The Art Collector’s Guide to London

Tate Britain © Tate Photography

Samuel Johnson famously said that, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” This too can be said of London’s thriving art scene, where the city’s artistic landscape offers unique finds to satisfy every taste and account.

With hundreds of museums, galleries, and fairs covering nine Metropolitan zones, London challenges the dyed-in-the-English-wool art collector and the would-be collecting enthusiast alike to navigate this charming and iconic city. And unlike other prevailing cities around the globe, London is singular in that entrance to all major museums and art galleries is free. Though there may be a fee for temporary or specialist exhibitions, but most permanent and general collections are open to the public free of charge.

Whether you travel by black taxi, red double decker bus, or blue oyster card for the Underground, in a city of 8.5 million people in 607 sq. mi., the only thing you won’t find enough of in London’s colorful art scene is time to see it all.

Preparation & Research

As with any major trip or urban expedition, planning is key to making the most of one’s time, particularly if you have a particular artist or style in mind to look for or purchase.

Described as the “UK’s leading magazine of contemporary visual art,” Artmonthly publishes extensive reviews of exhibitions, auctions, and in-depth features and has been called “essential reading every month for more than 30 years” by Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate art museums and galleries. There is also an impeccable London gallery map with clickable links to addresses and web links. For those needing a more tourist-friendly take on the city, look to VisitLondon’s Art and Exhibitions section for a comprehensive guide to all things art, from major museums and events, to smaller fairs and commercial galleries with searches including Media Art, Photography, Crafts and more.

Museums, Fairs & Galleries

Central London

The Tate Modern, one of four in the Tate museum family which houses a total of over 70,000 artworks combined, offers an incredible cross-section of international modern art from 1900 to the present. Turbine Hall at Tate Modern is of particular note – this massive 35,500 sq ft space lit by a glass roof has hosted some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artworks and is not to be missed. Additionally, the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts) celebrates its 70th anniversary this year as a longstanding champion of radical art that transcends generations.

The new Tate Modern © Hayes Davidson and Herzog & de Meuron

The Tate Modern’s sister museum, the Tate Britain, houses the Tate collection’s original focus: British art from 1500 to present day creatives. A particular Tate Britain gem is the BP Walk Through British Art, a chronological walking tour of 500 works featuring Francis Bacon, J.M.W. Turner, David Hockney, John Everett Millais, and Rachel Whiteread, among many others.

If, as Samuel Johnson would agree, London is at the epicenter of all of life’s most incredible performances, then The National Gallery is the star of the show. Ranked as the 11th most visited museum globally hosting nearly 6 million people, this collection boasts Hans von Aachen to Francisco de Zurbarán, with thousands more in between – from van Gogh to Titian to Rubens and back again. Whet your appetite for collecting as you nod to art’s greatest masters, myths and muses.

Samara Scott, The Sunday Painter, Focus section, Frieze London 2015.
Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze

With autumn right around the corner, this is the perfect time to set one’s sights on London for a collector’s dream destination. Three of the world’s most compelling art fairs – Frieze London, Frieze Masters, and 1:54 Contemporary African Art – will touch down in the heart of the city October 6-9, 2016. With so much to see over just a few short days and depending on your specific tastes, the three fairs offer something for everyone – and every portfolio.

Founded in 1991, Frieze is known as the “definitive resource for contemporary art and culture,” and Frieze London makes its home in gorgeous Regent’s Park along with Frieze Masters, showcasing ancient to modern art. Additionally, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair this year focuses on the work of over 110 African and African Diasporan artists and creatives working across all media and from 30 countries. Where the worldwide dialogue on contemporary African art is concerned, The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is a particularly influential.

From South, to West, to East London

For fans of Damien Hirst, the Newport Street Gallery presents Hirst’s work in solo and group shows that pair the artist with esteemed contemporaries. Rivington Place, the UK’s first permanent public space devoted specifically to diversity in the visual arts landscape, provides exhibitions that explore distinct cultural voices.

Touted as the “artists’ gallery for everyone,” Whitechapel Gallery has been at the forefront of modern masters’ premieres and their contemporaries for over a hundred years. For a new twist on careful curation, visit Chandelier Projects, who publish essays and other writing accompaniments to artists’ work, further deepening audiences’ connections and experiences.

Serpentine Gallery front door. © 2007 John Offenbach

The two galleries that comprise The Serpentine Galleries, the younger of which was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2013, present globally-respected and pioneering creatives across art, architecture and design. For the photography enthusiast, the Michael Hoppen Gallery is known for encouraging the maturation of budding photographers and highlighting eclectic points of view.

Jay Jopling’s White Cube is famous for curating Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Chuck Close, Gavin Turk, and other contemporary art heavyweights, is a force to be reckoned with on the London scene.

For the collector who wants their finger on the pulse of new names and new work, Studio Voltaire supports emerging artists, as many of their exhibitions are first solo representations of those “who deserve championing.” Their fundraising store makes limited edition prints, artworks, apparel, homeware and other unique items available for purchase with a view to encourage new collectors to begin or build their inventory.

For those who desire the in-person viewing and auction experience, Sotheby’s on Bond Street is not to be missed. Here one will find some of the world’s highest quality antiques and fine art, and a tour of upcoming lots provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Spink & Son also present an extensive array of paintings, coins and other objets d’art.

Pricing & Purchasing

Inside the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photography © James Medcraft

As mentioned in our Art Collector’s Guide to New York City, the art business is unregulated, which renders the valuing purchase of art complex. Fortunately, there are a host of options that will allow you to minimize the guesswork, and certainly before you depart with your Pounds Sterling. One helpful resource comes from a surprising source – the Victoria and Albert Museum website. This link outlines a host of up-to-date current and retrospective auction sale indexes, reference works for sales catalogues and provenance information, links to vetting stolen artworks, previews, reviews, and much more. Invaluable also provides detailed information on auction results and comparative hammer pricing to guide your final in-person purchases.

Framing & Display

What is said of real estate can be said of art – location is the key. Whatever your lighting quality is, one essential rule of hanging work is to avoid direct sunlight, which can cause colors to fade over time. The question of whether to frame is on the minds of many collectors, and the framing options are endless.

Inside Charles Daggett Gallery. Photo courtesy of Charles Daggett

Plan to spend time speaking with your framer as to what they suggest will compliment your piece, particular decorative tastes, and color palettes. For framing and display services in London, we recommend Arnold Wiggins & Sons, Charles Daggett Gallery, and John Jones.

Hiring an Expert

If you’re in the market to scale your collection, or you would prefer the assurances of an expert in the field, bringing in an art professional with a solid background will offer you the confidence to know your purchase is a sound one. Though an up-front cost is necessary, the long-term value and assurance of your piece and provenance will ensure your collection is a healthy and thriving one.

One such consultancy, FreemanArt, services not only London but the whole of the UK. With over 39 years’ experience of art authentication and valuation, FreemanArt’s team offers a host of services including pre-purchase art advisory, art investment, and Fine Art acquisitions consultancy. Art Experts also offers global services with senior specialists who travel frequently to perform examinations of artwork, and appointments can be scheduled online. They offer a battery of tests for authentication, provenance, attribution and technical analysis.