‘Buy what you love. Don’t buy something because someone says you should.’ —Kent Mathews


Kent Mathews and Brian Riney met at an opening at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery—the same place they bought these winsomely abject ceramic pieces by Seattle artist Jeffrey Mitchell. After 17 years of collecting (buying at a current rate of about one piece every two months, they estimate) they’ve filled their Northeast Portland home with works by Pacific Northwest talents such as Mitchell, as well as international greats like Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Ed Ruscha and Kiki Smith. “I’ve never regretted anything I’ve purchased, but I’ve regretted things I didn’t,” says Mathews, adding that one of his secrets is to resist impulse purchases—a strategy novice collectors should consider emulating.


Can’t tell a Minimalist from an Abstract Expressionist? Don’t let worries like this hinder your budding collecting career. If you follow these eight easy steps you’ll soon be buying art with confidence.

  1. Say hello. A good dealer is a buyer’s best friend, so start making nice with her and the people she employs. And don’t take offense if no one greets you with a bear hug as soon as you walk in. Most gallery-goers come to look, not to buy—so you may be left alone until you initiate contact.

  2. Take a gander. Avoid immediately blurting out, “Do you have something like this in purple?” If the work on the wall strikes a chord, or even just inspires a feeling of curiosity, keep looking—and ask yourself why you’re intrigued, since this is how you’ll come to understand, and to further develop, your own taste. If you’re left cold, move on.

  3. Sate your curiosity. Whatever it is you’re wondering, be it “Is this sculpture made of cat fur?” or, more nebulously, “What does it mean?” go ahead and inquire. At a loss for words? Try this perennially useful conversation opener: “Can you tell me something about this work?” In most cases, gallery staff will be more than pleased to enlighten you.

  4. Bide your time. Repeat steps 1 through 3 until you find a gallery that you click with, then ask to see the back room inventory. (To get the most out of this experience, call ahead and make an appointment, scan the gallery’s website and google the artists whose work you’re interested in seeing before you arrive.) Spend 30 minutes or so browsing the merchandise, and if something catches your eye, make a note of it.

  5. Set a budget. In the ethereal world of one-of-a-kind artworks, the value of your money can start to seem awfully… relative. So get realistic about what you can spend. Whether it’s an annual limit on a growing collection, or a ceiling on a particular item you’re after, just set a specific mark—and be sure to include the costs for framing and protecting the work.

  6. Fall in love. Whatever it is—say, that cat-fur sculpture, molded into the shape of the Hindu goddess Kali Ma driving a Humvee—if you love it (and if you’ve followed steps 1 through 5), trust your heart.

  7. Do your homework. Assuming the piece falls within your budget, verify that it’s being offered at an appropriate price and make sure the dealer’s credentials check out.
    (See “Spot a Deal” on the next page for advice on how to avoid getting snookered.)

  8. Buy now! You won’t be sorry.