The art of buying gifts

PUBLISHED: 16:21 22 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:23 20 February 2013

A John Speede map of Shropshire.

A John Speede map of Shropshire.

Forget the socks and vouchers, a painting for Christmas is an enduring present.

You will not need to be reminded that Christmas is here again. 'Tis the season to be jolly and to ponder what to buy our friends and loved ones. What about a music player for Uncle Bill? Would he get to grips with the technology? Does he ever listen to music....? It's very difficult to please all of the people all of the time but especially so at Christmas!

Before admitting defeat and splashing out on socks and gift vouchers yet again there may be an alternative - what about a painting? Every home, no matter how minimalist and sparsely furnished, has at least one picture hanging on the walls. With a bit of thought a picture can be a perfect gift and will provide pleasure for years.
Buying art need not be expensive. Halls' next collective sale on December 12 will include over 100 lots of pictures and prints ranging in price from £50 to £500, which should suit everyone's budget. Presented with such a wide range, what should one look for?

There are ways to narrow down the search. Make a decision before the auction on exactly how much you are willing to spend. Estimates are provided in the catalogue to help the buyer's budget. It is very easy to get swept along in the excitement of bidding and end up regretting it.
Pre-planning is advisable too. Just because you may like a vivid abstract work doesn't mean that your elderly aunt will too and, let's face it, you will never convince her to the contrary! A heated debate over the merits of modern and traditional art is guaranteed to upset the Christmas ambience.

A little work on the computer or at the library prior to the auction may help your decision too. If you have seen a painting you like it is helpful to research the artist. You may find that he or she appears in auction price lists. Past records may help you to determine the sort of range you may expect to pay for an artist's works of a particular size or subject.

This information should only be seen as a rough guide though. Original oils and watercolours are unique, of course, so while the descriptions of two paintings may appear to be very similar, one has to take into account condition of the work, the composition and quality. Even the most highly esteemed artists had their off days and produced, frankly, poor work from time to time. There is generally a reason why a painting by a famous artist carries a low estimate - it may be in dreadful condition, an uncommercial subject or, if you are lucky, you may have outwitted the auctioneer and discovered 'a sleeper' - it does happen occasionally!

Buying works by known artists does make sense - it offers some sort of reassurance that a particular artist is appreciated by others, though one should not assume that it will therefore be a good investment. Investing in art should be left to the professionals. There is a lot of luck and a lot of risk involved. Trends and tastes change very quickly in the art world. An artist may be all the rage one year and virtually forgotten the next. The golden rule is simply to buy what you like - if you like a picture the chances are other people will too if ever it were to be sold.

So what is available in auction for a couple of hundred pounds or so? Well this is a relatively modest sum in terms of buying art so one should not expect a major work by a major hand, obviously. There is, nevertheless, a wide range of perfectly presentable paintings and prints available.

A good present might be a 17th century map by Robert Morden or John Speede. Both produced county maps that were originally bound in atlases. A Shropshire map from this period provides a fascinating historical account and has a local appeal. Despite being nearly 400-years-old, a Speede map in good condition can be yours for £150 or £200 quite readily.

There are lots of 19th century pictures on the market too. For those with a more traditional taste, what about a rose covered cottage or picturesque landscape with quietly grazing cattle or sheep and pretty farm maid? Some people may regard this Victorian sentimentality as being 'chocolate boxy', preferring something a little more cutting edge. There are still some fine works by amateur and little known Victorian artists available and prices have even dropped a little over the past two or three years in favour of more modern works. Certainly a good time to buy and perhaps the Victorian style will come back into fashion.

It is a cliché but if a picture does paint a thousand words it can certainly say a lot about the creativity and effort you have gone to in choosing the perfect gift. A picture is an enduring gift and it may even be the start of a new hobby for you or the recipient - art collecting!

William Lacey can be contacted at Halls, Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury, tel: 01743 284777.

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