Expert eye: How to buy art

Story highlights

  • Art can be tricky because it's really about personal taste, buyer Tom Delavan said.
  • Framing doesn't have to cost a fortune -- do it yourself options give you control
  • Reproductions look at home in the company of similarly colored or sized pictures
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.
Real Simple: How did you develop your art expertise?
Tom Delavan: 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.
Real Simple: You're also a designer.
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Delavan: 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.
Real Simiple: Can you tell us why art is so tricky?
Delavan: Because it's truly about personal taste. It's more art than science.
Real Simple: What if you don't know what your taste is?
Delavan: 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.
Real Simple: Then what?
Delavan: 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.
Real Simple: Fill in the blank: Types of art that tend to look good at all price points include ________.
Delvaan: 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.
Real Simple: What sites do you like for affordable art?
Delavan: has some fantastic modern-art prints, and is great for fine-art prints. Gilt Home has nice reproductions of iconic art from McGaw Graphics and mixed-media work from artists like Parvez Taj.
Real Simple: What's the difference between posters and prints?
Delavan: Posters are reproductions that are unlimited in number; prints are often limited editions signed and numbered by the artist.
Real Simple: How do you make posters look their absolute best?
Delavan: Some have text on the bottom. If you cut that off before framing, they can look so much better.
Real Simple: Any rules of thumb on framing?
Delavan: Affordable art should have affordable frames. Affordable ornate frames are usually not good, so I would stick with simple, thin black or white frames. What you want to avoid is taking your $60 poster to a frame shop for a $300 frame.
Real Simple: But doesn't framing cost a fortune no matter what?
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Delavan: Check out You give them the size of your art, and they send you a frame that you put together. It's easy—I've done it. It looks almost like a custom frame.
Real Simple: Say that you want to fill the space above a sofa and you have a budget of $200.
Delavan: I would bring a family photo that doesn't look staged—something candid or abstract—to Staples and have it blown up to about 30 by 40 inches, then frame it. Black and white feels more artsy, so that's one way to make it cooler.
Real Simple: What if you have $500?
Delavan: Get three works by the same artist, frame them the same way, and hang them in a row.
Real Simple: How about a bigger budget, like $2,000?
Delavan: Look at local galleries. Prints and photos tend to be the least expensive options. Most places let you take things on approval. You may have to pay, but you can get a refund if the piece doesn't work.
Real Simple: How do you put together a wall of art?
Delavan: There should be some commonality, like a consistent color palette or size. If there isn't, frame all the art the same so that the look is unified. On the wall in my home office, I have reproductions of Robert Indiana's Love and Roy Lichtenstein's Ball of Twine 1963. It's charming to add a postcard, a calendar, or even kid art. Some of my favorite works are by four-year-old friends.Real Simple: Any secret sources that we might not think of?
Delavan: Museum shops. If you go to an exhibition and love it, see if there's a cool object or poster. Sometimes they're hokey, so don't pick the most iconic thing, like a reproduction of Michelangelo's David. Go for something less obvious, less recognizable.
Real Simple: Some people recommend shopping student shows at art schools. Any advice on this?
Delavan: I would focus on pieces that are conceptual or abstract—big swashes of paint or something really geometric—because students are just starting to develop their technical skills.
Real Simple: Bottom-line it for us.
Delavan: Art should make you happy. Sometimes people buy things to impress others, but you damn well better like the pieces on your wall when you come home. Good art collectors know to shop from the heart, and that applies at any price.