Art nouveau-riche

No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock (detail)

Painting by numbers: Money in art
By Sandra Kanthal, Producer
Alvin Hall’s World of Money
BBC Radio 4
July 31, 2008

A picture may be worth a thousand words but would it be worth £1,000, or £2,000 or £10,000? That is the wonder of the art market at the moment. While the credit crunch seems to be seeping into most parts of people’s lives, in the art world pictures are still “singing and dancing”, at least according to the renowned art market observer, Godfrey Barker.

“I now realise that art for art’s sake was actually a cry for help from Oscar Wilde and his friends against the reality which is art for money’s sake. It may be a long time before we see prices as good as these again, but it may just be that we are at the start of a boom which could last as long as the one in the 19th Century: mainly 32 years between 1863 and 1895.”

A thriving market

When the stock market falls, other investments come in to fill the void. That may be what is happening in the art market at the moment. The spring sales for contemporary art brought in more than £250m ($500m) for the major auction houses on both sides of the Atlantic. Investors seem to have more faith in American painter and printmaker Mark Rothko than Bank of England governor Mervyn King. And it is not just paintings that are climbing in value – photographs are a new must-have for today’s collectors as well.

“Photography, I think, as far as other media are concerned, is still undervalued in general – primarily, because it can only be as old as the invention of the camera,” says Joe Kraeutler, US head of photography for the auction house and art dealership, Phillips de Pury. He has seen the value of some of the works he sells at auction jump dramatically. “In the early 1990s records were being set at $10,000 to $15,000. Now records are being set at $2.5m or $3m for a photograph.”

Financing purchases

But if you want to buy a work of art for that price but do not have that kind of capital at your disposal what do you do? Well, you could get in touch with Ian Peck, of the Art Capital Group. His firm is like a private bank for art collectors. It will typically lend you 50% of the value of your collection or the piece you would like to buy. But we are not talking about run-of-the-mill pictures here.

“Our average loan size is $5m so we aren’t going to have thousands of clients,” he says. The largest loan Ian Peck’s company has made to one individual or corporation was in excess of £15m ($30m) for multiple pieces. For a single piece they have gone into the £5m ($10m) to £7.5m ($15m) range. But will he only deal with high net worth individuals, or can anyone come to his firm for a loan? “We deal with everybody but we don’t make loans below $250,000 simply because we’re just not geared to that level of business. That being said, we would have to have a minimum value of $500,000 of collateral that we were lending on. That still leaves plenty of collectors out there, but we don’t tend to do the smaller entry-level type works.”

Choosing your investment

So if you have the desire and the money to buy art, how do you know what to buy? Specifically, what pieces and artists will gain in value over the course of time? That is where art advisors come into their own. “No collector buys in a void – nothing happens in the way of collecting without information – information is at the core of it,” explains Ethan Wagner, half of a husband and wife team who run Art Advisory Services in lower Manhattan. “You can’t be a collector by just looking around and picking things.”

His wife, Thea Westreich, went on to explain how during the first six months of working with any client they will take them around the museums and galleries to acquaint them with the world of contemporary and modern art. Usually, the client will not buy anything during this time and she explained why they work in this way. “The last thing you want to do is to get somebody to buy something through your own passion and your own directive that they’re not engaged with because the process ends at that moment – because then it just becomes ‘get me a Damien Hirst; get me a Warhol’ and that isn’t collecting.”

Emerging artists

But the secret to investing in the art world in the future, identifying where the market’s next trailblazers are likely to come, may be knowing what art to pay attention to now. “In 20 years time I believe that the most expensive prices surfacing on the art market will be coming out of China and Russia and India, probably for artists none of us has heard of in the West and, possibly, for pictures that have not yet been painted,” says Godfrey Barker. Perhaps all the tourists who are heading to Beijing for the Olympics later this month should spend as much time in the local art galleries as in the athletics venues.

BBC Radio 4’s Alvin Hall’s World of Money was broadcast on Saturday, 2 August 2008 at 1204 BST, and will be repeated in a longer version on Monday, 4 August 2008 at 1504.

See also: Phillips de Pury & Company

Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services

Art Capital Group


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