“Ars onga, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile,” wrote the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. “Art is long, life is short, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgement difficult.”


The father of western medicine’s aphorism could be used as a suitably succinct guide when it comes to understanding what makes a work of art collectable.

Art indeed endures. Both physically and conceptually, it outlives its creator, a legacy of an artist that once was corporeal, a reminder of a moment of pure brilliance and, if you’re so inclined to think so, a spiritual vestige of a luminary.

A complex game

Yet, is this enough to make such a work of art collectable? Not quite. It’s about today’s historians, thinkers and powerbrokers, who monopolise so much of the conversation of the age that if you fall outside of it, then, at least in the now, you’re forgotten.

The contemporary artist Damien Hirst is bankable now, as is Banksy, both alive and well, while Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, sadly long gone, are equally collectable, many, many years after they rose to prominence.

(Image: Forbes)

Amid the glow of these famous individuals are a myriad of artists past and present who have largely gone unnoticed, but that is not to say they will not have their day in the light.

Consider for example, Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair – it has taken a lifetime for her to be have a major exhibition (at Tate Modern until October). One imagines now that her extensive bounty of work, which has not really been a popular choice at auction, will gain currency as her critical stock rises.

Rules can be broken

As can perhaps be gauged from this, what determines the value of a work of art – and thus its collectability – is a number of variables like small, disparate clusters of influential people and even chance.

There are however some basic rules that can help you make your own decision. While it certainly pays to be ahead of the curve, savoir-faire with the current mood and engaged with the key players, it is equally essential to set yourself a standard of your own choosing.

From the outset then, it is important to identify the reason as to why you’re collecting, which is usually down to a simple love of art or because of the investment opportunities. Of course, there is always an overlap.

What to consider

Four classic questions always manifest themselves from the beginning: who is the artist, how important is the work in question, what is its provenance, and does the price make sense?

If the answers to these questions result in a strong argument for its acquisition, then it is fair to say that you’re well on your way to purchasing a very collectable work of art.

All that said, the artist might not be that well known, or if he/she is, that particular work might not be considered vital, but regardless, if you as a collector are captivated by it, then, take a leap of faith.

The worst-case scenario is that you have a pretty painting with no market value, but as an object of beauty, you are doing rather well, which, if rather expensive, can be kept in storage at a warehouse operated by Cadogan Tate.

As a final point, what is certainly a constant when it comes to snapping up a work of art is the need for planning. Intensely research a painting, sculpture or installation and court other people’s opinions, be it curators or friends.

Experiment, remember, can be dangerous, and judgement difficult. Whatever happens, art is long, immortal even.