How To Shop At An Art Fair

As the season approaches for art fairs in London, we get some insider tips the best way to buy

During October, London is filled with art fairs, from Frieze London to Moniker. But these aren’t just for the super rich. We speak to the curators behind the fairs and find five ways to help you find an arty souvenir to take home.

A magnet for worldwide art dealers, Frieze London (14-17 Oct.) is now bigger than ever, transforming a corner of Regent’s Park into a feast of contemporary art. Now in its 12th year—and one year after the debut of the groundbreaking Frieze New York – this hugely influential fair displays works from carefully selected contemporary galleries from around the world. Such is its success that more art fairs have been springing up in the same month.

Art collectors, or anyone interested in picking up a piece for themselves, have an immense choice in the capital, but it’s not all about high-value pieces. The Affordable Art Fair (22-25 Oct.) inspires people to discover contemporary art without having to feel like they’re the next Charles Saatchi; there are pieces from just £40. Moniker Art Fair (15-18 Oct.) is an unconventional gathering of contemporary artists firmly embedded in urban culture. 

Faced with so much choice this month, what should first-time art buyers look out for, and how should they make a decision? Here are a few insider tips from those in the know. Happy hunting!

Moniker Art Fair, London, UK
Take a closer look... works on show at Moniker Art Fair (Courtesy Moniker)

1 – Ask Questions

It’s important to get as much information as possible (after all, you wouldn’t buy a holiday or a car without doing some research). And the art world is crammed with interesting, knowledgeable people. "Whether you’re at an art fair or private gallery, have a chat to the curator or gallery owner. You shouldn’t feel intimated—no question is a wrong question," advises Nicky Wheeler, the brand director at Affordable Art Fair.

Patrick Perrin, the curator of the art, design and decorative arts fair PAD London (14-18 Oct.), agrees: "Visit art fairs, galleries and museums—anything that will further your knowledge of art and will help define your taste."

Nicola Lees, the curator at Frieze Projects, also appreciates the quantity and quality that’s available in London: "I’ve always been inspired by the diversity as well as its vibrant nature. The city has spoilt me with a constant access to culture which I feel is so important, in terms of the major public institutions that are free and accessible to all." 

In addition to London’s major galleries, don’t forget the clusters of small commercial galleries; Cork Street in Mayfair has been the focal point of a thriving arts trade for decades and, more recently, Redchurch Street in Shoreditch is a gathering spot for young contemporary artists.

Affordable Art Fair, London, UK
Get more bang for your buck at the Affordable Art Fair. Shown is "Eating Ice Cream in Gelato Capital " (©Michelle Cobbin)

2 – Get to Know an Artist

It helps—and certainly makes the buying process more interesting—to get to know and follow the career of an artist, especially if they’re an up-and-coming name. Some fairs are perfectly suited for this; for example, The Other Art Fair (15-18 Oct.), offers visitors the opportunity to buy directly from unsigned, lesser-known artists. Its director Ryan Stanier adds: 'Do your homework on the artist and learn about their practice.' 

Another fair where you can get closer to the creator is Moniker, founded by "skateboarder turned art dealer" Frankie Shea. "We’re a small, unique operation and it all feels a little like family. With Moniker, we like to encourage people to support artists in their long-term careers. It’s great to attend shows and events by the artists you like and want to support. That’s also what helps make great artists’ careers accelerate."

The Other Art Fair, London, UK
Browse hundreds of works at The Other Art Fair (courtesy The Other Art Fair)

3 – Buy What You Can Afford

Go with a budget prepared and try to stick to that. To get the best bang for your buck, you’ll find that art and antique fairs represent good value—as do London’s neighbourhoods where a large volume of dealers gather; for example, Portobello Road or Grays Antiques Market. The Affordable Art Fair specialises in more accessibly priced art, its raison d’etre being to make it as easy as possible for first-time buyers. Nicky Wheeler suggests: "Ask also about payment installments; many galleries offer installment plans to make buying easier, and bear in mind that you could haggle—within reason!" 

4 – Buy What You Like

It sounds obvious, but it’s crucial to buy art that you’re happy to have on show. "Don’t start with the intention of collecting; start with the intention of appreciating items you really engage with, visually and emotionally, and those that will decorate your home so you can enjoy them every day," is the advice from Pippa Roberts, an expert with the Decorative Antiques And Textiles Fair (29 Sep-4 Oct.). And Ryan Stanier agrees that it’s not about the price tag. 'The most important thing is to buy if you like the work. That way if it doesn’t succeed as a "good investment" financially, at least you get to enjoy it.'

Decorative Art Fair, London, UK
Find inspiration for your home at the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair (Courtesy Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair)

5 – Size Isn't Everything!

If you’re buying to invest, don’t always think about finding the biggest piece – sometimes small is beautiful. 'If you have collecting in mind, always buy the best example you can afford. For example, a very good if very small painting will usually appreciate in value better than a large but unfinished sketch; the same can be said for a small work by a well-regarded artist rather than a large work by an unknown,' suggests Pippa Roberts. Artwork and antiques that are superbly made with great attention to detail, whatever the size, are more likely to be of value in the future.

Enjoy London's Art Tours

Get a taste of the National Gallery’s entire collection without eating into too much of your time with a free one-hour guided tour.

Join a Street Art London tour and discover who’s following in the footsteps of Banksy as you walk through east London, taking in the work of over 30 artists. £12-£15. 

Jump on a bicycle to see some of London’s most beautiful manmade creations in the Art & Design Cycle tour by Artouride. £28 (bike hire included). 

Gain fascinating insights into modern art in a free tour of Tate Modern’s extraordinary collections. Available daily at various times.

Enjoy The Line, London’s new dedicated walk with modern and contemporary sculptures, between Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and North Greenwich. 

The Line, London, UK
See Damien Hirst works and more contemporary works, on The Line. Shown is "Sensation" by Damien Hirst. (Courtesy The Line)

See more London Galleries here