This article was originally published in October 2018.
The returns on most investments are purely financial. But some investments have other rewards. Buying art, for instance, offers the chance not only to anticipate what is going to do well, but to exercise your taste, look for something you appreciate, and enjoy it for as long as you like before selling it – if others appreciate it too – at a profit. The poet Stephen Spender and his wife Natasha often bought pictures, and since they moved in creative circles and counted the sculptor Henry Moore and the artist John Piper among their friends, some of the pieces they acquired became very valuable. Occasionally they would sell one because they needed money, but they would devote part of the proceeds to buying from promising younger artist-friends such as David Hockney.
Collecting is not only fun but an education. All collectors make mistakes, especially early on, but things you find you don’t want can be sold, and you soon learn that the ones you regret–perhaps for the rest of your life–are the ones that you didn’t buy. As a book dealer once advised me, “Only buy the things you can’t afford.”
The more expert you become, the more discriminating you will be, and the greater the chance that you will buy well, because you know something or can see qualities that the vendor does not. You may recognise a maker’s mark on a piece of furniture or a potter’s characteristic use of colour; you may decipher a signature in a book and understand why its provenance is important; or you may know how exceptionally rare a particular Dinky toy is, because it was one of the earliest. There is an expertise that can only be acquired from the experience of handling many objects, discovering their history, how they were made and what they tell us about their own period. At a sale viewing once, a friend of mine found a tiny piece of paper inside a harpsichord which turned out to be the invoice from a very famous maker. Sotheby’s hadn’t noticed. He tucked it back and was very pleased with his purchase.