by

Randy R Cox

How to buy and sell art for profit is more than just a way to make  a little money.Finding and bargaining for valuable art is an adventure of mystery and intrigue. It can be profitable beyond imagination. This week a relative called for advice on how to frame an old painting he had bought at a church auction in a small town in the Midwest.

As an art dealer the first thing I did was ask if he could read the name of the artist. Very slowly he spelled it out, “ Henry Cleenewerck.” There are a lot of old artists, and I don’t know them all. I didn’t know this one, so I did a quick check on the internet. Wow! This guy was born in 1825 in Belgium and visited the United States in 1854. He died in 1901 after a long career in art.

I did a little more checking and found out his work was hanging in museums around the world. I could only find a small painting currently available and the gallery was asking $8000 for a study that was nice but probably not a definitive work.  The painting to the left is just a sample of Cleenewerck’s work.

My relative described the painting that he had as having a tipi village with Indians and on Indian riding a horse across a river. There were mountains in the background. There is a great market for that type of painting. I estimated the painting to be worth between 20 and 40 thousand dollars in a good market. There is always a chance such a painting could go for ten times as much in a spirited auction between two well-heeled collectors.

I asked how much he had paid. He said there had been a second bidder to run the price up. He had paid $50.

Now this was a find of a lifetime, and not a likely event for most people. However it is always a possibility when searching for art.

In a field where even experts are lacking in knowledge, you might think it difficult for a beginner to compete with the real players, but it is really just the opposite. Art is such a subjective enterprise the rules are not written in stone. A beginner can develop an eye for what is good and what is not so good in a surprisingly short period.

I remember an expert art critic not so many years ago describing the exquisite manner in which a sculptor had carved a bronze. Bronzes are cast—not carved. There is much pomp and pretense in the art business. There is always a place for a non-expert in a world like this. New dealers from the grass roots do well quickly and keep the whole business down to earth.

Art and the business of art are related but distinct. A great work of art may not be worth much money while a piece of junk might fetch a fortune. What is hot one decade may fade into oblivion the next.

History, aesthetics, and public relations are as important in the market price of art as the intrinsic value of the art itself. There are rules but not hard and fast rules. There are cases where a forger fakes a work by a famous artist only to have time reverse their roles. The forgery may become worth more than the original.

So how do you buy and sell art for a profit? The short answer is to just do it! You may not be an expert, but you know what you like. That is the first step. If you like it someone else will like it. If you learn to negotiate well, you can buy at a good price and sell at a better one.

It may sound silly, but when a dealer buys something he likes and has trouble selling it for a profit, he learns to not like that kind of art. When he buys something he doesn’t like because the price is right, it doesn’t take long for him to like it better. Without the fancy words of an art expert describing how bronze is “carved”, this is the way taste develops. Taste changes over time and good taste is just taste with the seasoning of experience.

If you know what you like, you can buy and sell art at a profit.