7 Rules of Art Collecting: How to Collect Sculptures

Sculpture is one of the art-collecting staples that nonetheless presents a challenge to its admirers.

Jun 2, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

how to collect sculpture


Art collecting is a complex and intellectual hobby rather than a simple accumulation of pricey objects. Collecting sculpture is a vast, yet challenging, field with many nuances and details. Apart from mental efforts, collecting sculpture requires physical and logistical involvement from the collector since the three-dimensional objects require space. No matter what sculptural material, technique, or subject matter you prefer, we will offer you a simple guide to art collecting through these 7 rules that you should always have in mind.


1. The Basics of Art Collecting: How to Understand Sculpture

art collecting savage realization photo
Augusta Savage next to her sculpture Realization, 1938. Source: NPR


Sculpture is one of the most ancient forms of art, and is deeply ingrained in humanity’s culture. Yet, art collectors often treat it as a byproduct, preferring to focus on objects that are easier to understand and handle, like drawings or paintings. Sculpture offers a unique opportunity to interact with materials and their expressive possibilities. It often requires more effort than usual since we are more used to appreciating two-dimensional forms of art. If you decide to focus your art-collecting aspirations on sculpture, you should first understand its history and its language.


Throughout human history, sculpture gradually moved from depicting a certain object to focusing on an action or an event. Then it moved completely to the domain of non-figuration, focusing on feelings, fleeting thoughts, and metaphysical concepts. Sculpture as an art form was never limited to monuments and decorations. Sometimes, it was the expression of anguish, pain, and trauma, other times, a reflection of the world’s political climate, like the groundbreaking works of Alberto Giacometti.


Before starting your collection, find the niche that speaks to you. Narrow your focus: choose a name, an art movement, a medium, or a specific topic. Do you like faces, figures, and plants, or do you prefer abstract sculpture—if so, should it be geometric like Minimalist works or organic like works made by Hans Arp? The choices are limitless, and so are your possibilities.

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2. Learn Your Theory, Add Some Practice

fischer untitled sculpture
Untitled, by Urs Fischer, 2011. Source: Pinault Collection


Apart from theory, you should understand the practice behind a sculpture of your choice, its material properties, and the nuances of creation. The most common mediums for sculpture are marble and bronze, yet artists use thousands of other materials, some of which are truly unconventional. Artists like Louise Bourgeois made textile sculptures, Urs Fischer uses wax, and Marc Quinn even froze his own blood for a series of busts. Usually, art experts recognize two types of sculptural processes: additive, which happens when a sculptor adds more material to achieve the desired effect, and subtractive, which requires removing pieces from a base block, usually stone or wood.


Some sculptural materials allow for the reproduction of the pieces. After carving a marble or sculpting a clay object, an artist can choose to make a cast from it, later producing copies from hardening materials like metal, plaster, or concrete. Thus, a single sculpture can have as many copies as needed, affecting its price on the market. As expected, the most expensive object is usually the original one, which served as a base for the later casts. However, these are often hard to handle due to the fragility of the base material like wax (used for Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer) or unburnt clay. The casts are more durable and cheap, yet they inevitably divert from the original because of the varying texture of materials and imperfection of casting techniques.


3. Get Familiar With the Art Market

arp forest sculpture
Sculpture to be lost in the forest, by Hans (Jean) Arp, 1932. Source: Tate, London


Before starting your collection, carefully observe the art market around you. You should be interested not only in what they have to offer but how they do it. If you plan to build a reputation as a high-level art collector capable of expensive purchases, you should establish your presence carefully, making the right connections and trusting the right professionals. Even if you are starting your collection on a budget, meeting people would definitely help you. Instead of auction houses and celebrity dealers, turn your attention to smaller galleries, art school students, and antique shops.


Your knowledge of theory and practice derived from the previous two rules might help you avoid overpaying for something unworthy. Art forgeries are a sad but common occasion in the domain of sculpture and painting. Learning from their mistakes, forgers get more and more creative, with some of them melting cheap Antiquity-era coins to cast fake Roman busts and sculptures.


Another art market trap is questionable pricing. For instance, the famous sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, was recently sold for $16 million. The only problem was that that sculpture was a bronze copy of another copy made, in its turn, from the original plaster cast, with all three objects differing significantly in proportion. Moreover, the artist did not live long enough to authorize or approve any of these copies. Thus, the attribution of this work to Boccioni and the subsequent soaring price tag concern many experts, who believe the customer overpaid for nothing.


4. Evaluate Your Space

pistoletto venus sculpture
Venus of the Rags, by Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1967. Source: Tate, London


Sculpture comes in all shapes and sizes, and so do homes and storage spaces. However, one has to adapt to the other. No sculpture would bring you joy if you stumble over it every day of your life. Most sculptures are meant to be observed from several angles at once, so tucking them into a room corner would be a waste of space and the artist’s effort.


If your space is limited, think about collecting porcelain objects or small sculptures like Japanese netsuke, carved from ivory. However, physical size on its own is not always equal to the amount of space the artwork occupies. Some objects may involve optical or light effects that would distort your sense of presence; others can be so expressive they overpower the whole space they occupy. If you store art in your home, match your collection to your personality, and do not let it become the prime inhabitant of the space.


5. Think of Display

arman violin sculpture
Untitled (Burnt Violin with bow), by Fernandez Arman, 2004. Source: Mutual Art


After you have chosen where to display your prospective purchase, think about how to display it. Some sculptures may need a pedestal or a set of hangers, a specific light source to highlight their features, or an angle of the display intended by the artist. Small or fragile objects may require a display case to avoid damage, and works made from sensitive materials such as wax, textile, or organic matter would require a climate control system.


The longevity of materials plays a crucial role in preserving your sculpture collection, and it is entirely your responsibility as an owner. Think about hiring a professional cleaner specializing in art objects for your collection. If your objects consist of bronze or porcelain, you can gently clean them on your own, but some materials require special effort. For instance, marble is a porous material and it accumulates dirt and dust deep in its pores. A well-equipped professional can vacuum the dirt out of marble, but you should not try doing this on your own.


6. Think Twice: Do You Want to See It Every Day?

art collecting mutu she walks sculpture
She Walks, by Wangechi Mutu, 2019. Source: Ocula


Most of us do not have enough space to keep our possessions in a safe warehouse or a private gallery. Moreover, what is the point of owning art if you don’t enjoy it? That being said, think about not the captivating artwork itself but its effect on you and your home. Emotional intensity, drama, and suspense are good when you can handle them well. A dramatic and emotional sculpture of fashionable young talent may be a promising investment, but is it worth a jump scare every time you see it at the far end of your hallway?


7. Art Collecting as a Hobby: Research Your Possessions

art collecting brancusi muse sculpture
Sleeping Muse, by Constantin Brâncuși, 1910. Source: MoMA, New York


To get full satisfaction from art collecting, do not limit yourself to observing your possessions from afar. Every artwork is a file full of valuable information about its origins, the creator’s beliefs and concerns, its previous owners, triumphs, and tragedies. Try talking to museum curators, historians, and art dealers about your artwork. They probably have enough research to give you insights and help you build a deeper connection to the work.


In your turn, give art experts a chance to examine your collection if they want to. Sometimes it can become a part of a promising research project or an exciting exhibition. Knowledge is meant to be shared. And if you learn something that makes you question your love for your artwork, like its troubled history or an unpleasant provenance, do not be afraid to let it go and resell it.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.