We all hear about the high prices being achieved in auction for star lots but most of us live in the real world and do not have items like that for sale and are not in a position to ever acquire such art works. There is a whole field of objects owned and traded daily that never make the news. Even specialist publications tend to report on the sensational only thus leaving what they consider mundane to be bought and sold by ordinary collectors and the like out of sight of all publicity. It might be galling to any collector or dealer that their chosen sphere is given such little attention but it could be considered a blessing.
My field of interest is in paintings and watercolours principally from the Victorian and Edwardian era. This was chosen for me by the fact that when I started taking an interest in art professionally what was available locally was mostly British art from those times. There were earlier works and those from other countries in auction sales but not enough to consider collecting on any great scale; for that you would have needed to go to London.
I collected local scenes out of interest in the artists and the topography depicted. The names of the artists I first specialised in are numerous but included the two Widgerys, William [1822-1893] and son Frederick John [1861-1942], and the little known Thomas Dingle Junior [exhibited 1880-1889]; all of whose works were readily available at modest cost.
You will have local artists that will suit your taste artistically and price range financially. When I started a typical F J Widgery cost me £15-30 as a rule with a very special one worth laying out £45 for. As my collection grew so did the interest in the artist by others and so the prices rose rapidly. This was at a time in the 1970’s when interest in many fields of art and antiques was beginning to take off. I sold my fifty or so F J’s in 1980 because I was moving house and needed both the space and money. I got what I thought was a reasonable sum for them at the time but within ten years what was worth £100-200 could have made £600-800 or more. Now prices are selective and a good deal lower and it is common to see estimates of £300-400 or even less for a decent example. These fluctuations might prove off-putting for the collector, especially one with limited funds and just starting out, but within every collector is a dealer and we are all after-all only temporary custodians of art. So what has fallen recently from a high could rise again and part of the fun of buying is speculation.
There is needless-to-say some standard words of advice that should be adhered to. Know your chosen subject and do not be afraid to learn from others. Follow estimates and results in auction and online on sites like Barnaby’s and eBay. In the ‘old days’ reading and visiting galleries and museums was the route to education and acquiring academic knowledge but now the internet exists and is open to all. So know your subject and price range before you start. Always consider condition as with many paintings and prints in particular condition, along with subject matter, is all important. A faded watercolour of the most wonderful scene might not be worth as much as a mint condition painting of a scene that is not quite so commercial.
As far as content is concerned part of the learning curve I had especially in run-of-the-mill Victorian landscapes was how to judge content. An unwritten set of rules covered everything from figure interest to if there was water in the scene and even to the colour of the sky. A river scene at sunset was not worth as much as one on a bright summer’s day. Children added to value as do horses, and lower down the animal order, cattle and lastly sheep. It all sounds very basic and crude considering artistic merit should have been the first criteria.
The joy about collecting is that it is your personal choice as to what you pursue but you are not going to get very far if what you have chosen is so rare it will take a lifetime to assemble! That is where the local connection comes in although of course many works will have spread geographically far and wide especially if they have reasonable age. Adding contemporary painters to your list is worthwhile because all the established artists had to start somewhere and without early patrons they might not have got far.
Be warned however, a retail price might not be matched in auction upon resale for many years if at all. I am sometimes amazed at what some artists ask for their work in relation to the quality and what is available by, say, 19th century painters. Internet based artists are the worst for this especially those who print multiples of their work, sometimes into the thousands. My most hated artist in that field is Thomas Kinkade but why end on a negative as the works of F J Widgery, whilst still frowned upon by the art elite are still wonderful and evocative landscapes done in an original [and much mimicked] style and usually free from deterioration in condition. Hopefully you will find an artist to suit your taste and interest as the passion to collect knows no bounds and really is open to anybody.