10 Tips for Collecting Photography

Here are now 17 tips you might find useful to help you begin or develop your photography collection. I’ll likely update this page with some regularity.

Most important: Buy what you love. But decide what you want – to collect or decorate. You can buy decorative photographs and artwork lots of places. Decorative works typically retain little value, but might be enough to make you happy. If you want to venture a bit further and start collecting, the tips here should be helpful.

1. Everyone has an opinion
Art consultants, gallery people, your friends and acquaintances will all have opinions about your next purchase. Everyone has an opinion. Remember, YOU are the one who will live with the piece, so rather than follow the herd or opinions of “experts”, buy work you feel. When in doubt, research and ask questions. Always ask questions, like most smart collectors.

2. Do you use an “art adviser”?
Art consultants or art advisers. Be sure the way you compensate a paid adviser is clear and in writing. Most advisers are well-connected honest people who can get you up to speed quickly. But they are not regulated in any way, so proceed with caution. I know one prominent art adviser who charges his clients some $500 for a few gallery visits, charges galleries a 25% commission for anything their client might buy, and then reaches back the the artist and ask for additional compensation from them for making a deal. Most quality galleries won’t agree to these terms, so this adviser only points their clients to galleries that will agree. This means the collectors miss out on lots of important works. Like a car mechanic or a brain surgeon, you must trust any adviser – check their references, google them and ask around.

3. Anonymous sellers
If you can’t tell immediately the name and location of the actual person behind the entity you are buying from (random web sites), don’t buy.

4. Fancy certificates
Be wary of terms like “Certificate of Authenticity”. Photographs are not baseballs, if you buy from a trusted resource, you are offered far more protected than any certificate. Try to find sellers with public spaces (galleries, etc). Anyone can make a certificate, they are not regulated in any way.

5. What is a vintage photograph?
The word “Vintage” is nearly always misused. In photography “Vintage” is a specific definition, meaning a print that was typically made from the negative within one year of when the negative was created. A “Vintage” print is not a print made recently of a nostalgic image. This is important, as photography is a reproduced medium, and scarcity is often an indication of value. Prints made long ago typically hold better value, because there is a limited supply, and they can’t be made again, among other factors.

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6. Who made it?
Who made the print? If you are being offered a recently made print, not made or directly supervised and signed by the artist, that is a big red flag. Anyone can make a digital reproduction of anything. Those are called posters, and can be bought in Ikea.

7. The term “Original”
Photography is primarily a reproduced medium. Meaning that most all photographs you collect are mechanically made from a negative that was in the camera, or a copy of that negative. Technically the negative is the original, not a print made from it. So be cautious with anyone selling “original” prints.

8. Editions
An edition indicates how many prints will be made from an image. Don’t buy anything in an edition over 25 (with rare exceptions). Editions were popularized in the 1970s. Few photographs made before then were editioned. Always ask questions like “how many are there.” The term “open edition” means that the artist doesn’t number their prints. This is not always a problem, depending on the work.

9. How is it printed?
Until the digital age dawned in photography (1980s), the gold standard for black and white prints was silver gelatin. It is a paper coated with a thin layer of light sensitive material that creates an image when exposed to light. It’s then developed and fixed in an old-school wet darkroom. The standard for color prints was similar, called chromogenic. Collectors still favor these prints. Digital printing has improved dramatically in the last few years and is widely-accepted. That process is ink sprayed on paper to create the image.

10. What is it printed on?
Collectors typically prefer photographs printed on a heavyweight paper — there are dozens of brands and types. Digital printing has opened the gates to print on nearly anything (aluminum, canvas, acrylic, etc.). Often these printing methods are made for decorative purposes and are usually not preferred by collectors. The important point is that you ask about this, and expect an answer that you understand. You want to be sure that whatever it’s printed on will last a very long time (50+ years).

11. Signed works
Try to always buy signed prints when possible, especially from living artists. Older prints that are unsigned can still be quite valuable.

12. Ask questions
Ask questions and buy smart, no one likes to buy dumb or overpay. If your source doesn’t have good answers, don’t buy. Often Google can be a great research assistant.

13. How do I begin?
Many collectors develop their collecting habits around buying a subject matter that interests them. Maybe you like 1950s New York, or Paris, or colorful landscapes. Maybe it’s funny moments, or animals.

14. Beware of high pressure sales
Art isn’t something that is sold (like a car). It is something that is bought (collected, acquired, etc). Meaning that anyone selling art should just present the works to you in a really nice fashion. Then allow you room to decide. There is no place for high pressure sales. High pressure usually indicates a mall-type art seller with decorative pieces. And right after you buy, they are worth perhaps 10% of what you paid. Be wary of pressure.

15. Buy what you like and love
Don’t be afraid to buy unknown or new photographer-artists if you love the image. Just try to find price points for these under $2,000.

16. Support living artists
Supporting living and emerging photographer-artists is good karma.

17. It’s supposed to be fun
Have fun with the process of collecting, hopefully some of these points helped you!

Daniel Miller is the director of the collector service YourDailyPhotograph.com, and owner of Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif.

Questions? info@yourdailyphotograph.com
Copyright Daniel Miller, 2015. All rights reserved.