A few months ago, art and money were connected in the news when Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II,” a photograph depicting a still river and walkway, became the highest-valued photograph sold at auction. The buyer paid $4 million to walk away with the larger-than-life print. Art is in the news again today, with one of Edvard Munch’s renditions of “The Scream.” At a recent Sotheby’s auction, “The Scream” was sold for $119.9 million. This price set a record, making “The Scream” the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
For those who have the money to spare, art is a popular investment. Trading masterpieces of art among a small subsection of the population, less than 1 percent, is not without criticism, however. Many artists do not live to see their works become valuable, and do not benefit from the high prices sought for their work. I addressed both the criticisms and the benefits of giving art a significant societal value in the article about “Rhein II.”
While it may be good for society to value art highly, is it a good investment for any one individual who has millions of dollars to spare?
Well, first of all, there is art accessible at all levels of investment. With research, you might find works available for $50 that could certainly increase in value over time at a rate better than what financial advisers offer as typical long-term stock market returns. Art is not an investment solely for the 1 percent. And with the right buying choices, your smaller investment in living artists has a more direct effect on the artist community.
Investing in art isn’t going to be right for everyone. While some consider art to be one of the best investments outside of real estate, the economy has seen would-be real estate investors struggling when the market isn’t robust. The same is true with art. The market is subject to bubbles, the latest trends play a significant role in determining prices, and you may not be able to sell your art at the price time you need the proceeds. Artists whose work have proven to appreciate and are highly recognized as masters, like Dali and Picasso, have price appreciation almost guaranteed, but the barrier to entry for investments in proven artists is too high for investors without the desire to risk large sums of money.
Outside of artists whose works have proven worth, it’s risky to invest in art with the goal of making a killing between the purchase date and the sale date. Even the best research won’t guarantee performance. To mitigate the chance of loss, when choosing art, find something you like. As long as you enjoy looking at your art collection, you won’t mind as much holding onto it until it has the ability to fetch the price you desire — which may be never. At the auction where “The Scream” sold for $119.9 million, one fifth of the pieces on the auction block failed to sell because no investors were willing to pay the asking prices.
Another problem with investing in art is the due diligence required to avoid scammers and fraud-minded people in the industry. Even experts can be wrong about forgeries. Investments in art are not subject to the same kinds of regulation that allows investors to feel generally safe and confident when investing in stocks and mutual funds.
Unless you have the financial ability to invest in artists whose names you know from high school or your college’s Art History course, you might be better off staying away from investing in art if your purpose is finding the next Rembrandt.
Updated May 7, 2012 and originally published May 3, 2012.