders until there is a pause. He will then announce “the bid is with the gentleman in the center aisle”. At this point the “seller’s agent” bids and the auctioneer will often state the bid and say “the bid is with a new bidder at the back” and the beat goes on! This often invigorates one or both of the original duelers but results in at least an additional two bids. I’ve seen the bidding take off at that point (without knowing for certain if there was a “seller’s agent” bidding). The seller risks the item not selling and the payment to the auctioneer of a “bought in fee” but the odds are very good of the bidding exceeding the reserve.

The title of this blog is suggestive of only my focus. Your desire for collecting may be one of the other reasons I’ve cited for why people collect. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to speak to my approach to buying and collecting. As I’ve mentioned, watercolors were less expensive and so that’s the way my initial collection was developed. My funds were limited – as well as my knowledge. For me it was always about what I liked and what I could afford.

It took me a long time before I was confident that I could discern between a watercolor and a good print. A magnifying glass helped by disclosing the tiny dots that make up the image of a modern print, but early prints could be deceptive – especially lithographs. Unlike copperplate etchings, lithographs are drawn on a flat stone and by applying successive layers of colored inks a good image could be produced rivaling a watercolor. It was a labor intensive endeavor, though, so the art work could be about as expensive as a watercolor for a painter without an established reputation. His incentive was that a lithograph provided multiple copies of his art which would exceed what he earned from a single watercolor and could be sold through multiple outlets (i.e. stores selling books and furniture). The top price I’ve paid for a watercolor was originally sold by Boots Chemist!

One day while out driving with my family in Edinburgh, I spotted some paintings in the window of an interior design shop in Stockbridge. We parked the car and took a walk back to the shop. There were a couple of pictures I thought were watercolors and one was especially interesting.

Shipping on the Thames, watercolor, by Charles J. DeLacy

The shop was closed so I stood looking for a while, uncertain whether or not they were watercolors. We returned home and I couldn’t get the marine painting out of my mind! The next day I returned to the shop and asked the owner to permit me to examine it more closely. He assured me that it was a watercolor and pointed out the thick body-color the artist had applied, especially in the smoke and steam. I subsequently learned that body-color is any pigment mixed with Chinese white – another lesson that built my confidence as a new collector. Nevertheless, it took a third visit to the shop before I was ready to part with my money!

I learned many lessons by asking a lot of questions and doing my “due diligence” before committing to a purchase. Mrs. Humphrey was certainly right! Living with a painting permits one to examine it with objectivity over a period of time – acquiring the ability to appreciate all the elements that make up a fine drawing or painting – good draftsmanship, perspective, color balance, and composition. After a while, some of my purchases didn’t stand up to careful scrutiny and were consigned to an auction. Others were reluctantly sold for funds to continue developing the collection. I don’t recall ever selling a painting for less than what I’d paid, however, and increases of 100% plus were not uncommon.

By Lowe

Retired director of Thistle Fine Art.

1 comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *