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© Seed Gallery New York
Buying Contemporary Art

The decision to buy a contemporary work of art can be daunting, especially to a novice art collector or investor. In order to protect one from making ill-advised decisions that will prove costly over time, it is imperative to be appropriately enlightened about all the various elements that can influence the value of a work of art.



Following is an inventory of key information an art buyer or collector or investor will need to know before purchasing a contemporary artwork.

Title of the Artwork

1: the title of the artwork

The title refers to the distinguishing name of the artwork, the distinctive or descriptive appellation that makes it recognizable. Not every work by the artist will see its value rise over time, but those that do, are recognized by their title. 



Once you have established the title, make sure that it is the same title written on the seller’s price sheet, the exhibition catalogue, the seller’s and or artist’s website. The title should also match the title written at the back of the art piece, mainly in a two-dimensional work, e.g. painting, drawing or etching. If the work is a sculpture, the title is usually inscribed at the base or foot of the piece, together with the artist’s name and date of completion.



Additionally, ascertain that the same title appears on the seller’s invoice and every other document that accompanies the artwork.



If you purchase an artwork that is part of a series, and each piece of the series is distinguished by a number or letter, it is important to know the exact title of the series and the number that corresponds with your acquisition. For example, an artist can divide his composition into 3 parts, with each part having a different title or distinguished by a number or letter, it is important to know the exact title of the series and the number that corresponds with your acquisition.

BLUEPRINT OF GRACE paitning by Nya'

Blueprint of Grace

Title issues arise in contemporary art more frequently than one might expect and can severely affect the value of a work of art over time. For example, the absence of distinguishable titles and appropriation has severely affected the value and authenticity of distinguished African contemporary sculptures resulting in downgrading a majority of them to curios and common artifacts.



When one visits the Metropolitan Museum, New York, powerful sculptures from Africa adorn the north wing of the museum’s first floor. However, over 90 percent of the sculptures exhibited are accredited to a village, tribe or country, which consequently affects their overall value.



On the other hand, works by Picasso, Monet and George Braque on the second floor are distinguished by title, date, style and period of creation; hence their iconic status and inestimable worth. Furthermore, comprehensive literature about the artist’s life and each distinguished work is easily accessible, resulting in the work by the artist gaining fame, and in time, select pieces and/ or the entire artist’s oeuvre.



Despite the quality of the work, if the title is unknown and literature about the artist and work is ambiguous or severely limited, selling the work on the secondary art market becomes arduous and the true value of the work might never be realized.

2: certificate of authenticity


Every original work of art must have a certificate of authenticity. Therefore, the seller must provide you with a certificate that clearly proves that the work is an authentic work of art from the artist.



Important information that should be on the certificate includes;



a: The title of the painting:



It must be clearly legible and easily recognized. In some cases, the title is typed as well as hand-written personally by the artist.



b: The artist's signature:



It must correspond to the artist's signature usually located at the bottom left corner of the artwork in the case of paintings. However, some artists have a signature, icon or initials specifically designed for their work and are displayed in a designated space on the artwork. For example, Nya′ has developed a recognizable signature – 5 keystrokes articulating his name and rendered in gold - noticeable at the far-left corner towards the foot of his canvases.

Certificate of Authenticity
EPISTLE OF BREATH painting by Nya'

Nya’, Epistle of Breath, 70 x 30 inches, 182.88 x 76.02 cm, 2007, artist signature in gold leaf, rendered in 5 strokes at the far-left corner, foot of the canvas

Though not mandatory, the certificate might also include the seller’s name, e.g. gallery stamp, auction house’s logo or art consultant’s signature. It might also have a designated place where you can also put your own signature as the buyer or collector and now the rightful owner/custodian of the work.



To protect your acquisition, you must make sure that you keep the certificate in a safe place. If you lose the certificate or if it is accidentally destroyed, the seller might not replace it and the work may no longer be salable/or achieve its market valued price on the secondary art market.



Scandals from questions of authenticity are galore on the secondary art market.                 



In 2013, George Stolz reported in Art news how forty years after Picasso’s death, while his paintings are among the most expensive ever sold, the problem of how to authenticate his work still remains a challenge. In the early 1980s, after years of legal wrangling and well-publicized squabbling over the settlement of his estate, his heirs established a committee to officially authenticate his works.



However, that committee was later disbanded after disputes among the heirs over the authenticity of a set of drawings. Afterwards, two of his heirs (Picasso’s daughter, Maya and son Claude) began issuing certificates of authenticity independent of one another. This created an arduous situation, particularly because auction houses, faced with dual and dueling authentication options, were increasingly requiring certificates from both heirs.



At the same time, substantial numbers of previously undocumented works by Picasso are available on the market and the existence of two different authenticators sharing the Picasso name has generated unnecessary and harmful confusion.



Conclusively, authentication is a critical issue and as the contemporary art market continues to grow, there are bound to be fakes and forgeries that will flood the market: hence it is important from the onset to make sure that you protect your acquisition by receiving a legitimate certificate of authenticity from one reputable authority administering the artist’ work or estate. Primarily, the future value of the artwork exists as much in the certificate as in the work of art itself.

3: condition of artwork report


Another important document you must request from a seller when purchasing a contemporary artwork is a condition of artwork report. Essentially, preserving the condition of your new acquisition is your responsibility and it is effective asset management.



A condition of artwork report will clearly describe the materials the artist used when creating the work and the physical properties of those materials. The report will also provide you with indispensable advice on how to preserve the artwork and what to do should any accidental damage occur to it.

Condition of Artwork Report
GENESIS OF ETERNITY painting by Nya'



Series I: Divine Inspiration

Oil, dabs of lamb’s blood, braille, metal, earth, foam board, crushed rocks, hand-made paper, beads on canvas

72 x 30 inches (182.88 x 76.2 cm)


© Nya′ 2010. Courtesy of Seed Gallery, New York
Photo by House of Seed Photography, New York



Remnants of a grade-two braille and rolls of hand-made paper were preserved and sanded prior to being archived onto the painting ground. The balance of the texture, comprised of variant organic materials and mylar sheets were incorporated into the composition using contact cement. The relief letters comprising the words were singly formed using gypsum, and a standard-grade stencil employed for the numbers and letters in black ink.


The stretcher, on which the 20-ounce woven canvas rests, was custom-made with treated wood and has two support beams down the spine of the frame to avoid warping over time. The glow emanating from disparate parts of the composition was achieved by applying several layers of linseed oil loosened paint 72 hours upon completion of the work. 

The architectural incisions towards the foot of the canvas and across its plain were intentionally added several years after completing the work. The artist signature is rendered in gold at the bottom left corner of the canvas. 

When you are buying the artwork from the secondary market, e.g. an auction house or a reputable art dealer, the report must provide important information about the specific areas of the artwork that might need to be professionally cleaned, repaired or restored, or areas that have been previously restored.



To protect your investment, do not hesitate to ask the seller questions regarding the condition of the artwork, and when in doubt, ask them to go over any issues on the report that might be ambiguous. If you are still not satisfied with the report, engage the services of an external art conservator who will thoroughly examine the condition of the work and furnish you with unbiased information.

4: quality of the artwork


Even though it is important to emotionally bond with an artwork prior to purchase, from an investment standpoint, it is always sagacious to find and buy a work of art that is of the highest quality.



Instead of buying an artwork the first time you see it in a gallery, art fair, exhibition catalogue or website, take your time and if possible, arrange a private viewing to look at the artwork again. Most probably, the initial euphoria would have considerably worn off and you will be able to focus and remain objective.



Be astute and return to the gallery to view the painting, not necessarily because you lack the ability to be decisive but because it is eminent to process what you have seen, and also to look at what you have at home or even visit similar works in a museum or other galleries.



If you are already familiar with the artist’s work, or already own a piece(s) by him, scheduling a virtual tour and asking the gallery to send you multiple images of the artwork (from different angles) will suffice. The more you look, the greater your confidence in the validity of your first impression, your gut response and the likelihood that it will be confirmed or increased by continued engagement with the work.



Serious looking at any work of art hones your visceral response mechanism. But looking again and again at a work by an artist who mostly appeals to you increases your ability to access what is truly intrinsic to a particular painting, drawing, sculpture, etching or print.



It is important to understand that powerful works of art, of any era, grow with deliberate, careful and patient scrutiny. In other words, the longer you look, and the more you ask yourself questions regarding the artwork while you are looking, the more you get out of the work. On the other hand, lesser works of art reveal their deficiencies when looked at repeatedly, especially over time.   



Carefully examine every detail in the artwork, view it from different angles and if possible, under different set of lights, both natural and artificial. Additionally, compare the artwork with other pieces in the seller’s possession, preferably other pieces from the same artist. Look at their brushstrokes, use of color, materials and other distinct elements peculiar to his work, (see Appraisal section, evaluating a painting by Nya′).



When you are making a considerable investment in artwork from a major contemporary artist, it will also be advisable to engage the services of a professional art advisor with experience in that particular genre of work.



The art advisor’s primary role will be to objectively assess the level of craftsmanship exhibited in the artwork and its exquisiteness by distinguishing those particular sublime elements that they believe make the artwork a rare masterpiece and one of the artist’s best works. Furthermore, rather than selecting an artwork that might be considered “important” because of the artist’s status and/or the relevance of the work, it might be financially beneficial to invest in an artwork of the highest quality from an emerging artist who might still be relatively unknown in the current art market.



If you are purchasing the work over the internet, carefully read about the artist, ask the seller for several images, including close-ups of the work. You can also ask for a video clip of the work and any specific details pertaining to the creation of the artwork e.g. materials used, (especially in the case of mixed media work) and methods of bonding/preserving the work from losing luster over time. Find out from the website or gallery who also bought work from the artist and what independent art critics say about the artist and his work.

Quality of the artwork



Series I: Divine Inspiration
Oil, cow dung paste, dabs of lamb’s blood, braille, metal, earth, sackcloth, handmade scroll, multilayered foam board, rocks, assorted debris on mud cloth
41 x 31 inches (104.14 x 78.74 cm)
© Nya′ 2008. Courtesy of Seed Gallery, New York
Photo by House of Seed Photography, New York

Like any other profession, with experience brings confidence and a noticeable degree of excellence. Therefore, find out how long the artist has been creating work in that particular style and in the case of a novice collector, there is no harm in asking the seller to get you in touch with at least two seasoned collectors who acquired work from the same artist.



Due diligence is extremely imperative when you are choosing an artwork as a quality work of art will always maintain its value and desirability over time.



Please note: elements to consider pertaining to quality are discussed in the Appraisal section.

5: rarity of the artwork


Rarity plays a major role in defining the value of a painting. Therefore, along with quality, it is vitally important to know the distinct elements that make the artwork you will be interested in purchasing rare.



If the artist has only created a limited number of artworks and is known for working in a distinct genre and style, then most likely, each of his individual artwork will be expensive, sought after and will likely increase in value over time. This is especially true for an artist who is regarded as an “important or a major artist” e.g. Dumile Feni, (South Africa, 1941 - 1992), Seydou Keita (Mali, 1921-2001) and Malangatana Valente Ngwenya (Mozambique, 1936-2011).



For a less prolific artist, the condition of the artwork will not necessarily affect the desirability of the work. However, for artists who are prolific, the condition of the artwork will be a major factor, as there will be a likelihood of more investors or collectors with works in excellent condition from the artist.



Rarity can also be established by perusing through an artist's oeuvre and/or catalogue raisonné and closely examining each painting by the artist in order to single out the elements that make the work you are interested in acquiring unique.



The history of the painting, perhaps the time it was completed can also add to its rarity. Paintings by Nya′ completed in his first winter in New York, 2005, e.g. “Yonder of Eternal Excellency,” are rare because they are the only works in the artist’s oeuvre completed using materials (synthetic and otherwise) from Africa and the United States and therefore have a resplendent tone and seemingly wet patches on the picture plane. 



On the other hand, a landscape painting from an artist who is widely known for painting portraits e.g. Gerard Sekoto, (South Africa, 1913-1993) will make it rare while the drawings of the late South African contemporary artist, Dumile Feni, (1942-1991) are rare due to their scarcity on the market and limited information about the artist. 

Rarity of the artwork

Yonder of Eternal Excellency

Provenance simply refers to the ownership history of the artwork. In other words, who owned the work before? Which prestigious museum, public or private collection did the painting or sculpture belong in? It therefore implies that if you are purchasing a contemporary artwork on the primary market, or from a local gallery or directly from the artist, it might not have any notable ownership history.



Provenance may have a distinct influence on the current and future value of a work of art. A mediocre painting once owned by a famous person or respected art collector e.g. Debra and Leon Black (USA), Joseph Lau (China) or West African art collector, Robert Owen Lehman (USA) might be offered on the market at an astronomical price due to the work’s “celebrity provenance.” However, over time, the sustainability of that inflated price is not guaranteed.



On the other hand, a contemporary artwork that once belonged to a prestigious public collection e.g. The Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection, (South Africa) MIT Public Art Collection (USA) or a revered private collector e.g. Dimitris Daskalopoulos (Greece) The Prince Yemisi Shyllon (Nigeria) and Grant Hill (USA) will likely maintain and increase its value over time.

MY BOATHOUSE painting by Nya'



Series I: Divine Inspiration

Oil, construction nails, shards of metal, river sand, chain, foam board, torn clothes, dabs of lamb’s blood on canvas

41 x 31 inches (104.14 x 78.74 cm)


© Nya′ 2008. Courtesy of Seed Gallery, New York
Photo by House of Seed Photography, New York




Year of completion: 2006

Artist Private Collection: 2006 – 2008

Seed Gallery Private Collection: 2008 – To date


History of Exhibitions:






6: ownership


Alongside a certificate of authenticity and provenance record, artwork must be accompanied by a proof of ownership certificate.



As aforementioned, a certificate of authenticity might have a designated place where you can also put your own signature as the buyer or collector and now the rightful owner/custodian of the work. However, when you are acquiring an important artwork, especially on the secondary art market, it will be wise to have the vendor draft you a document expressly denoting that you are now the rightful owner of the work.



The certificate of ownership must include;



a: A traceable history of past owners of the work



This includes every exhibition that which the work was displayed, and if possible, literature, pictures and even video clips of the exhibitions. It will be much easier to acquire the history of a work by a well-renowned artist, e.g. Marlene Dumas (South Africa), El Anatsui, (Ghana) Jenny Saville (Britain) or Kara Walker (USA).



However, a reputable dealer should be able to conduct diligent research pertaining to any work in his stable and will provide it to the buyer.



b: History of the artwork



This includes an inventoried history expressing when the painting was created, the duration of creation and if there were any major or even minor restoration work done on the work. If possible, it will also be wise to know the name of the restorer and the specific parts of the painting that required restoration.

RETIRED COMPOSER painting by Nya'



Series I: Divine Inspiration
Oil, metal, cork, wire, plywood, mylar paper, paper board, earth on canvas
40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm)
© Nya′ 2008. Courtesy of Seed Gallery, New York
Photo by House of Seed Photography, New York



Year of completion: 2004
Artist Private Collection: 2004 – 2008
Seed Gallery Private Collection: 2008 – To date

History of Exhibitions:





Plywood, which has a high resistance to cracking, shrinkage, twisting and warping was used as the ground for the heavily collaged piece. The musical instrument shapes were constructed with sheets of compressed board glued together and affixed to the ground using contact cement and bluing shoe nails. Shards of metal carefully preserved and mounted on compressed board, wooden corks from wine bottles and salvaged wire make up the balance of the materials resting on the canvas seamlessly ironed onto the wooden ground.

The painting is housed in a custom wood frame and is shielded from potentially harmful UV light rays by a tailor-cut museum glass, which, along with its nearly invisible finish and anti-reflective quality, ensures long archival life. The artist's signature is rendered in gold leaf at the bottom left corner of the painting. 

The work is in its original condition. It has been owned by Seed Gallery ever since it was acquired from the artist in 2008. Every scratch mark, dent, and sanded-like patch on the canvas is intentional. Aside from the history of exhibitions listed, the work has been part of several private exhibitions

Scandals often arise from questions of ownership. For example, in 2007, FBI agents in America showed up at the office of film director and celebrity art collector Steven Spielberg to reclaim a Norman Rockwell painting entitled "Russian Schoolroom" that was hanging on the wall of his living room. While Spielberg had purchased the work legally, it turned out that the painting had been stolen from a St. Louis art gallery (USA) in 1973 and he did not have a clear title for it.



Even though obtaining title insurance, which has become increasingly popular over the past years as a way of assuring that art ownership is protected can give you a certain level of peace, it is an expensive form of risk management and one that can be avoided by performing due diligence prior to purchasing a valuable artwork.

7: value


It is an arduous task to ascertain the true value of an artwork since value is always a relative concept and may largely vary among buyers and market conditions. However, upon careful consideration of the aforementioned, in specificity, the artwork’s rarity, quality, condition and provenance, you will be in a position to estimate the average value of a work of art.



A key element related to the value that is important to underscore is the seller or vendor’s status. True collectors of contemporary art do not make their choices by trying to second guess history and the art market. Foremost, they buy from reputable sources, spend what they can afford, and consider these amounts spent, not necessarily invested.



Secondly, by constantly looking at art in distinguished settings e.g. exhibitions, private tours, museums, art fairs and artist studios, they develop a degree of personal connoisseurship in the area of interest. They are also in frequent touch with other art collectors, as well as dealers, curators and art consultants who share their enthusiasm. Therefore, it is always prudent to buy work from a vendor of good repute.



For example, an African contemporary artist whose career is well managed by a respected gallery e.g. Gallery Momo, Goodman Gallery, Stevenson Gallery (South Africa), Townhouse Gallery (Egypt), Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris and London) will likely achieve a degree of success, resulting in an increase in the value of his work over time than an artist represented by multiple high street and vanity galleries.



Artwork from an artist who is exclusively represented by a notable institution e.g. (Goodman Gallery, South Africa), Nya′ (Seed Gallery, New York), Toyin Ojih Odutola (Jack Shainman Gallery, New York) is much likely to increase in value over time than artwork from an artist whose pieces are sold at conflicting prices from multiple vendors. Price distortion on the market will always lead to loss of value as the work is perceived to be common and therefore insignificant.



However, when it comes to selecting what you like, let alone what you might want to buy, it is always wise to go for what appeals to your spirit (your true being) and not just your rational being (intellect and emotions). It is also important to understand that there is a basic symbiosis between the commercial and social value of art. While owning distinguished works of art increases your social standing, the essential value of art is best absorbed privately and personally. But for you to access it, you have to put aside the commercial value (how much the work is worth) and the social value (the fame of the artist) and learn to concentrate, meditatively, on just what you see. 

8: intentions for acquiring the artwork


Intention or purpose precedes everything. In other words, prior to purchasing a contemporary artwork, clearly ask yourself why you are interested in buying the work. Is it simply because you can afford it or is it because you what to stand out among your peers? Perhaps it is because you have always heard that owning works of art is a sign of wealth and a distinguishing mark that clearly states to your “world” that you have arrived at the zenith of success. Perhaps you feel a connection with the work that you cannot really put in words, or there is a message from the work that resonates within you. Maybe you saw the artist's work at a friend’s house and you were moved to investigate and learn more about the artist.  



This is not to imply that there is anything wrong with any of the above reasons, but it is vitally important to be honest with yourself prior to making an investment in an artwork. Knowing your intention will prepare you to make good decisions, ask the right questions and receive quality answers or know when the seller, be it a gallery, auction house or private dealer is being disingenuous or simply trying to make a quick sell.



Remember, buying art is a personal vision and a great collector does not become a collector overnight. It is a lifetime process that always commences with knowing one’s intentions, staying true to one’s principles and values and in time, with patience, passion and diligence, cultivating a wise and matured eye.  

Intentions for acquiring the artwork
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