If you’re new to auctions and unsure where to start, don’t be daunted. Art historian Elizabeth Pergam, who teaches on the Sotheby’s Institute of Art Master’s programs in Art Business and Fine and Decorative Art and Design in New York, shares some advice for auction first-timers on what to look out for when buying a work of art and how to begin building your private art collection from scratch.

I always ask very established collectors, what was the first thing they bought and do they still have it. Most of them do. Art is an investment but, given that this sale is your entrée into collecting, your real reason to buy a work has to be that you love it and want to live with it.

The first thing to do is see what catches your eye. Listen to your instinct. Ideally you would see the work of art in person, but you can do this online as well. Once you’ve identified an image you’re interested in, then ask yourself, why that one? Look at it in comparison to something similar and identify why you find it more appealing. Say you’re drawn to a landscape – is that because it’s a snowy landscape or because it has figures in it? Once you have that instinctive response, you need to deconstruct it a little more to see why you’re attracted to that work.

Find out as much as you can about the artist who made the work. Take a look at auction result databases such as Artnet or Artprice. You can go to a library like the Frick Art Reference Library in New York that has a subscription, if you don’t yourself. Do your research thoroughly. Check whether these works come up at auction regularly and what prices you should expect. Most estimates are based on past auction records so when artists have a much shorter auction record the cataloguers have a slightly harder time. That always represents an opportunity.

As you accumulate art objects, you learn distinctions between them. The benefit of being a private collector is that even if you have a theme – say you’re a collector of 18th century French drawing – you aren’t confined to that. It might be where the emphasis is but it’s not like you’re answering to a board of trustees at a museum, you are an individual. Be open to letting your tastes develop and change. Collections evolve over time.

About Sotheby’s Institute of Art

Sotheby’s Institute of Art is The Graduate School of Art and its Markets. Evolving from a small connoisseurship program started by Sotheby’s Auction House in 1969, Sotheby’s Institute is now the foremost leader in art business education and object-based learning. Its global faculty represent the best of almost every facet of the art world, helping students decipher and master the unique forces at play at the intersection of art and commerce.

With campuses in the cultural capitals of London, New York and Los Angeles, Sotheby’s Institute offers graduate level programs that have become more relevant than ever in an art world that is constantly seeking individuals with art historical scholarship and business acumen. Besides Master’s degrees, Sotheby’s Institute offers programs of study such as summer classes, 15-week semester courses, online learning and executive education. Sotheby’s Institute of Art’s programs provide the knowledge and credentials needed to achieve success in today’s worldwide art markets and cultural institutions.