How to buy fine art on the Web without getting ripped off

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Sarah Woo, Organized Chaos 2, water color

Amazon isn’t just for e-books and good deals on home appliances anymore. On Tuesday, the online superstore launched its classiest marketplace yet: Amazon Art, which offers 40,000 original works from 150 dealers and 4,500 artists. While it is possible to pick up a $4.85 million Norman Rockwell or a $2.5 million Claude Monet from Amazon Art, the real gems lie in the vast selection of affordable fine art. Shoppers can find their steals for as little as $100 – meaning virtually anyone can become an art collector without leaving the chair.

But what if you’ve never bought a piece of art before? How do you get started? And what’s the best way to make sure you don’t get ripped off? To answer these questions and more, we reached out to the co-founders of UGallery, company president Stephen Tanenbaum and gallery director Alex Farkas. Launched in 2006, UGallery was one of the first fine art e-commerce outlets, and is one of Amazon’s featured dealers. Whether you’re looking to buy a piece of art from Amazon, eBay, or directly from UGallery, these pro tips will help ensure you get exactly what you want.

Find what you like, and set your budget

Before you click “buy,” you need to know what’s out there. “It’s important to go look at a lot of art. Especially if you’re just getting started, you need to see enough art to develop your own personal taste,” says Farkas. Luckily, the Internet makes it easy to peruse an endless array of art quickly and easily – we recommend starting with Amazon or UGallery’s staff picks sections. While it can be rewarding to go see original works in person, Farkas says doing that is “not absolutely necessary,” but will give you more experience with art and let you “learn a little bit more about what you’re doing.”

Once you’ve begun to discover what your taste in art is, “it’s really important to set a budget for yourself,” says Farkas. “You can find art at any price range, and there’s good stuff even at the low end, so it’s important to establish how much you want to spend.”

Another option, says Farkas, is to buy prints, which are less expensive than original pieces. “It’s a really great way to get started collecting art without a huge investment,” he says. “And you can pick from artists you like who do original work. Then, as your budget grows, you can maybe buy some of their original work as well.”

Investigate the artist

Jim Zwadlo, Pedestrians 2013-42, acrylic paint on canvas,
Jim Zwadlo, Pedestrians 2013-42, acrylic paint on canvas,

Much of what adds value to art is the artist themselves – educational training, personal story, and other factors can all play a part in both how you will feel about a piece of art, and whether the artist is someone you want to support.

“I like the get a better idea of who the artist is individually,” says Farkas. “Are they making art full time? What are their goals for their paintings or whatever kind of art they’re making? Is this something that they’re committed to?

“You want to invest in artists who are committed to what they do because you’re supporting those people.”

Look from all angles

When buying art online, the presentation of a particular piece can tell you a lot about whether the gallery can be trusted. Access to good photographs that show you exactly what you’re looking at is crucial. “It always helps to see not just the front of the painting, but also the sides of it as well, so you can get an idea of the construction,” says Farkas. This will let you judge whether the artist has taken care in the work. “You’ll quickly know the difference between something that’s been thrown together, and something that’s been expertly designed.”

A reputable gallery should provide you with whatever photos of the piece you need to help make your decision.

Ask questions

The more you know, the better off you’ll be. Farkas explains that any good gallery should get back to you promptly with questions you might have. If they don’t, it might be best to find another work offered by a different gallery. UGallery, for example, offers a live chat with a gallery manager on the website, as well as ways to contact the artist directly to ask about specific pieces.

In terms of what to ask, Farkas says that it’s always good to know if a certain work is part of a series and, if so, how many pieces are in the series. “A lot of art is refinement… So it’s really difficult to make fantastic one-off pieces. One thing you’ll see with more successful artists is that they work on certain concepts repetitively.” And if you’re interested in a work that appears early in a series, Farkas says it may be better to wait for later works in the series to see how an artist evolves the concept over time.

Know what you’re paying for

To new art enthusiasts, the price of a piece of art can seem completely arbitrary. And in a lot of ways it is; just because a painting is $10,000 doesn’t mean you have to like it, or is any more valuable to you. However, it’s good to understand why certain artist’s works sell for more than others.

Piero Manrique, Brooklyn Flair, acrylic paint on canvas
Piero Manrique, Brooklyn Flair, acrylic paint on canvas

The artist’s level of experience often plays a big part in the price, says Farkas, as does the quality of the work itself. “Typically what you see, as art gets more expensive, is how refined the art is,” he says. “Someone who’s just starting out just won’t command [high prices].” This is another reason you’ll want to ask the gallery about the experience of an artist whose work you’re interested in, and how much other works by the same artist have sold for in the past. By doing this, you will be better able to judge whether the gallery is trying to take advantage of you. If a gallery is unwilling to answer your questions about the price of past works, walk away.

If you don’t like it, return it

All art purchased through Amazon has a 30-day return policy, so if whatever painting or print you purchased just doesn’t fit in with that new couch, you have a way out. That said, some galleries may charge a “restocking” fee – probably a percentage of whatever you paid – so be sure to read the fine print before you buy.

Keep it where the sun don’t shine

Once you do have a piece you want to keep, you need to take care of it – but don’t worry, it’s not a big deal. While it’s always important to be extra careful with handling any original works of art, most of it doesn’t require much upkeep. Oil paintings are especially durable. “That’s why you see these things in museums that are hundreds and maybe thousands of years old,” says Farkas. That said, never keep any type of art in direct sunlight. “That’s the fastest way to ruin something.”

Farkas also says that you should never spray the surface of any type of painting with anything, like household cleaners. Instead, just lightly dust your art with a soft duster. And framing a painting can also keep dust and grime off the edges of the actual canvas. Even an inexpensive shadow box frame will do the job just fine.

Forget the frame

Ok, we just told you to get a frame to protect from the dust – but a frame is entirely optional. In fact, hanging works without frames has come into vogue recently, say Tanenbaum and Farkas. And the raw look can often add to the piece.

“Original paintings don’t need to be framed,” says Tanenbaum. A shadow box frame, which only covers the edges, works fine. Or you can ask the gallery whether the edges of a piece you’re interested in has finished edges, meaning the artist has painted the sides to give the piece a finished look without a frame. If so, then you don’t need a frame at all. And even if the edges aren’t finished, it will still hang on the wall just fine – the look is entirely up to you.

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