A Guide to Buying Art

One novice tells his story of learning to frame the perfect gift

“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.” – Frank Zappa 

Call me a patron of the arts. As a child, my bedroom was hung with the finest representations of baseball and hockey players torn from sports magazines. In high school, I showcased a collection of works from the record albums of Yes and the Grateful Dead. College domiciles featured revolving exhibitions of portrait photography (Marx Brothers, Three Stooges) and objets d’art (six-foot inflatable Seagram’s 7 bottle, rubber chicken, bong). My home is now a thoughtfully curated gallery of mixed media, most of which I thoughtfully inherited from my mother. Yet, despite this sublime provenance, it was only this spring that I bought my first painting. I’m a regular Rockefeller.

A few years ago, my wife, Kimberly, had clipped from this magazine a picture of the painting, a still life of a Westerwald urn filled with zinnias, her favorite flower. She vowed to buy it some day. Not then, of course, because who were we to buy a painting?       Rockefellers? But recently, she achieved a major goal, so I decided to get it for her as a gift. I contacted the artist, Keith Gunderson, a Kerhonkson-based painter and art teacher whose work hangs in galleries in the Hudson Valley and in Florida. He gave me his price. It was higher than I’d expected, because what the hell do I know about real art? I delicately asked Gunderson if he was willing to negotiate, fully expecting a torrent of artiste outrage at the very thought. “We can absolutely negotiate,” he said. “Let me know what you are comfortable with.” 

I had no idea what I was comfortable with. So, I called Gary Weitzman, owner of artforms, a high-end gallery and framer in Guilderland, and asked him how to know what original art is really worth. He admitted it’s pretty subjective. “It’s worth what you think it’s worth,” Gary told me, advice I found profoundly Zen, which is to say, useless. 

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What did I think this particular painting was worth? As a gift, it was worth a lot. Giving it to Kimberly would please her immensely, suitably mark the occasion and earn me valuable husband points. As for fair value? I wasn’t buying it as an investment, but I would still feel like a sap if I learned later that I had been hosed. The gift-worth, however, outweighed the sap-fear, so I pulled a price out of the air. Gunderson immediately accepted. I clearly bid too high. Sap. 

But when Gunderson and his wife, Janet, drove up to Albany to close the deal, at the Crossgates Mall Starbucks, my sap-fear vanished. The painting was stunning. The Gundersons and I chatted about art and the ineffable power it holds. Art is a conversation between the artist and the viewer, Keith said. Each brushstroke and palette knife cut is imbued with intention. An inanimate object conveys the artist’s energy and humanity, his life force. 

We also talked about business. I asked if he was insulted by my dickering; on the contrary, he felt it added another layer to our artistic conversation. “I like playing,” he said. “It makes it less…” “Commercial,” I finished. He nodded. 

So, bottom line: Who cares about the bottom line? Kimberly loves it. I earned valuable husband points. And, looking back at my progression from pictures of baseball and hockey players to a living, breathing, Rockefeller-worthy painting, I can see that, in the end, Gary was only half-right. Art is worth far more than I think it’s worth. •


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