May 29

I Want To Buy One Expensive Piece of Art. How Do I Choose What to Buy?

I love art and visiting art galleries, and I finally have enough money saved that I’m able to move beyond prints and invest in an actual piece of artwork. How do I decide whether or not that investment is “worth it” in terms of my happiness levels?

— Art Isn’t Free



Dear Art Isn’t Free,


As anyone who’s ever looked at a piece of modern art that’s worth a fortune and declared that they — or a four-year-old — could produce the same masterpiece knows, art is truly in the eye of the beholder. That’s why I’m glad you’re asking about how the art purchase will affect your happiness levels instead of your wealth. Even though a piece of art can be a pricey investment, it may be a good idea to focus less on what you think the piece might be worth, and more on how owning the piece will make you feel.



Ask yourself: Why do you want this?

I’m not saying don’t get the artwork. What I am saying is that it’s worth it to delve into why you want to buy art–because those reasons may be satisfied by experiences other than an expensive purchase. Uncovering these motives can help you enjoy all the interactions you have with the art world, whether or not they result in a sale.


That’s because research shows that acquiring the things we want doesn’t necessarily increase happiness levels by as much as we assume it will. Even in the case of major purchases like homes, experiences trump purchases, and knowing the experience you’re craving can help you assess how the painting you buy fits into your overall art appreciation.


So think about what buying a painting represents to you. Maybe it’s emblematic of all the time you’ve spent gallery hopping on weekends. Maybe it’s representative of the hard work it’s taken you to get to the level where you can afford to purchase a piece of art. Or maybe you want a piece because it would elevate you to the “collector” level, which could connect you further to the art community. It could be a combination of those reasons, or it could be an entirely different one.


Whatever your motivation, this perspective shift can help you focus on how the act of buying art might make you feel, rather than which piece of art to choose. You may decide to hold off on buying a piece or choose to spend less on a physical work of art so you can use some of the money you’ve set aside to travel to galleries or find other ways to feed your art habit.



Think about the intangible benefits of the purchase

Yes, you’re investing money. But you’re also “investing” your time and passion. With this in mind, it may make sense to get to know other art collectors as well as artists and galleries you’re thinking of buying from. Ask their opinions. Hear the stories behind the artists’ works. When you buy the art, you’re not only buying the piece itself, you’re also “buying” the entire experience of becoming a collector.


Thinking this way can help you think — pun intended — big picture about how the piece plays into your overall goals. Maybe it connects you deeper to a gallery or an artist. But it also may be that it’s the hunting itself that inspires you. If so, it may make sense to use the budget you’ve made for the painting and spend the majority of it on a trip to a gallery or museum in another town or city, focusing more on the experience of chasing art rather than simply putting a piece of it on your wall.



Beware the “rubber frog” trap

One example we share a lot in explaining our lab findings is how kids at an arcade will do anything it takes to win tickets for prizes — even forgoing the more fun games in favor of the ones that spit out the most tickets. But then what do they get with the tickets? A rubber frog or equally cheap toy that will then likely become forgotten in the backseat of the car.


I’m not saying the art you want to buy is a rubber frog. But I do think it’s worth considering just how much pleasure you get out of the thrill of finding that perfect piece. After a while, you’ll become accustomed to even the most beautiful piece of art — and may get the same amount of pleasure looking at the “statement” piece as you would from a much less expensive print.


With that in mind, why buy just one “big” piece? Purchasing multiple prints or smaller pieces could give you the same thrill of the hunt, over and over again, which can continue to give you that happy buzz that buying art brings you.



Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write to her at and check back every Wednesday for her next column.



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