A Modern Proposal

Guide to Life: Buy Modern Art


Part of growing up is making transitions: Axe to Old Spice, dorm room to apartment, ramen to eggplant parmigiana. Those are long gone, but you’ve still got the beloved Mohammed Ali poster that’s adorned your wall since freshman year. We recommend going with modern — otherwise known as contemporary — art. Of course, you’ll need to find something you like; better still if your aesthetic investment gains monetary value. But how to differentiate a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles from a piece by Damien Hirst? For help we consulted with Gary Metzner, a Senior Vice President at Sotheby’s in Chicago.



Waterhouse and Dodd, 958 Madison Avenue, 3F
With locations in both London and New York, Waterhouse and Dodd has spent the past three decades establishing itself as one of the most reputable brokers in the game. Their gallery, which holds rotating exhibitions of contemporary artists that change every 4 – 6 weeks, contains some of the art world’s biggest names.

Luhring Augustine Gallery, 531 W 24th St.
For those with dispensable means, this gallery is one of the best places in the city to find works by Picasso, Pollock and Warhol. A second location in Bushwick provides space for long-term exhibitions.

Agora Gallery, 530 W 25th St.
Just around the corner from Luhring Augustine is the Agora Gallery, which caters to a more economically diverse crowd. In addition to selling the work of established artists, the museum also specializes in mid-level and emerging artists.

Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave.
The current headquarters for Sotheby’s global operations, the New York office holds nearly 100 auctions every year, many of which deal with contemporary art. Even if you don’t have any money to spend, the six story exhibition space is always filled with interesting and high-profile art.

Matthew Marks, 523 W 24th St.
A driving force behind Chelsea’s transformation into an arts mecca was Matthew Marks, who now runs three exhibition spaces in the city. His first exhibition, at which nothing was for sale, helped establish him as an art advocate rather than a businessman.

Know what you’re getting into. Metzner’s advice came with a disclaimer: art, particularly contemporary art, is a tricky investment. It’s a function of supply, as there are literally thousands of new artists appearing every week, as well as time — newer artists have less of a sales track record than older artists like Picasso or Chagall, who have been selling for years. That’s not to say that people don’t make money; they do. But to buy a piece of contemporary art that appreciates in value, you need to do more home work than if you’re buying a painting from 1850.

Find out what you like. According to Metzner, the first step in buying a piece of contemporary art is to find one to which you are aesthetically attracted. That way, even if your investment fails, you still have something you like. As Metzner says, “there’s a good chance you could end up hanging onto it, so you better like it.” If you can’t see that ten foot metallic frog sitting in your living room, maybe focus your attention on a reasonably sized painting.

Check the investment factors. After finding a piece you like, look at the factors that indicate appreciation. These include, but are not limited to, representation, exhibition history, selling history on the secondary market, and any publications — printed catalogues, reviews, books, or articles — in which the artist might be mentioned. Parsing this information is an art in itself: too many mentions and the artist’s work is likely to command a premium; too few and the artist might never gain the traction necessary for their work to take off. For help aggregating said information, Metzner recommends checking out magazines like Art+Auction and artforum, as well as regional publications and local museums.

Don’t get snookered. When you’re ready to make an offer, go through a licensed broker or gallery. Art forgery is a billion dollar business, and the best way to avoid buying a fake is to go through an expert who knows the field. While there are exceptions to every rule, most artists with appreciating work are represented by an agent, or at least have some sort of relationship with a reputable gallery.

Have fun with it. The last thing to remember is that contemporary art is about more than buying a piece of art — it’s about the art scene and culture and fairs and excitement of the evening auctions in New York City or London. Few things are as exciting as watching a career unfold.