Building an Art Collection: It’s Easier Than You Think


A good first step in starting an art collection is finding a gallery, or several galleries, that contain work you like, getting on their mailing lists and attending events and exhibitions. James Frederick, owner of James Gallery, above, in the West End, recommends setting a budget for artwork and exploring possibilities within that range.

So you’re interested in becoming an art collector? Here’s the good news: There’s really no wrong way to go about it. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s advisable to jump blindly into what can seem like an intimidating hobby. But local dealers and collectors largely agree that starting an art collection, even if only to decorate a room or two in your house, doesn’t need to be an overly stressful or complicated endeavor.

“It’s all about what you love and what makes you happy,” says Cynthia Weisfield, a resident of Main Line Mt. Lebanon who has collected art nearly her entire life. “I think the first thing you have to decide is what you’re really after. If you’re looking to just hang something on your walls, that kind of ends the conversation. You can just go to Michael’s and get a reproduction. But if you want to start a real collection, you have to ask yourself: Do you like abstract? Do youllike pictures of animals?

Do you like Old Masters? You have to decide, ‘What do I like to look at? What makes me smile when I see it?’”

“Old Masters,” by the way, refers to pieces by notable European artists painted sometime before 1800. And hearing the term also illustrates why dipping your toe into the art world can be somewhat terrifying: There’s so much about the subject that a newcomer couldn’t be expected to know. That’s why, as with any hobby, it’s best to seek some help to get started. One great resource? Local art galleries.

Mission Hills resident James Frederick has owned James Gallery for the past 43 years. Located in the West End, it’s a full-service fine-art gallery that sells contemporary paintings, sculptures and unique pieces in all kinds of media. He and his team also do art consulting for individuals and corporations. You know the Mario Lemieux statue outside of PPG Paints Arena? James Gallery found the artist who sculpted it and hooked him up with the Penguins. In fact, the gallery has worked with all three professional Pittsburgh sports teams. But for smaller jobs like decorating a family home, Frederick says beginning an art collection is as simple as visiting a gallery and walking around.

“What we try to do is expose the client to the possibilities,” Frederick says. “Our focus is on providing our clients with a high-quality piece of art that they will enjoy for a lifetime.”

Now, we know what you’re thinking:
A high-quality piece of art probably comes with an equally high price tag. Well, it certainly can, but the people we talked with also insist that money does not have to be an object when it comes to owning a nice collection of original art. You just need to have a clear budget in mind and tailor your plans to that budget.

For example, Frederick says you might find an original oil painting you love but discover its price tag puts it out of your range. That painter, however, may also produce limited-edition lithographs, which could be considerably less expensive. A lithograph is a high-quality print on paper that can be reproduced multiple times without losing any of the detail of the original piece. Lithographs produced in small runs and signed by the artist are desired by collectors and can be a less costly alternative to original paintings on canvas. Engravings, silkscreens and other reproduction options can be good choices for the budget-minded collector.

Cynthia Weisfield, a longtime art collector, has a simple piece of advice for the novice: “Find what makes you smile.” The rest can take care of itself.

Weisfield, who has a degree in art history from the University of Chicago, says she and her husband are personally hooked on prints. “We started off on a budget, buying as we could,” she says, adding that a lot of print-based art shows will have sections devoted to pieces of art costing less than $600. “With prints, you can hold them and look at them. They’re not as austere as works on canvas. You don’t have to worry about paint chipping.”

Forest Glen resident Elizabeth Windsor, a lawyer who has an undergrad degree in art and art history from Kenyon College, agrees that money does not have to be a deterrent when looking for art to display at your home. There’s a New England-based artist she loves, David Graeme Baker, whose works can go for a hefty  $30,000. But she was able to purchase a graphite and paper sketch for one of his large-scale oil paintings for far less.

Windsor insists that the art world isn’t as scary as some might think. “I think sometimes people are intimidated to go into galleries,” she says. “But once you are inside and looking at a work of art, people are welcoming and interested to talk.” Windsor recommends finding a few galleries that you trust, asking questions, joining their mailing lists and then following the work of artists whose work you enjoy. Galleries will often make deals with specific artists to represent their work. James Gallery works with hundreds of artists but counts around 30 as being “in their stable” at any one time, meaning they exclusively represent them in the region.

A trip to an art museum can give some inspiration and introduce you to artistic styles you may not have been aware of.

Art and antique shows are another good place to begin looking for pieces that you’d like to buy for your home, although Windsor admits those can be a little trickier. “For me, that’s a little more impulsive and not as planned,” she says. “It’s more seeing something and just kind of liking it, deciding whether the price matches my enjoyment level of it.” If you do buy something on impulse and it’s signed, be sure to research it online when you get home; you might be surprised to find you have purchased a small treasure by a known artist.

Great art resources include museums, books and connecting with other collectors. And the internet can be a valuable tool not only for research but also for purchasing art. There was a time when you’d basically have zero chance of getting into an auction run by Sotheby’s, the prestigious London-founded, New York-based art broker. But today Sotheby’s has an eBay page.

Thanks to the internet, there are tools readily available at the touch of a keyboard—sites like eBay, and—that can offer up a wealth of data on the artists you enjoy, including which of their works are available for purchase and what they might cost. All of that info at your fingertips can feel overwhelming, but it also infinitely increases your art-buying options.

The accessibility the internet provides to art for sale might also tempt you to look for investment opportunities, but experts and veteran collectors don’t recommend collecting art strictly as a money-making endeavor. Buying art to turn a profit can require a lot of cash—much more than it takes to beautifully decorate a house—and there’s no guarantee of a return on your money. Windsor owns two pieces that might be considered investments—a watercolor and gouache by Eric Hopkins, whose work is in Maine’s Farnsworth Museum of American Art, and a large photograph by Cig Harvey, whose work has been spotlighted by the New York Times. She researched artists, she says, but the possible increase in value wasn’t what ultimately drove the purchase; she loved the works.

It’s about what you love and what makes you happy.

Weisfield is of the same mind. “If you’re buying because you think you’re going to make money, don’t,” she says.

“Know yourself, do your research, find what makes you smile, set a budget and make up your mind that this is how you’re going to collect,” she adds, rattling off a practical checklist. “Do you want inexpensive photographs of Pittsburgh, or do you want $2,000 oil paintings but you’re only going to get one every two years? Honestly, there are all sorts of ways to swing it.”