Sophie Camu – How to Buy Art Like an Expert

Art advisor Sophie Camu spent 10 years as an expert of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby’s in Paris, London and New York. She was a Director in the department before setting up as a private art consultant in 2010. Here she talks about how to develop an eye, how to build a collection, how to visit art fairs like Frieze and what pitfalls to avoid.

What do you do?

I’m a private art consultant and I aim to make buying and selling art a pleasurable experience. I expand people’s knowledge of the art world and make sure the art they choose not only brings pleasure but is a good investment.

Why would buying art not be a pleasurable experience?

The art world can seem quite opaque and intimidating. If you don’t know where to look it can seem confusing – it takes a long time to understand price levels, and identify quality and authenticity. The art market functions on the connections between dealers, advisors, auction houses and collectors – as an ‘outsider’ it can take time to build up personal connections with trustworthy sources.

art gallery

To an outsider the art world can seem intimidating. Art consultants help expand a collector’s knowledge. © Alexander Lindsay

How do you go about building a collection?

As a new collector you might have an idea of what you like. However taste can and should carry on developing and deepening. Before people even consider buying I recommend they absorb as much art as possible. Start by visiting museums and private art galleries. There are several new spots like Hauser & Wirth in Somerset, and the Dairy Art Centre in London. There’s no pressure to buy, and the more you see the more you’ll find your tastes change. Sign up to art groups like Art Angel, which raise funds for art in the UK and offer expert-led visits of private galleries and artist studios. You can also do more general patronage of institutions like the National Gallery, Tate, Royal Academy of Arts, Serpentine Gallery and so on. As a patron you get invited to talks, openings and studio visits. Branch out into art fairs like PAD, Frieze and Frieze Masters, which are all on this month. Interesting new ones include Photo London at Somerset House  – photography is easy to relate to – or Art15 which showcases international art from places like India, Africa and South America that you don’t get to see very often over here – it really broadens your understanding of what’s happening in the market. Then visit auctions. Auction houses can be intimidating spaces and a lot of people don’t realise that anyone can go to views. They have an enormous amount of art that you simply won’t see anywhere else. Check on the houses’ websites and sign up for updates. But the main thing is, there shouldn’t be any rush. The process should be a pleasure.

Houser Wirth Somerset

Hauser & Wirth’s new space in Somerset is a great place to ‘get your eye in’ when you start building a collection

When it comes to buying art, what is important?

Trust your instinct: in a show only two or three pieces will speak to you. Art needs to choose you before you choose it, and the more exciting your dialogue, the more you’ll want to have it around. You also need to consider your budget, where the work is for and what it is for. Lighting is important, as is the ‘feel’ of your home. Themes work very well: eg works on paper, photographic landscapes, Outsider art or Abstract art. Equally, juxtaposing contemporary art with Old Masters or tribal art can look fabulous. Ask for help: talk to the dealers, particularly at fairs where you can see a range of work, or one of the experts at the auction house. Or hire an art advisor!

Is art a good investment?

Some do buy purely for investment but I wouldn’t advise it. Creating a collection takes time and effort and the art market can fluctuate, so if you are looking for a quick return it would probably make sense to deal in something more quantifiable. The art market is mysterious unless you are fully involved: in some ways it’s like any commodity but it’s also unquantifiable because it’s so influenced by the quality of passion. At an auction you only need two or three people who love something to treble its value – but what if they don’t turn up? That said there can be significant financial returns, particularly for works that are already considered masterpieces, or are particularly rare or unique. My advice is to buy at the top end of what you can afford and go for the best quality. With market understanding and in-depth research one would hope to increase the value of a collection over time – my knowledge can and does help with that.

art gallery

Sophie says that you should only buy art that speaks to you – but you still need to pragmatic. Photography is a fantastic way to start creating a collection. © Alexander Lindsay

What about contemporary art?

The contemporary market is booming for the moment. The numbers of people buying in this field has expanded hugely in the last 20 years – before it was mainly Europeans and Americans, now you have Asia, South America, the Middle East, all looking to buy into cultural history. However, this field is particularly prone to fluctuations – there will always be a ‘correction’ at some point as tastes shift, some artists will fall by the wayside and there’s no hard and fast way of telling who. One has to approach with caution as there’s a lot of speculative buying. Some very big collectors buy straight out of art school, accepting that most will not go anywhere but if just a handful become huge, it makes it worthwhile. It’s not an approach most can take.

So really you need to love art to buy it?

Absolutely, but you still need to be pragmatic. You shouldn’t pay over the odds. Art is high stakes – pleasure has to be balanced with an understanding of what you’re buying. The value of an art advisor is that their loyalties lie with their client, to find works of art that are the right fit at the right price – I can and do save money for my client.

What do your clients look for?

I specialise in Impressionist, Modern and Post-War Art. People come to me because they know it’s my field of expertise and I have been involved in the art world for over 15 years. They are usually looking for works by the great artists of the 19th and 20th centuries: Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Magritte, Giacometti etc. They want help finding the perfect work for their home or to fill a gap in their collection. I also track down works that are not in the public domain, so I can find a hidden gem for a particular collector.

Paul Gaugin

Art consultants have specialities. Sophie’s is Impressionist, Modern and Post-War Art. Image Beauty Queen, Paul Gaugin. © Wikimedia Commons

Has the internet helped or hindered art buying?

The internet can be an incredible tool for raising awareness, so artists have had to become businessmen and self-marketers. Artists and dealers can connect with buyers without having a physical space in which to exhibit. The internet provides a global platform for bringing art and collectors together, but it’s not without risks as the quality, condition and authenticity of a work cannot always be guaranteed. Nothing beats seeing a work of art in the flesh.

What mistakes do people make?

Being too influenced by what’s hot right now rather than what you actually feel a connection to. Or being swayed by a name rather than quality – even great artists have bad days. You should always get the highest quality you can afford, and take your time.

What trends are you seeing at the moment?

People are recognising that great works on paper by well-known artists can be just as significant as oil paintings. The popularity of Surrealism continues apace, as does post-war Italian art and Abstract Expressionism. It’s because people who grew up in that period are now wealthy enough to afford it. Also Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese or African contemporary art is flourishing because there are now collectors from these areas. People buy art with an emotional connection.

How do you source your art?

One of the values of an advisor is in our networks, so we can do the legwork for you. We go on the hunt via auctions, connections with dealers, advisors and other collectors around the world. We keep tabs on what everyone has and often connect client to client.

What makes a good art advisor?

Someone who is genuinely passionate about art, hard-working and incredibly diligent about protecting their client from the pitfalls of the art world. They should give advice, like when to push the boat out, to explain why and how a piece can fit into a collection or to introduce them to a new artist. Ultimately an advisor should save you time, increase your knowledge in art and bring enjoyment to the process. For me the greatest pleasure is when my client starts to buy instinctively and our understanding of art and the selection process are in partnership.

Subscribe to our newsletter

To receive news, updates and extras for all your design needs.

Follow us