Looking to acquire a bargain canvas or invest in a sculpture by a noted artist?The path to finding the perfect piece is not always easy—here’s how to avoid common pitfalls.
Guy Billout Buying Art Abroad
| Credit: 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.

Dealers should be able to handle transportation, the customs process, and any importing problems, but if you are arranging shipping yourself, consult the International Convention of Exhibition and Fine Arts Transporters (icefat.org), an organization that can recommend 80 prescreened shippers.

5. Get a Fair Price

To judge whether the asking price is reasonable, research the figures for other works by the same artist from the same period. Be wary of offers that seem too good to be true. "Never buy something for $5,000 that the dealer tells you is worth $100,000," advisesMendelsohn. Reputable sellers will price works according to market value, so such "discounts" are a red flag. "At a gallery or antiques dealer of good standing, as a rule of thumb the biggest discount you can negotiate is about ten to fifteen percent," says Dahlén, of the Chelsea Art Museum, or sellers may also be willing to offer a discount on shipping and handling charges.

6. Follow the Rules

Keep in mind that many countries have laws to protect their cultural property, and that the U.S. government has very specific restrictions on what art and antiquities can be imported. You can't bring back that terra-cotta statue from Mali or colonial-period painting from Peru, for instance, unless you have a special export permit. Visit the U.S. State Department's Web site (exchanges.state.gov/culprop) to view photographs of restricted items by country. Consulting a licensed customs broker can also help you steer clear of trouble. In general, however, original fine art created entirely by hand, including paintings and drawings, as well as antiques that are at least 100 years old, can be brought into the United States duty-free.

If you're buying—or just browsing—and you don't want to go it alone, these guides can give you the inside edge.



Brigitte Vergnolle

Paris Addict 33-6/09-94-09-21; parisaddict@orange.fr

What You'll See

You've got to know more than a thing or two if concierges at luxury hotels across the city rely on you for the best private guides. Such is the case with Vergnolle, who runs Paris Addict, a discreet company discovered only by word of mouth (there's no Web site, marketing, or PR to speak of). Vergnolle and her team of guides, all of whom have degrees in history or art history, can arrange just about anything, from private meetings with art and antiques dealers to a behind-the-scenes tour of Versailles. Always on her radar: the contemporary furniture gallery Catberro Galerie Paris (25 Rue Guénégaud, 33-1/43-25-58-10; catberro.fr).



Maria Cristina Paoluzzi

What You'll See

Don't let her Ph.D. in art history throw you. A professor at the University of Chieti, and the go-to guide for visiting dignitaries (the elder George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev among them), Paoluzzi can just as easily guide you through the top contemporary-art galleries and private studios as she can those specializing in antiquities. Her favorite stops: Magazzini d'Arte Moderna, Galleria dell'Oca, and Galleria il Ponte.



Dianne C. Brown

36-209/549-941; dcbrown@starkingnet.hu

What You'll See

An art consultant to the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace and resident of the city since 1993, Brown knows the artists who give this particularly vibrant scene its unique energy. If you're a fan of modern art, request a visit to the Art Factory, an industrial-style exhibition space for up-and-coming artists, including sculptor Mamikon Yengibarian (whose work is also on view at the Four Seasons) and Márta Kucsora, an abstract painter.



Nicole Fall and Charles Spreckley

Bespoke Tokyo; 81-80/5025-8711; bespoketokyo.jp

What You'll See

Sign on with Fall and Spreckley, and you'll be in the company of two plugged-in locals. The duo will guide you through what they dub the "Tokyo Labyrinth"—nameless streets and hidden stops otherwise impossible to find. Their favorite art experience: 101 Tokyo, a new contemporary-art show taking place in a converted school in Akihabara. You'll get private viewings, along with a personalized "art safari" led by independent Tokyo-based gallery owners.

—Hillary Geronemus