The question posed by the headline is, in theory, easy enough. The sheer volume of art being sold across the world each year is far greater than at any point in human history. There was a 22 percent drop in global sales of art and antiques in 2020 — to all of $50.1 billion. Those figures, the most credible data on this topic that exist — and this alone will say a lot about the art world for the uninitiated — come from an annual report by the economist Clare McAndrew funded and released by Art Basel, a contemporary art fair, and its corporate partner UBS, the Swiss multinational financial services company and one of the largest private banks in the world, which by comparison reported $32.39 billion in revenue in 2020. But let’s just say it’s a lot of money changing hands. For one last comparison: $50 billion is also the cost proposed by the International Monetary Fund to cover its global plan to combat Covid-19.
But the fact is that buying art is not so obvious. Having an expendable income at all in the year 2021 is a difficult proposition for the vast majority of people. But if you are someone who has been lucky enough to maintain steady employment during the pandemic (last April, the U.S. unemployment rate reached the highest level since the Great Depression), and you have some extra money lying around and have spent the last year looking at the blank walls of your home with encroaching angst — simply having that money doesn’t automatically translate into owning a work of art. Where do you begin? What should you look at? The art world is no picnic, either, and if you’ve ever felt alienated or intimidated walking into a gallery, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. It’s not unusual for a first-time art buyer to approach a gallery and be asked, without any irony, what other art they have in their collection. And given the extreme variability of prices, which can rise substantially overnight based on the results of a secondary market sale at an auction house, it’s hard to even know what something should cost, and why. Trends arrive quickly and burn out just as fast. (If you can’t remember any of the names associated with something called zombie formalism, or if you’re even a little fuzzy on the term itself, once again you’re also not alone.) Speaking of which, the world of cryptocurrency entered the high end of the art market for the first time this year, when an NFT — honestly, don’t ask — created by a 39-year-old artist known as Beeple sold for $69.3 million at a Christie’s auction. Ten days later, Cameron Winklevoss, who, together with his twin brother, Tyler, has been estimated to own over $2 billion in cryptocurrency, posted a message on Twitter: “NFTs liberate art. Traditional art is confined to time and space. You have to be in the right city, go to a museum, be invited to someone’s home, etc. Anyone, anywhere with an internet connection can view NFTs and take them in. This is a huge breakthrough.” Anyway, I’m sure all of that is going to end well for everyone involved. What I mean is, there are a lot of ways — even new ways — to spend money on art, and maybe not all of them are for you!
As an introduction and guide to this world, we’ve asked experts — collectors, gallery owners, art dealers, artists, advisers — a theoretically easy question: How do you buy a work of art? Here’s what they had to say. — M.H. Miller