Starting an art collection can be tricky. Just ask Marc Schwartz.
For a graduation present in 1977, Schwartz's parents took him to a gallery to pick out what he liked. Schwartz chose a piece by Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon. Then the FBI called.
"I had inadvertently bought a forgery," says the Birmingham resident, still amused 35 years later. A printer in Paris was counterfeiting lithographs by well-known artists. "The FBI needed the piece. They were working with Interpol and wanted it for evidence."
Schwartz never got his fake back. His experience, of course, was a fluke, one that in retrospect might even be worth the money lost just for the excellent story.
Happily, most collectors probably won't run into forgeries. But starting a collection — whether art, antique furniture or paperweights — can be daunting for the novice. Here's the good news: You don't need a degree in art history to start collecting. All you need is curiosity, time and a little common sense.
Schwartz advises finding a mentor. "I've been collecting for 30 years," he says, "and I never make a purchase without asking a person smarter and more knowledgeable than me first."
How do you find a good advisor? Much the same way you'd hunt for a doctor, he suggests: "Look for credentials."
At Wasserman Projects gallery in Birmingham, Darlene Carroll says, "Ask around. Reputations are often well known in a community."
She advises chatting up people in galleries. Or, if you have friends who collect, touch base with them as well. Once you've settled on a potential advisor, don't be afraid to ask for a resume to check out education and work history.
Another outstanding resource for the beginner is DuMouchelle Galleries in Detroit, one of the Midwest's premier auction houses.
"Go to auction previews and talk to the people running them," says Vice President Ernest DuMouchelle, referring to the preview days leading up to weekend auctions when you can check out what will be put on the block. "Dealers in small shops or auction houses are usually very willing to help."
Find what excites you
"You have to find something you're passionate about," says Schwartz, who now owns a collection of several hundred works on paper, mostly pop-art lithographs. "Let your eye guide you."
DuMouchelle suggests trying to narrow your focus.
"You have to figure out which direction you're going in," he says. "What's your purpose in collecting? To make your home look nice? Or is it just that you like American Indian artifacts?"
In truth, either impulse is a perfectly legitimate reason to collect. Remember — you're the one you're trying to please. As Carroll notes, the real point of all this is to surround yourself with art you love.
"At the end of the day, the art should play a role in your life," she says.
And don't be afraid of your own likes and dislikes. Southfield collector Skip Davis is something of an omnivore, collecting everything from Art Nouveau antiques to industrial artifacts. He's also bought more than 800 vintage paint-by-number paintings, some of which were never even finished.
"I like them because they look abstract and odd," he says, "and raise the question, 'Why wasn't this finished?'"
Start dropping by those places where you can both look and buy — galleries, auctions and estate sales. You may not find your heart's desire, but browsing can give you a sharper sense of what's out there and what it costs.
"I would suggest getting your feet wet by attending auctions, estate sales and gallery showings to get an idea what art and antiques are available," says DuMouchelle. "If you see a painting in a gallery for $5,000 and then see the same artist with a comparable painting on auction for $2,000, maybe this could be a good buy." (That assumes, of course, that the piece on auction doesn't get a bid for far beyond the initial asking price.)
None of this has to cost you a dime. Galleries, auction houses and home sales are all free, with no obligation to buy.
"I can't tell you how many people have called to ask if we have an admission price," says Carroll, "which I think is very sweet."
Pick your price point
Figure out what you can afford before reaching for that credit card.
"I would advise people to go cautiously," Schwartz says. "Make your first purchases minor ones. Live with them. See how they feel."
Most everyone discourages buying art or other collectibles as investments. As Schwartz put it, buying's easy. Selling can be hard.
For Davis, "Rule No. 1 is never buy with a profit motive in mind," he says. "You can't buy thinking art will be an investment. If it doesn't increase in value, then you end up resenting it."
For those who don't have fat purses, Carroll recommends looking to nonprofit galleries like the Detroit Artists Market, Scarab Club or the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.
"And there are annual graduate-degree shows at the College for Creative Studies, Wayne State and Cranbrook."
Auctions sometimes offer a chance to get something at below-market prices, but that can be hard to predict.
"At our last auction, we had a Chinese vase that started off priced at $500 and sold for $55,000," DuMouchelle says. "But that's an unusual item."
Get your feet wet
"You don't have to be a crazed art lover" to start collecting, says Davis. "You can acquire slowly and enjoy what you buy."
Nor should you be hobbled by the fear you'll regret your purchase.
"I've acquired very few things I wasn't happy with," he says. Davis admits he's been given a few honkers; but fine irony, he established a "Museum of Bad Art" in one corner of his artifact-jammed house.
Happily, Detroit in 2013 might be a particularly auspicious time to start that art collection you've always dreamed of, what with Detroit's new artsy reputation and a considerable influx of artists.
"People ask where to find affordable art, and I say Detroit. And the quality is often superb." If you're nervous about diving in, Davis recommends hitting galleries and auctions with a friend. "That way you can turn to them and say, 'What do you think?'"
Still, Schwartz offers a gentle caution for those who really get the bug.
"You're going to run out of space," he says. "I have a 1,400-square-foot house, but know others who have warehouses. It doesn't matter how much space you have. You will run out."
Where to start
Bargains can often be had at auctions or at nonprofit galleries. For auctions, visit Detroit's DuMouchelle Galleries (313-963-6255). Nonprofit galleries include Detroit Artists Market (313-832-8540), Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center (248-644-0866), Grosse Pointe Art Center (313 821-1848), Rochester's Paint Creek Center for the Arts (248-651-4110), Mt. Clemens' Anton Art Center (586-469-8666) and Ann Arbor Art Center (734-994-8004).
For emerging artists, visit Detroit's Red Bull House of Art (313-638-2971), 4371 Gallery (313-355-3273) or the art shows every Wednesday night at Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works (313-832-2700).
Commercial galleries often sell both local and national artists. Try Ferndale's Susanne Hilberry Gallery (248-541-4700), Birmingham's Wasserman Projects (248-220-4628), River's Edge Gallery in Wyandotte (734-246-9880) or Detroit's N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art (313-831-8700), which specializes in work by African-American artists.