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updated 1/29/2008 9:02:39 PM ET 2008-01-30T02:02:39

For months now I have been hunting for a piece of art to fill a blank wall above my couch. I want something that inspires me and fits in with the rest of my decor, which largely consists of framed photographs of my children and their artwork.

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But recently, I've also been thinking about purchasing an investment piece, something that will appreciate in value over the years. And while I know a lot about investing in the stock market, my knowledge of the art and antiques investment world is limited to what I've learned watching “Antiques Roadshow.”

So when experts from across the world flooded New York City for the Winter Antiques Show, I decided to take advantage. I talked to two exhibitors — Daniel Morris, co-owner of Historical Design in New York, and Alan Granby, owner of Hyland Granby Antiques on Cape Cod — about how someone like me can get started in this business of collecting. Here's what they said:

Educate yourself
Start by visiting museums in your area, says Granby. “Regardless of what your budget is, the first thing to do is expose yourself to a lot of different things. That way you get a sense of what you like, and then you can start studying up on it.”

When you've exhausted the museum circuit, hit shows, galleries, auctions and the Web to continue your research. There are also a ton of books available at your local library on every period and style, from Art Deco to Impressionism to Pop. The goal is to learn how to compare similar artists and pieces, so you can pinpoint what's good, better and best for your own collection.

Cater to your own taste
Think about it: Even if you plan to eventually sell the piece, you have to live with it in the meantime, so it's important to find your style before plunking down any money.

“Try to find something that inspires you, that recalls something you liked in your childhood or something that you're currently interested in. There is such a wide range of material available, so you have to find what moves you,” says Morris. While it's true that both art and antiques have historically gone up in value, there's always a chance that the piece you choose will fall flat. At the very least, you and your family can get some enjoyment out of it.

Use a reputable dealer
One common denominator throughout collecting is quality and condition. If you have an amateur eye, you need to rely on someone you trust to point you in the right direction, and a good dealer will be more than happy to guide you.

“It's just like the stock market in that blue-chip stocks sell for more because they're secure and dependable. If you buy a fine example of an important artist's work in fine condition, you've got a blue chip,” says Granby. Picking up the piece from a renowned dealer only sharpens your chip, because you'll then have his seal of approval when it comes time to sell. He'll also stand behind the piece, an assurance you might not get from an auction house, which will often put strict limits on returns or even require bidders to buy as is. A substantial dealer will honor your purchase forever. So how do you find one? A good place to start is an antique or art show, or by asking more seasoned collectors for their recommendations.

Look in your very own attic
We've all heard the stories of people selling a random painting or table at a yard sale for pennies, only to find out later that it was really worth thousands, or even millions. It's painful. So if you have something that was passed down from your uncle's cousin or your great-aunt, do a little research before carting it off to Good Will, even if it looks worthless.

“One of the great tools that we now have at our fingertips is the computer, and search engines. If you see a name on a painting or on the bottom of a vase, Google it. It's amazing the kind of things you can find if you have any information attached to the piece,” advises Morris.

If nothing turns up, don't be afraid to contact a dealer in your area for guidance. “I must get at least 10 e-mails a day from people all over the world because they've seen things on our Web site that are similar to things that they own. I always take time to get back to them,” says Granby.

Know how to sell
There's no hard-and-fast rule for when to sell a particular piece, and, of course, appreciation rates vary across the board. One idea is to unload something when you're simply sick of having it around. You want to turn a dime, so it's important that the price is right. In general, dealers don't like to make an offer — they'd rather you quote a price upfront.

There's a precedent for nearly everything, says Granby, so do some research on similar pieces and what they've sold for, then consider the quality and condition of what you have. Once you have an asking price in mind, find dealers who specialize in similar areas, or head to a local auction.

Finally, one other option that people tend to overlook is making a trade. If you plan to continue collecting, but simply want to upgrade a piece, ask around. A dealer may very well be willing to barter.

With reporting by Arielle McGowen.


Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show and is also a columnist for “Life” magazine. She is the author of four books, including “Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com.

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