How to Buy Art

Tom Delavan, an art buyer who specializes in fine contemporary art, also has an incredible knack for making affordable art look sophisticated. We asked him how to decorate the walls without robbing a bank.

Photo by Jody Rogac

How did you develop your art expertise?
After business school, I became intrigued by the art world and ended up at a training program at Sotheby’s, where I was later hired as a contemporary-art specialist. Then I helped found the Gramercy Art Fair, in New York City, which is now the Armory Show.

You’re also a designer. 
Yes. I was curating art for a client when he asked me to decorate his home. That led to work for the home-design magazine Domino. Now I’m the creative director of the shopping site Gilt Home.

Can you tell us why art is so tricky? 
Because it’s truly about personal taste. It’s more art than science.

What if you don’t know what your taste is? 
You can figure it out. Gather images of rooms you’re drawn to and take a look at the kind of art in them. Maybe it’s all watercolors—or black-and-white photos.

Then what? 
Think about your space. There shouldn’t be a disconnect between the decor and the art. If you have a glamorous room, for example, you don’t want flea-market art in beat-up frames. It would be better to go with something more polished, with a gold or silver frame.

Fill in the blank: Types of art that tend to look good at all price points include ________.
Black-and-white photography, graphic posters, small drawings, and sketches. Nice, large figurative paintings are hard to find at a low price, so maybe steer clear of those.