Art by (rising) numbers: Britons turn avid collectors

By cutting prices for their works and making more art accessible, exhibitors and artists are enjoying a renaissance in art-buying by the general public, rather than just the rich, writes Louise Jury
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A decade ago, the closest most people got to investing in art was splashing out on an Athena poster of their favourite impressionist masterpiece.

A decade ago, the closest most people got to investing in art was splashing out on an Athena poster of their favourite impressionist masterpiece.

But now the public is demanding the real thing and is investing in affordable, original art in increasing numbers.

Not only are galleries being forced to abandon any stuffy approach to art purchases but would-be customers are being offered interest-free loans and complimentary advice with tips on buying.

The Frieze fair in October sold more than £25m worth of art in just four days. The annual London Art Fair, which begins next Wednesday, has seen purchases soar from £8m to £12m in the past three years.

Collect, a six-day international fair for the applied arts, is running until Monday at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Last year, it sold £1m of contemporary jewellery, glass, silver, textiles and ceramics.

And that is without mentioning the Affordable Art Fair, next month's Art on Paper Fair and a clutch of events in cities such as Birmingham and Glasgow.

Lucy McNeill, director of the London Art Fair, which will present work from about 100 different galleries at the Business Design Centre in Islington, thinks it no coincidence that a big increase in sales occurred alongside the explosion of interest in art sparked by the opening of Tate Modern and free admission to other national museums.

"I think people are wanting to enhance their lives," she said. "I think people no longer want to be stereotypes of one another. And art is the most fantastic way of expressing your individuality."

Karen Turner, acting director of the Crafts Council which organises Collect, agreed. "People are understanding the difference between what you can buy that is mass-produced or low quality on the high street and something that is quality and unique and will stand the test of time. People don't think twice about spending £500 at Collect," she said.

Research carried out for an Arts Council report, Taste Buds, last year showed 27 per cent of those questioned would consider buying original art - suggesting a potential market of nearly 11 million across the country. And 11 per cent had already bought something by a living artist. The Arts Council has responded by launching Art Own, an interest-free loan scheme making it easier for people to buy at 250 galleries around the country.

Instead of being the preserve of the fabulously wealthy, art-buying appears to have woken up to the 21st century.

Lucy McNeill believes many of the private galleries have become less stuffy as a response both to the growing interest and a greater sophistication from the public. And artists have responded to the public enthusiasm by producing more good quality prints in limited editions that are ideal for novice buyers. The cheapest work at the London Art Fair is £100.

Galleries such as the Whitechapel in London have even used their working relationships with artists to produce their own range of prints. Forthcoming editions include works by Anish Kapoor, Luc Tuymans and Alex Katz. The Serpentine has produced similar works to raise funds in the past.

Yet there is an acknowledgement that some people are still worried about taking the plunge. So the London Art Fair, with the Whitechapel Gallery, will offer visitors to the fair the chance of a short one-to-consultation with an art expert.

The sessions, entitled On The Couch: Collecting Confidence, will be aimed at answering those fears, whether they are about art as an investment, issues of taste, or how to balance the two. And experts will be on hand during the fair to offer advice on where to go, who to talk and what to read if you want to start collecting contemporary art.

Eliza Patten, of a new not-for-profit gallery, the Parasol Unit in London, said she would be advising people on her couch to enjoy art and the art world, rather than stressing the potential value. Adam Cohen, who works for the Gagosian gallery, said getting out and visiting galleries and art college shows was the important thing.

Of course, there are those, including corporate investors, for whom investing in art is a serious financial business. Lord Gowrie, the former chairman of Sotheby's and the Arts Council, is chairman of the Fine Art Fund which invests in art for clients who make a minimum £80,000 stake. Making money out of your art was not necessarily easy, he said. And he had two main pieces of advice. Always insure your works. And make sure that they are not the only asset you have, because they are not instantly liquid.