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Artistic expression: perspectives on collecting African American art.

AT SOME POINT IN OUR LIVES, WE'VE all been collectors. Whether you started as a kid with comic books or dolls, you didn't rely on anyone to tell you which items you liked, in the art world that same idea applies--to a degree, if you're thinking about collecting art, you should be motivated by an appreciation for a particular piece. But keep in mind that fine art can be an asset, too. So do your homework before making an investment.

And now may be a great time to look at fine art by African Americans. Early last year, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City hosted the first sale by a major auction house devoted exclusively to African American fine art. The gallery held its third such auction in February; bringing in a record $2.7 million. African American fine art has emerged as one of the most actively collected categories in the marketplace.

This snapshot will introduce you to some of the key considerations you should weigh when thinking about a possible purchase.

Seek out emerging talent. When looking to make an investment, seasoned collectors train an eye on portals for emerging talent such as Kenkeleba Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in New York City, The Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, The Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, as well as incubators such as the artist-in-residence program at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It's the collective activity of artists, dealers, collectors, auction houses, historians, and critics that plays a key role in propelling an artist into the marketplace, according to appraiser and art adviser Halima Taha, founder of

Know the history of ownership. A well-rounded collection gives a sense of various approaches to a particular style. "Provenance [history of ownership] supports and can increase the value of a piece," offers Eric Hanks, art instructor and owner of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California. This document establishes authenticity and identifies previous owners, which can positively impact the artwork's value--especially if a previous owner is famous.

Know the value of your artwork. Greg and Yolanda Head of Stone Mountain, Georgia, have been collecting abstract art since 1998. To stay on top of how much their art may have appreciated, Greg follows auctions and auction records. He also regularly visits galleries and shows such as Embrace: The Fine Art Fair of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. He has their collection appraised every three to four years and has it insured appropriately.

Buy art that you enjoy. Enthusiasts say "buy what you love" because there is no foolproof formula for what to buy and when to sell. Yet everyone has a faithful strategy for collecting. Take former NBA player Elliot Perry of Memphis, Tennessee. He took 12 years to grow his collection of works by contemporary and master artists. Perry investigates a dealer's reputation and cultivates a relationship with those who help "build a collection, not just move inventory."

"There is a misnomer that collectors are plunking down thousands of dollars all at once," explains Head of making big-ticket art purchases. "Most galleries understand they have to 'work with you,' the code phrase for payment plan."

So you can get started by first shaking the notion that art collecting is strictly for the uber-wealthy.


Yolanda & Greg Head

"THE PIECE WAS INSPIRING in that it spoke of perseverance, remaining hopeful, and always doing the right thing," says Greg Head of "Pieces of a Dream," by Kevin Cole (pictured here). The Heads purchased this work from the Atlanta-based artist in 1998 for $6,000, and they estimate its value has increased by as much as 75%. The Heads now have more than 100 works in their art collection.

"When collecting fine art, make sure that the art has intrinsic as well as extrinsic value," Greg says. "Additionally, once you've done your homework, buy the best piece of work that you can--those are usually the pieces that increase in value the most, if there is any increase in value."


Eric Hanks

"BLACK ART SPEAKS TO THE BLACK EXPERIENCE AND that is what sets it apart," says Eric Hanks, art instructor and owner of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California, which specializes in African American art ( "The work has to have meaning. Romare Bearden, for instance, references his childhood in Pittsburgh and staying with his grandparents in North Carolina in many of his pieces." According to Hanks, the early part of the 20th century and the latter part of the 19th century are the eras collectors and museums clamor for because those works fill historic and aesthetic gaps in many American art collections.

Hanks says the best way to develop your eye is to look at art wherever it may be--galleries, museums, private homes. As a result, your understanding will improve and your collection will reflect it.


Halina Taha

"AFRICAN AMERICANS ARE PRODUCING SOME of the most challenging and compelling art of our time," says appraiser and art adviser Halima Taha. "They combine a rich and diverse blend of aesthetic traditions--from Africa, the Caribbean, and America--which appeals to an integrated audience of collectors." She's pictured here with "Family #7," by Charles Alston, 1967, courtesy of the Kenkeleba Gallery.

Three tips to keep in mind when starting a collection: First, do your homework by reading about art and subscribing to periodicals such as The International Review of African American Art. Second, visit museums, galleries, the National Black Fine Art Show (February in NYC), and Embrace (July in Atlanta) to expose yourself to diverse styles, historical periods, and aesthetic techniques. Third, begin to focus and discover the types of art that interest you most, and ultimately narrow in on a medium or period of specialization by giving your collection a theme.


Elliot Perry

FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS, ELLIOT PERRY HAS focused on collecting the works of young and mid-career contemporary artists--such as Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Wangechi Mutu. Pictured here in front of "Joseph Barrell (Hanna Fitch)" by Wiley, Perry has amassed a collection that consists of 115 pieces across all mediums.

Perry began collecting when fellow former NBA player Darrell Walker introduced him to art.

What's next? "I'd love to own a major piece by David Hammons," Perry says, "because he pushes the idea of what art is, and he uses everyday materials to do it."

His best advice for new collectors? "Buy what you like--you have to live with it."
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Title Annotation:LIFESTYLES
Author:Drakes, Sean
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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