Fine Art As a Housewarming Gift? Here’s How to Do It Right

Giving a sculpture or a painting doesn’t have to be a minefield — as long as you approach it with a strategy.

In terms of gift-giving, it’s difficult to imagine a more fraught endeavor than buying someone art for their new home. (Perhaps buying them underwear for their new marriage?). It might seem like an exercise in probable failure, with everyone’s taste (both the giver’s and recipient’s) under the microscope.

But the dangers can be mitigated. The first thing to remember: Don’t attempt it alone. If the proposed receiver is an art enthusiast (a prerequisite for this type of scenario), hopefully they have a working relationship with an expert — an interior designer, an art consultant or a favorite gallerist — that the gifter can look to for guidance.

Christopher Coleman, principal of the design firm Sanchez+Coleman, concedes that giving art “is a little extravagant,” but considering his sophisticated client base in New York and Miami, he’s had just these types of experiences. One of his top clients wanted to give a close friend a piece of art; Sanchez+Coleman had just completed the friend’s home in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center. “Everyone knows [the recipient] has a specific color palette — black, white, purple and turquoise — and she likes very graphic, kinetic pieces and metal,” the designer says. So Coleman suggested a small sculpture, “something to put on a bookcase or in a powder room, but anything larger than that — unless you know the person very well — is uncomfortable.”

If the proposed receiver is an art enthusiast, hopefully they have a working relationship with an expert — an interior designer, an art consultant or a favorite gallerist — that the gifter can look to for guidance.

Woody Shimko has catered to many a gift-giver in his Woodman/Shimko galleries in Palm Springs and Provincetown. Since several of the artists he shows — Cassandra Complex and Hank Hudson among them — have devoted followings, the risk of making a wrong choice is reduced. “If there’s an artist that the recipient really likes,” he says, “then someone will come in and probably purchase something that’s geared toward that. Like if they’re a Liza Minnelli fan and the giver saw a Hank Hudson portrait of her, boom, they’d go crazy over it.”

People are passionate about the work of Complex, who specializes in intense male faces. Therefore, a relatively safe gift choice is to commission a portrait from her: “They will give me a photograph and we go over colors and other pictures of mine that they like, attributes of the painting that they enjoy, that kind of thing.” She acknowledges that the receiver should be surprised by the gift, but not that surprised. “A good plan is to bring them into the gallery as if you’re going into a jewelry or clothing shop,” she says. “You’ve already scoped it out with them — and then you sneak back and buy a piece or commission one.”

Shimko recalls customers coming into his Palm Springs gallery because friends were closing on a midcentury modern house. “There’s an artist named Mandy Main in Rancho Mirage and she does very specific architectural, modern paintings,” Shimko says. “These customers bought one as a housewarming gift.” Were they nervous about the purchase? “The main question they had for me was if their friends don’t like it, can they bring it back. I said of course they can. But they came back in a week later and said their friends loved the painting.”

Photo: Corcoran listing 328 West 23rd Street in Chelsea, represented by Laurie Lewis and Charlie Miller.

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