Buying Art No Longer a Prerogative of the Rich and Famous

PARIS ~ Who said you need buckets of cash to be an art collector?

At a pair of contemporary art fairs currently taking place in Paris, not a single sketch, sculpture or oil is up for sale for more than 5,000 euros, or US$6,900.

“You don’t have to be a millionaire to buy art,” said Scotsman Will Ramsay, who a decade ago came up with a scheme to offer cutting edge art at cut-rate prices at Affordable Art Fairs – a concept catching on across the globe.

From a debut fair in London in 1999, there are now 10 AAFs in cities such as New York, Sydney and Amsterdam. Brussels held its first this year and Paris is holding its second, with 12,000 visitors expected to see works on offer from 80 galleries.

“The fact there’s a price ceiling makes people think ‘This is art I can buy,’” added Ramsay, who reckons AAF sales in 2008 topped 20 million euros.

“People,” said Corinne Menegaux, founder of the likeminded Art Shopping fair currently taking place at the Louvre, “are more and more interested in contemporary art.”

“They want to buy but don’t know how.”

That was exactly Ramsay’s experience when he pushed open the door to art galleries in his 20s but found “I just wasn’t helped as a customer.”

So he came up with the idea of affordable art fairs, “to help bring down the fear factor and convey accessibility, friendliness and approachability.”

“It’s opened the art world to many more people,” he said.

But art, particularly the abstract contemporary stuff, can be tantalisingly obscure to novices, so fairs such as these lay on conferences, classes and even art coaches to help the sell.

“Price can be a brake, but it’s not the only brake,” said art coach Frederic Elkaim, who heads a training division at Paris’ Drouot auction-house, Drouot Formation.

“We take people by the hand and try to help them overcome their complexes, to make them feel they’re capable of making their own judgements about a work,” he said.

First-time buyers, he said, were often concerned about whether they were making a good investment, whether the artist was on his way to be a new Picasso.

“We tell them we’re not prophets, that buying a work is about pleasure and taste, it’s an intimate choice. But that well-known artists all started off in fairs such as these,” Elkaim said.

“But we also give them background about the artist’s work, whether he’s closer to Pop-Art or Neorealism, tell them what books to read,” he said. “We are there to help clinch a first buy.”

Roughly half of the visitors to such fairs, according to AAF founder Ramsay, were regular art gallery visitors and buyers looking for new artists or inexpensive deals, while the other half were people coming onto the art market for the first time.

The global financial crisis has had little to no effect on the turnover of AAF fairs held this years, said both Ramsay and gallery-owners.

“Affordable is a buzz word for the moment,” Ramsay said.

“But people’s eyes are much more open to contemporary art. As consumerism develops, people are moving on from wanting the same things as everybody else to show financial success to more cultural sophistication.”

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