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Six Tips for Buying Art Abroad

Guy Billout Buying Art Abroad

Photo: Guy Billout

Sometimes the most cherished souvenir is the work of an artist who has captured the spirit of a destination. Before you make that next purchase, read on for six simple steps to follow before you buy that painting, photograph, sculpture, or other piece.

1. Know What You Want

While finding a piece of art that speaks to you requires a little serendipity, consider your overall goals. "Decide if you want to look for a souvenir typical of the area you are visiting, or a work of fine art," advises Christel Dahlén, a former art consultant and now the director of international relations at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York. If you're purchasing a relatively inexpensive memento, then your biggest concern will be getting it home. But if you're looking for a sound investment, or toward developing a collection that speaks to your aesthetic vision, do your research on the artists or the work you're interested in before you leave home.

2. Consult an Independent Expert

"When you're spending really serious money, have some really serious people advising you," says avid New York collector Michael Mendelsohn, founder of Briddge Art Strategies, and art-world consultant. He suggests working with an impartial expert—a professional appraiser or a fellow collector—who can help you assess a piece based on high-resolution digital photos, which established galleries can provide. An appraiser can often also help confirm that the work is authentic and has a valid title of ownership.

Expert guidance is crucial if you're in the market for antiquities. "Buying antiquities overseas is very tricky," says Dorit Straus, worldwide fine arts manager for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. "There's the issue of authenticity—there are very good fakes out there. But the bigger concern is whether the items were illegally excavated. It's a potential minefield," she says, which has tripped up the Getty Museum and other institutions, as well as individual collectors.

3. Cover Your Bases

As you would with any investment, protect yourself with insurance before you leave home. "It's difficult to make arrangements for insurance while you're traveling overseas," Straus says. First, check the fine print on your existing policies, whether you have a stand-alone policy specifically for art, or one attached to your home-owner's insurance. Sometimes these policies include extensions, so you can acquire new pieces abroad and declare them after you return. If you're not insured before you go, it's still possible to get temporary coverage through a good shipping agent. Straus advises against it, as it's typically more costly and often carries exemptions for fine art, but some policies may protect your sculpture, painting, photograph, or other work when it's most vulnerable to damage: during transport back to the United States. Finally, check with your credit card company regarding protections they offer for items you charge.

4. Choose a Trustworthy Seller

The easiest and best way to ensure a smooth purchase is to buy from prominent, well-established galleries, or at major art fairs such as Switzerland's Art Basel and Frieze, in London, where art dealers are vetted thoroughly. The fairs have a reputation to uphold, and you can be confident that the work will be authentic. (In the unlikely event that it's not, you'll also have recourse.) "A good gallery should do absolutely everything for you, from getting you a cup of tea when you walk in, to giving advice on lighting the work when it's arrived at your house," says William Noortman, managing director of Noortman Master Paintings, a gallery based in Maastricht, home of one of the world's most important fairs.

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