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The Dummies’ Guide to Buying your First Artwork

So you’re thinking about buying a piece of art.

Perhaps it’s your first, or perhaps you’ve never really thought about art outside of finding something decorative to hang on your walls.

Where does one start?

First off, ask yourself why you need or want a piece of art. If you’re buying for pure investment, the considerations at hand are quite different and you probably don’t need to continue reading this. However, for those of us who aren’t seasoned art collectors the aim is usually to acquire something that we like, that fits in with our décor (if we’re intending to hang a work up right away), that’s affordable, and if we’re lucky, is a good piece of art by an interesting artist.

We’re by no means massive collectors, but we’ve picked up a thing or two with our own personal purchases, in our art historical studies and in our roles as members of the art media. So, for this opinion piece, we’d like to share some of our tips with you on things to keep in mind if you’re attending the fairs and shows at Singapore Art Week, and you’re in the market for a work.

1) Know what you want to buy

Sounds like an obvious point to make, doesn’t it?

But it’s easy to get lost in the flurry and madness of art fairs, as things can get pretty overwhelming. So before you set out, have a good think about what you’d like to purchase and why. If it’s a painting for your living room, measure the exact dimensions of the space you’d like to fill out. If it’s a sculpture or installation you’d like to acquire, do the same. If you’re going to view the works in person, or at a fair, bring a measuring tape with you. 

Bring photos of your interiors with you or even your designer. All of these will help you to visualize and focus on the colours and images you’d like to see in the space you want to decorate. If you’re more of a techie, some of the augmented reality apps listed here might also be helpful.

Do make sure you think about the kinds of materials that would be suitable for display in your space, and ask gallerists about it. Is it a space that’s exposed to direct sunlight, or will it be constantly air-conditioned? Would the work survive well in such a space? Paper works, for example, are difficult to maintain in humid Singapore, but the problems can be mitigated with specialist framing.

2) Decide on a price point

The art market is famously opaque and in many ways resembles the financial markets without any regulation. If you’re looking to buy something in the hope that it will appreciate in value, then, simply put,  you need to do your homework and know people who know things. This can mean anything from reading up on academic texts, following auction and art market reports, talking to gallerists and experienced collectors and getting as much information on the artists and artwork as you can.

Frankly, this isn’t easy if you are new to the scene. Who do you talk to? Why would people share privileged information with you?

“Because I have money to spend,” you might say?

Well, here’s a bit of news – not all money in the art world is ranked equally. Gallerists routinely set aside works for collectors whom they would like to see their artists placed with. A work being included in a famous collector’s collection can do wonders for an artist’s reputation. Pricing in the art world is also notoriously difficult to pin down. Art is an impossible commodity to value objectively, and even similar-looking works can reasonably command different prices. Sizing could be different, or an artist may have gone on to accomplish new and different things during an intervening time period.

Our advice?

Pick a price point that you are inherently comfortable with – one that you are happy with and able to pay, just for the pleasure of looking at the art in your chosen space.

Make sure you also factor in the ancillary costs – will you need to pay for installation or framing? Specialist framing for paper works, for example, can sometimes cost more than the actual works. Will you need to pay for storage of the work if you can’t hang it immediately? Galleries can and do often arrange for free delivery and installation, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask. If you’re buying from overseas, make sure you ascertain if the price of the artwork includes all taxes and shipping costs, or if there will be extra charges. If it’s a big work, also think about how you’re going to dispose of, or recycle any shipping crate that it comes packaged in – these can be gigantic, unwieldy and impossible to dismantle or get rid of.

It’s also fine to bargain a little – just ask nicely.

Going on the last day of a fair or exhibition also opens up the possibility that sellers may be more willing to drop prices. But bear in mind that waiting till the end means taking the risk that better works will have been snapped up and that you lose the luxury of sleeping on it and coming back to view the potential purchase again before committing to it.

Where pricing is concerned, it’s also relevant to think about whether the work you like is a one-off or if there are multiple versions of it. Prints (photographic or otherwise) are a good example of works that come in several editions and it’s not unusual for pricing to differ depending on the edition of the print that you purchase. For some works, first editions are priced more highly, and for others, later editions are more expensive on the basis that demand for the work is high.

It is important to ask gallerists about their rationale behind the pricing and if any other prints of the image will be issued outside of what’s been indicated at the fair or exhibition- whether in a different size or otherwise. Sometimes you might see the label “AP” on the work, which refers to “Artist’s Proof.”  Traditionally, this would refer to the initial trial prints, created in order for the artist to work out colour and quality issues as the prints came out of the press. However, nowadays, “artist’s proofs” are often identical in quality to limited edition prints and are sold alongside them at a slight premium, due to the limited supply of prints with the “AP” designation.

3) So how can I tell if a work that I like is any good?

First of all, do you like it and can you afford it? There’s no point moving further unless the answers to both questions are a big fat yes.

If so, here are some other things you can look out for which might indicate that an artist is making a name for him or herself. These are all things that a good gallerist should be able to tell you if asked:

  • Have they won any awards or shown in any Biennales?
Detail from Filipino artist Mark Justinani’s The Settlement, 2016 – 2017, a work which is presently on display in the Bangkok Biennale, at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Justiniani has been selected to exhibit at the Philippines Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019 and has also recently presented his work at Mizuma Gallery. In 1994, he was granted the Thirteen Artists Award by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
  • Have their works been exhibited in any museums?
Yeo Shih Yun, Composition #2 Triptych with Turquoise Stripe, 2018. Yeo’s cerebral exhibition Diaries, Marking Time and Other Preoccupations, for example, is presently on show at the National University of Singapore Museum. (Image credit: Yeo Shih Yun).
  • Are their works included in any major private collections (whether personal or corporate), or the collections of any notable museums?
Vincent Leow is something of a national treasure, having produced such important works as Money Suit which is part of the National Gallery Singapore’s permanent collection. Vincent also has an exhibition presently on, with iPreciation Gallery, which showcases 25 works from 2007 to 2018, featuring paintings, mixed media and sculptural work. In this show, Leow considers the impermanence of life through the passage of time and explores the sentiment of losing something or someone. We particularly loved this 2012 oil painting called Big Bad Wolf.
  • Have they sold at any of the big auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s?
  • Have their works been written about in any academic texts, by art historical scholars or otherwise?
Artist Suzann Victor has been a key figure in the Singapore art scene since the late eighties. Her practice has been the subject of scholarly research, academic essays and analysis in art history books. Art historian Michelle Antoinette, in her book Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Southeast Asian Contemporary Art after 1990, discusses Victor’s seminal installation-performance work Still Waters, first performed at the Singapore Art Museum in 1998. The importance of this work, and Suzann Victor as an artist, is reflected in the fact that Still Waters has been selected as the theme for this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Suzann Victor, Immaculate Heart, 2018. (Image credit: Suzann Victor)
  • Has the media commented on their works or reviewed their shows?
When artist Priyageetha Dia created a golden staircase and hung some flags from a public housing block, the media (including us!) went a little nuts. It was a real moment in Singapore’s contemporary art scene, where absolutely everyone – whether art-trained or not- had an opinion on whether her work was artistic or nothing more than vandalism. Shortly thereafter, Art Porters Gallery mounted a show of her works, where re-created golden blankets were available for sale.
  • Have their works been acquired or commissioned by governments for any public art displays or projects? 
Artist Kayleigh Goh recently produced this commissioned work for Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Public Art Trust, as part of Placing Home: Woodlands a public art project that explores ideas of home and movement within the district of Woodlands. While this work was painted on the walls of a void deck, similar works were available for sale in a recent Gajah Gallery solo show. (Image credit: Kayleigh Goh)
  • Have the artists been in any sold-out commercial shows?
Laudi Abilama, LKY In Flowers IV, 2018. When Lebanese artist Abilama displayed her portraits of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in 2015, her show quickly sold-out, speaking to the deep resonance of this political figure with Singapore audiences. (Image credit: Laudi Abilama)

Value is honestly such a subjective thing.

You may well chance upon an interesting artist at the start of his or her career who’s achieved none of the above, or perhaps simply isn’t that famous – yet:

47 Minutes Later by artist Divaagar is a print of a 2013 work made of condoms, gardenias and sweat! It’s an arrangement of flowers, “suffocating; yet lingering in post-coital bliss,” where “they too, wither.” This work was shown at the LASALLE Show 2013, ICAS (Singapore), Delicado, Lollipop! Bar (Mexico City), and recently presented as editioned prints in the 2018 Annual Show of Coda Culture, Singapore, the edgy gallery helmed by the infamous Seelan Palay. We found Diva’s work to be provocative yet thoughtful and layered and he’s an intelligent young man that we’ll be watching closely. If you think he’s cool too, he’ll be appearing in a show organised by the group SIKAP, entitled “An Intimacy That Allies Us”, happening on 19 Jan. (Image credit: Divaagar)

While the list above is helpful, it’s certainly not exhaustive. So, here are some of the more esoteric things that we personally like to think about when considering whether an artwork is “good” to us.

  • Do we like the way it looks and the way it makes us feel?
  • Does the artwork “speak” to us – what is the artist trying to say and is this a message that we like, or care about? Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be put off by ‘artspeak,’ if any is thrown your way. If you don’t feel like you can understand an artwork, it’s simply not for you.
  • How much effort has the artist gone to in making the work? Has he or she thought deeply about the ideas behind the work, or has the artist used some innovative techniques in producing the works?
Chihiro Kabata, Words In Our Mind, C.Lim, 2018 – at first glance, the work appears to be made of broad ink brush strokes, but in reality, has been obsessively executed by hand, with a humble ballpoint pen! An incredible amount of effort goes into her pieces, which are informed and inspired by her feelings about books written by prominent Singapore writers. In this case, the writer is Catherine Lim, a well-loved and established Singapore writer whose incredible prose is as dramatic and nuanced as this work.  (Image credit: Chihiro Kabata)
  • Think about context – even if an artwork looks deceptively simple to produce (cue the standard “I could have made it myself” dismissal) – ask yourself what the artist is trying to do. Is the work a reaction against some kind of trend in the way the abstract expressionist movement was?

There’s no perfect formula for picking the perfect artwork, but the process is certainly something to be enjoyed. We hope these tips come in handy. Happy hunting!



This story has been produced in collaboration with INSTINC Gallery. Artists Chihiro Kabata, Yuuri Kabata, Laudi Abilama and Yeo Shih Yun were to have exhibited their works at the INSTINC booth at Art Stage 2019. In view of the last-minute cancellation of Art Stage 2019, we are helping INSTINC and the artists by posting a gallery of their works online here.

We are also very pleased to announce that they have now found a new home at  PLOT, 23 Teo Hong Road, S(088332). You are warmly invited to attend the following events:

Panel Discussion 3 – 4 pm, Saturday, 26 January 2019

Opening Party 7pm – 9 pm, Saturday, 26 January 2019

Dance performance by Chiharu Kuronuma (Japan) 8 pm, Saturday, 26 January 2019

Daily Opening Hours 12 pm – 8 pm, Saturday 26 January 2019 and Sunday, 27 January 2019.

P & U will be on hand to show you around and answer your questions about these very cool works!

A small selection of works by Yeo Shih Yun and Laudi Abilama are also available at Gajah Gallery, in its latest show, Monumenta. Read more about Gajah’s dramatic rescue efforts here.

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