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OCTOBER 2, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 13

The Fine Art of Shopping for Fine Art Abroad

Illustration for TIME by Anna Crichton.
Buying art can be one of the great pleasures of traveling. There is nothing like stumbling into a small gallery on a dusty side street and finding the perfect watercolor to go above the mantlepiece. Unfortunately, art shopping far from home can also be one of the most frustrating experiences. Gallery owners can be pushy and deceitful, your budget can feel limited and often—especially with ethnic art—the piece you admire won't fit in with the rest of your decor. There's nothing worse than lugging a 30-kg sculpture around for your entire trip only to discover once you're home that it not only looks bad, it frightens guests and small children.

So how do you successfully shop for art while traveling around Asia? Patiently and simply, says Ian Findlay-Brown, editor and publisher of Asian Art News. "For the casual buyer, the most important thing is to get something you can live with once you get it home." The mistake many people make is trying to turn what should be a pleasure-oriented experience into a shrewd investment. "You're not a collector so you shouldn't think like one," says Findlay-Brown.

The best approach is to buy what suits your taste and budget—and forget about what it may be worth in 20 years. And don't be shy about buying cheap: a piece priced twice as high isn't necessarily twice as good. "Price fixation is a terrible thing," says Findlay-Brown. "It keeps people from buying what they truly want and intimidates them into spending too much. Just because a piece of work is inexpensive doesn't mean it's poorly done. There's a lot of overvaluation in the market."

The Fine Art of Shopping for Fine Art Abroad
Buying art can be one of the great pleasures of traveling.

Short Cuts
The G@llery Evason opened in Singapore in September, trumpeting itself as Asia's first "Design Hotel."


Good-time Charlie Nagatani got his first earful of American country music in 1956, on his 20th birthday.

Travel Watch Archive: Browse hundreds of Asian travel tips

Once you do find a piece that you (and your wallet) like, ask the gallery owner if you can meet the artist. Visiting the creator in his or her studio adds to the purchasing experience and will let you see work that is not yet in the gallery. Who knows, there might be something in the studio that you like even more than the piece you saw in the gallery. Besides, you're likely to feel a much stronger connection to that oil landscape or granite figurine if you've seen where it was made.

Art markets around Asia offer mixed value. While China and Vietnam are among the most popular places for neophytes to go on art safaris, their very popularity can mean inflated prices. Hanoi's art scene is so busy that the Hotel Sofitel Metropole Hanoi now offers an art tour package to help visitors learn about Vietnamese art. Says general manager Richard Kaldor: "A good number of our guests are very keen to buy art, so we organize the tours to help with the education process." (Tip: stick to buying from reputable galleries that can show you catalogues of their shows and documentation of the work on the walls.)

Most big Asian cities boast several well-established art galleries. Ask your concierge for directions and addresses. Cafe galleries are also a good spot to look for undiscovered gems. Younger and less-established artists will often show their work among the lattes, allowing you to assess talent that is still trying to establish an audience. Tianran Wang, who runs, a virtual gallery in China, advises prospective buyers to seek out works by female artists, who tend to be undervalued in Asia.

Keep an open mind as to your idea of art. Many casual buyers don't think beyond paintings, which can be a mistake. Photography, lithography and sketches can be just as good and are easier to transport than, say, a gigantic Vietnamese lacquer painting. Oh, and whatever you end up hauling home, make sure it fits through the door.

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