Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate about Art. By Doug Woodham. Allworth Press; 193 pages; $24.99.

IF IT’S Tuesday, this must be Belgium. If it’s the second week of May it must be Venice. At least, it is every other year. On May 13th the art world descends on the Adriatic port for the biennial global artfest that turns the city into a parallel universe of the imagination. Among the hundreds of thousands of visitors will be Venice Biennale first-timers, all of them keen to learn how to tell their Hirst from their Hodgkin, the Giardini from the Giudecca.

These neophytes could do worse than take along “Art Collecting Today” by Doug Woodham, Christie’s former president of the Americas, an economist who says he likes to collect “drawings by artists associated with minimalism, conceptualism and land art”. The latest in Allworth’s series on the nuts and bolts of the art world, Mr Woodham’s book is an elegant, amusing and perceptive guide to a market that is (often) long on hocus-pocus and short on transparency.

Divided into eight clearly written chapters, it explores how the art market really works. Mr Woodham explains why buying art is easy and selling much harder; why Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the main auction houses in the West, are more similar than they think; why there is such a curious relationship between auction houses and private galleries; why the markets for artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Yayoi Kusama and René Magritte are all very different; and why art-buyers can fall foul of unintended consequences, including spats over cultural property, endangered species and taxes.

Art is more than just another asset class, which is why some of the book’s finest anecdotes appear in special sections called “Avoiding the Scoundrel’s Corner—parts 1, 2 and 3”. Mr Woodham uses real examples to show exactly how collectors have let themselves be done over in the past. Don’t be a dupe.