Art buyers


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I was wondering just who buys all the art. I came up with a few possible demographics. Then it occurred to me that I should ask my favourite guru — you.”


“The Four Cyclists” 1944
oil painting by
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
First major work bought by Madonna in 1987.

Thanks for the elevation… These days there are five main types of art buyer. Some are a combination of more than one type. While it’s not something that you must make a study of, it’s often useful to recognize these birds when you see them in the field. Also, it’s good to know that they have habitats — some dealers attract or generate one type and not another. This can be a factor in a gallery’s and hence an artist’s success. The main types are collector, investor, decorator, believer and moneyburner.

“The collector” — perhaps the most precious — is hot-wired for art. He has art in his homes, offices, yachts and closets. While he can sometimes be “sold” things, he loves a chase and a sense of discovery. He may be compulsive, even addicted — it’s in his blood.


“Self-portrait with Monkey” 1938
oil painting by
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Madonna’s private collection

“The investor” looks at art and sees money. He tries to buy low and sell high. He uses terms like “important” and “flip.” He knows about taxes and regularly asks about values “for insurance purposes.”

“The decorator” needs something — often anything — to fill a space. Framing is important, as is colour. “Neutral subject matter” often fills the bill. He brings fabric swatches and may travel with a co-conspirator. “Trend” is big in his vocabulary — whether his inclination be period, retro, contemporary or kitsch.

“The believer” is the most innocent art buyer. He may be new to the game and feels the magic of it all — often sharing his excitement with an equally smitten partner. Art really speaks to them — they have a profound admiration and respect for creators.


“Nana de Herrera”
1928-9 oil on canvas
by Tamara de Lempicka
Madonna collection

“The moneyburner” has the dough and likes to get rid of it. He expects art to be expensive and reminds his friends of the figures. Because he “doesn’t have the time,” he’s often a dilettante. He exercises his whims, but often asks the advice of those who are ready and willing to give it.

Best regards,


PS: “To love a painting is to feel that its presence is not an object but a voice.” (André Malraux)

Esoterica: Among all of the art-buying types you’ll find the entry level, the mid-stream, and the seasoned — and some more mature than others. Incidentally, openly naming them in public is a mistake — while they’re all nice birds, they tend to think that they’re another type than what they are. You don’t want to ruffle their feathers. Just identify them and let them be.

This letter was originally published as “Art buyers” on December 10, 2004.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I’m attracted to artists like Frida Kahlo, because her work was her life, her questions, her outrage, her suffering, her pain. Everything is in her work.” (Madonna)




  1. For you art buyers and artists out there, read this letter from the Robert Genn file. A piece of truth for ya’ll. Enjoy.
    It would be fun to have your opinion as well. Gail

    • So true. Some buyers found me online, some bought it off the wall at an exhibit, but most are people I know. There is no higher compliment to one’s art than a purchase that will be enjoyed every day.

  2. I would add one more bird to the list, those who commission art. These birds want mostly portraits of something or someone: them, their kids, their family’s home place, their pets, etc. I’ve sold at least half of the paintings I’ve done on commission. These folks may buy only this one piece of art their whole life but they treasure it and pass it on to the next generation.

  3. I am an artist who has money to purchase art and support my local community of artists. I am fully aware that my heirs may toss it all out but I get to enjoy it while I’m inhabiting the planet. I spend from $1500 to $6000 on pieces. Not sure where I fit into your equation.

    • If you like paintings, I have over three hundred of my mother’s (Sally Pollard), that need to find a loving home. (I can’t display them all even if I wanted to.)
      So there is the flip side to this story, collectors and those who are trying to find the proper home for the art.
      -Robert Johnston

  4. I have sold to each of these types of birds, and it is such a pleasure to know they love and appreciate the work itself, the story behind it, and my inspiration.

    • I am in a Coop Gallery here in Olympia. I have traveled coast to coast with husband in the Navy and joined Coop Galleries and we volunteer and the dues we pay are for the rental of the Gallery.
      We are in a mini Mall associated with the large Mall across the parking lot. I have been painting
      for 55 years or there about and find Bird paintings sell. I have found local scenes.
      The State Capitol, water areas, parks etc. Lately Latte little houses for drive by and pick up coffee. They are painted colorful and see note cards to sell of the ones in the area. People love their dog or cat painting.. Also, join the Sketchers group, or Spring to fall Paint Outs Jane King

  5. Krunoslav Stifter on

    I would like to add a quote to the discussion about reasons behind people collecting art according to a book I read. But I agree with the quote. :)


    1. A genuine Love of Art – self explanatory.
    2. Investment Possibility – same as real estate, or stocks.
    3. Social Promise – Picasso on wall as symbol or power and taste, social class and acceptance.

    “A collector has one of three motives for collecting: a genuine love of art, the investment possibilities, or its social promise.

    I have never known a collector who was not stimulated by one these motives or all three. For the full joy and reward the dominant motivation must be the love of art but I would question the integrity of any collector who denies an interest in the valuation the market puts on his pictures. The social aspect is another never-ending regard. From Rome to Tokyo, our interest has brought unexpected and unbelievable experiences, and friends as full of vitality, imagination and warmth as the art they collect.”

    – Emily Tremaine: Her Own Thoughts” in Wadsworth Atheneum, The Tremaine Collection: 20th-Century Masters: The Spirit of Modernism (Hartford, CT: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1984) 25.

  6. Knowing and appreciating the motives of your collectors is so important. They are different in their intent and desires and the fact that all of these different archetypes are considering the same object is fascinating. You have to maintain respect for each and everyone of them as well as for the work you created.

  7. Gabriella Morrison on

    Well, one thing is for sure – when your time is done on this mortal coil, you cannot take your amassments and collections with you. So you might as well have art around you that gives you psychic and pleasurable sustenance while you are here. Love the art, in all its expressive potential – never mind what social signifier it possesses. It is all just stuff.

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Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.

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