When considering the purchase of a specific artist’s work, it is advisable to learn what they are famous for – their quintessential, or what some people call their signature image/style. Were they known for their still lifes, landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, etc.; and/or was their style impressionist, realist, abstract, etc.? While artists may have a variety of subjects or styles, most become famous for something very specific. This is not to say you should only buy their signature image or style; but, knowing all the different styles and subject matters will help you determine which are more desirable and what an appropriate price should be for each style or subject.
Now, if you are going to buy just one work by an artist, then we typically advise people to stick with their signature image/style. These works will normally be the most expensive; however, because of their wider appeal, they should be the easiest to resell in the future. If an artist is known for their beautiful still life paintings or cityscapes, then you are usually best served buying one of those (please note that we say usually because there are always exceptions).
On the other hand, if you become a collector of a particular artist then you may want to branch out and acquire a variety of styles and subjects. Even then, the core of your collection will, more than likely, contain many works featuring that artist’s signature image, done in their signature style.
A nice example of a signature image can be seen in the works of Edouard Leon Cortès whose Parisian street scenes have become highly collectible; but, Cortes also painted stunning landscapes and interior scenes that were executed in Normandy and Brittany. We find that most collectors who want to add a Cortes to their collection initially purchase views of Paris; in fact, most do not even realize that he painted landscapes, interiors, and the occasional still life. Inevitably, some of these buyers start to collect Cortes’s work, and then they want to diversify the collection – adding some of his landscapes and interior scenes.
Do keep in mind that some artists have more than one signature image. For example, Julien Dupré is famous for his images of French peasants during the latter half of the 19th century and there are two subjects that people look for… peasants working in the hayfield, and farmhands tending cows or sheep. If you want to buy just one Dupré for your collection, then you can choose whichever subject appeals to you most.
Then, there are artists who do not have a signature image but have a signature style. In that case, stick with the signature style. A great example of this is the works of Mondrian whose very early works were academic, then turned to post-impressionistic, and finally to a style he called Neoplasticism. While some of his earlier works will still command pretty impressive price (upwards of $2M), it is the later ones that have reached the $20M-$50M range.
Having said all that, in the end, it still comes down to this… buy what you like, because you are going to live with it! Do your research and visit the galleries who are the experts in the period of art you enjoy. The right gallery will be able to guide you to the right paintings at the right price!