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Five Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Work of Art

March 20, 2020

3 minute read

Five Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Work of Art


Whether art collecting is your pleasure or investment, you should first research any artwork you consider buying and understand its condition before you decide if you are ready to purchase it. At Lowy, our experts have spent their careers addressing the authenticity and the state of preservation of artworks of all periods, from Old Masters to Contemporary. Here are five questions our team recommends you ask before buying a piece of art:

1. How is the work made?

Is the object made of archival materials? Will it survive 50 years from now? 100 years? How about 500 years? Well crafted oil paintings have been known to survive intact for as much as 500 years, while poorly crafted ones can fall apart in a decade. One crucial factor is the quality of the paint used.

Five Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Work of ArtProfessional quality paint is far more expensive than student grade paint, but can make the difference in whether your painting will become a family heirloom or end up in the dumpster. Problems that can occur include fading, when the color dulls over time; delamination, when paint peels off the support or off previous layers of paint; and cracking, which refers to cracks in the surface of the paint. Although the craft of painting is taught in colleges and universities, you may be surprised to learn that painters don’t always know how to use their materials to create a stable work of art.

Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Work of Art2. How much of the piece has been restored?

It has been estimated that about 20 percent of what you see in a museum reflects the work of conservators rather than of the artist’s hands. This makes sense for objects that are hundreds or thousands of years old, but a large amount of restoration is unacceptable for any art purchase unless all the conservation has been fully disclosed and the object’s price reflects this condition.

3. Is the work a marriage?

This is a major concern for period furniture, classic cars, silver, and objects of vertu. It is not unusual for these objects, which were in daily use, to have replacement parts substituting original ones, but these replacement parts should be disclosed and, again, the price should reflect the changes from the original condition.

4. Does the work have inherent vice?

Inherent vice refers to the presence of physical elements that were never meant to have sustained, long-term use and function. Consider, for instance, a collage incorporating newspaper or masking tape; a Naum Gabo sculpture made from cellulose acetate; or a mid-century design chair filled with polyurethane foam—all materials that will change in appearance and/or will not survive into the future. Understanding the question of inherent vice is critical to purchases of contemporary art, which has risk built into its DNA.

5. Is the work actively degrading?

It is well known that textile dyes are susceptible to damage due to light, but only recently has the art market field begun realizing that the pigments used by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and the Early Modernists—including Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Pablo Picasso—are extremely light sensitive. If you consider purchasing an artwork dating from any of these periods (roughly 1880s to 1920s), then it is critical to examine the state of preservation of the pigments and to understand the parameters that will be required to display the piece properly so as to minimize further light damage over time.

By keeping these questions in mind, art collectors can get carried away with their emotions in the best possible sense: fall in love with artworks and know that these treasures will sustain the passion they have found in art collecting for years to come.