A clutch of sales at Sotheby's in London this autumn illustrate the possibilities. Works by David Hockney, Daumier, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Leger and Vuillard will all go under the hammer at guide prices less that of a second-hand small car. And all will still look just as good, and probably be worth thousands of pounds more, when the car is crushed into scrap metal in a few years' time.
A bit of demystification is called for. Auction houses are associated in most minds with spectaculars like the sale last June of Vincent van Gogh's Harvest in Provence drawing for pounds 8.8m. But their bread-and-butter business is in selling more modestly priced works of art to dealers and collectors. And behind the languid style of the lavish salerooms - walking into Sotheby's in New Bond Street is rather like entering an exclusive West End club - there is intense competition to attract new buyers.
Orla Coleman returned earlier this year from Sotheby's New York headquarters to become deputy director of 19th- and 20th-Century Paintings in London, specially charged with attracting new clients. Arch rivals Christie's has traditionally been the leader in the moderately priced picture market. Its South Kensington saleroom is reckoned more accessible - less daunting and located in an area replete with wealthy potential bidders.
The people everyone wants to attract are younger buyers with disposable income. First thoughts are big earners from the City, though, increasingly, new buyers are coming from the media and professions outside the temples of Mammon. The term "younger" is also flexible. Parents who find themselves newly rich after children leave university are another target group. "It is new money rather than old. Families that have grown up with money have also grown up with a collection of pictures on the walls they feel comfortable with," Ms Coleman says.
The trick is getting people to take the first step of visiting an auction house. Occasional buyers commonly use galleries that either specialise in a favourite period or style or are local and well-placed for an impulse purchase. Galleries also offer a reassuring "off-the-peg" certainty. You can dither over a picture for weeks and solicit opinions.
At auction, the price of a picture might well balloon above its catalogue estimate and beyond one's pocket. The instant gratification of a gallery purchase is exchanged for a bit of a gamble, with the risk of disappointment. But auctions, whether of works of art, cattle or second-hands cars, are addictive. The thrill of the chase can add a dinner-table story to that Chagall woodcut on the wall - or its galling absence. And it is generally cheaper. Though hardly unbiased, auctioneers reckon prices paid are between 20 and 30 per cent lower than gallery equivalents. There are viewing sessions before auctions when specialists are on hand and sale catalogues detail the provenance of each work.
Investment should be a secondary consideration. "First and foremost we always advise people to go for something that will really give them joy on their wall," Ms Coleman says. But the idea of an appreciating asset is a potent one, particularly among the new rich the auctioneers are aiming at.
Over the past 10 years, the Daily Telegraph Art 100 Index, monitoring the market in the "top" 100 artists, has risen from 4,800 to more than 6,200. (On the way, it rocketed to 12,000 in the boom years of 1989 and 1990.) By way of comparison, the Renault Clio three-door 1.4RT that Nicole (or her Dad) paid pounds 9,000 for five years ago would now be worth about pounds 3,000. A replacement would cost almost pounds 10,000. But if the old one is still running well, the same sum could prime an impressive little collection without any depreciation worries.
A good starting point would be Ms Coleman's 20th-Century British Art sale on 24 October. It features 230 works assembled over 17 years by Colin and Nicky Phipps, and latterly exhibited in conjunction with CCA Galleries in Dover Street, London. The collection includes highly decorative works by Camden Town Group artists Walter Sickert and Robert Bevan, and Terry Frost of the St Ives School at what Sotheby's describe as "affordable prices ranging from pounds 200 to pounds 8,000".
Dr and Mrs Phipps began dealing in Modern British paintings from their Arts and Crafts-style house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea in 1980, amassing a range of works by well-known names such as Sir Jacob Epstein, Ceri Richards and Edmund Dulac as well as relative unknowns. Among the latter group is Mary Fedden whose work in the collection spans more than half a century and is regarded by Ms Coleman as particularly collectable.
"She is an established artist in the Modern British field. With that - (Ms Coleman is pointing to a bright oil on masonite entitled Still Life with Teapot ) - you are collecting a living artist and the value is bound to increase." It is estimated at pounds 800 to pounds 1,200. Next to the teapot in the catalogue is an Epstein, White Flowers (pounds 500-pounds 700).
Bigger names - Picasso, Dali, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec among them - feature in the Impressionist and Modern Art sale on 22 October. To the Philistine the prices are again surprising. Last December, an oil by Edouard Vuillard realised pounds 1m. Yet this month brings a chance to buy a work by the same artist for no more than pounds 1,500. Pencil on paper, Portrait d'Homme au Binocle is only 5in by 3.5in, but a charming drawing by a major artist. Similarly, there is a pen and ink La Seine a Paris , by Fernand Leger, another artist whose work sells for millions, with a guide of up to pounds 4,000.
The Dali self-portrait is estimated at pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000. Executed in 1923, the brush and ink over pencil on paper, conveys the artist's finely cut face, long black hair and intense eyes. Picasso is represented by 80 of the ceramics he designed for limited edition production in the 1950s. Prices range from pounds 400 for some of the plates to a couple of Renault Clios for the highly decorative vases.
The Contemporary Art sale on 23 October offers a chance to own a Damien Hirst. Painted in 1995, Bendroflumethiazide is two circles of gloss household paint on canvas and signed and inscribed "Thanks Lisa, Love Damien" on the reverse. Just over 3ins by 7ins, it carries a tag of pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000. Lacking the sensational association but with perhaps greater artistry are works by the sculptor Lynn Chadwick, a set of maquettes (pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000) and two 9in cloaked figures (pounds 7,000-pounds 8,000 each).
The best known of Britain's sculptors, Henry Moore, features in a prints sale on 22 October. His images on batches of lithographs and etchings are unmistakable. Prices start at around pounds 600 to pounds 800.
Susan Harris, deputy director of the print department, is keen to clear up any misunderstanding about the word "prints". "These are original etchings, lithographs and engravings by the artists themselves. They are not reproductions." The sale is revealing of the prolific output of range of well-known artists; etchings by David Hockney from the Cavafy poems and by Joan Miro (up to pounds 1,500 in both cases), numerous lithographs and woodcuts by Marc Chagall (from pounds 800) and a rare unpublished lithograph by the French cartoonist Honore Daumier (pounds 1,000-pounds 1,200). Entitled Maniere Dont on Fait a Paris du Saucisson de Lyon, it was censored - the butchering of pet dogs for sausages being too near the mark for Parisian taste (Mocking politicians, Daumier's stock in trade, was fine.) Weirdly erotic heliogravures by Felicien Rops are are being sold in batches for between pounds 500 and pounds 1,500. The print sale also includes etchings by Picasso for under pounds 1,000.
Ms Harris is in no doubt about their collectability: "These are classic images by the greatest artist of the 20th century, and signed. In my opinion, you can't go wrong." Well she would say that, wouldn't she. But she is probably right. It would surely take a slump of frightening proportions to knock the bottom out of Picassos, or most of the other great artists whose whimsies figure in these autumn sales.
Details: 0171-493 8080 Clockwise from right: Felix Buhot etching, pounds 800; Felicien Rops set of etchings, pounds 1,200; Honore Daumier cartoon, pounds 1,000; Salvador Dali self-portrait, pounds 2,000; Edouard Vuillard, drawings, pounds 1,000