“There are two ways that art is judged as good: connoisseurship and marketing.” – Michael Masterson
Let’s Talk About Art…*
“Why did you put ‘art’ in the headline?” my inner editor shouts.
“Because that’s the thing I’m writing about,” I timidly reply.
“Nobody cares about art!”
“But they should,” I say.
“Fine. Write whatever you want. But don’t say, ‘Let’s Talk About Art.’ Art is boring. Write a headline that will make people want to read what follows.”
Money. Let’s Talk About Money!
I collect art. I also collect books, beer bottles, and cigar lighters. I enjoy collecting them all. But there is something I get from my art collection that I don’t get from books, bottles, and lighters: I get richer.
I invest in art. I also invest in stocks, bonds, private-placement deals, and precious metals. All of these assets provide me with a sense of financial security. But there is something I get from my art collection that I don’t get from these other investments: pleasure.
Some people think of art collecting as a snooty hobby practiced by wealthy dilettantes. I have the same prejudice. Others think of art collecting as an important form of cultural and historical preservation. I believe that’s true. Most people don’t think about art collecting at all. And as an investor in art, I’m happy about that. The smallish, elitist, and insular nature of the art market makes investing in it easier and less risky for novice or amateur collectors – so long as they understand the basics. (Which is what I’m going to be writing about, once a week, over the coming few months.)
Why Art Is Part of My Long-Term Investment Strategy
I’ve been collecting art – paintings, drawings, lithographs, and sculptures – for more than 40 years. I buy art for many reasons. I buy it for its beauty, its historical importance, and because it says something about me that’s hard to put into words. But I also buy art as an investment. I buy it as part of an overall strategy for creating wealth.
Art’s beauty gives me a constant stream of emotional income. Its historical importance gives me intellectual returns. Its importance in providing its owners with social status creates a ready and liquid market for it. And the small size of that marketplace makes for stock-market returns with less volatility.
I buy art in many modes.
Much of the time these days, the purchase is a calculated decision based on knowledge that I have about a piece and its potential for appreciation. My goal is to buy good pieces at below-market prices and hold them for the long-term. For my core collection, I know just what artists and pieces I need and how much to pay for them. If and when they become available at the right price, I buy in.
At other times, my buying is based on an unexpected opportunity. Someone that knows someone that knows I collect a certain artist contacts me and we work out a deal. This almost never happened when I was a new collector. It wasn’t until people in these little markets knew me (and my partner) that these good deals started floating our way.
And then sometimes I buy art just for fun – because a piece is cheap and I like it and don’t expect it to appreciate it. I think of this as buying toys or souvenirs.
For example, I once bought a great mixed-media piece from an artist that was selling his work on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village. Which is to say my interest in art goes way beyond its utility as an investment or the aesthetic pleasure it brings.
The Multiple Returns of Art Collecting
As I said above, I enjoy several substantial benefits from my avocation of collecting art, from the enjoyment of learning about it… to the pleasure of seeing it… to the comfort of owning it… to the excitement of buying and selling it… to the pride of developing a collection that is uniquely my own.
But since my inner editor convinced me to focus on art collecting as an investment, I will try to limit this discussion to that.
Is art a good investment?
I recently asked my accountant to estimate how much my collection has appreciated over the years. He looked at the records and told me that my total average annual return has been about 8.5%.
That is not as good as my investments in small businesses and real estate (with returns exceeding 20%) or rental real estate (about 14%), but it’s pretty close to what I’ve gotten with stocks (about 9.5%) and a good deal better than bonds (about 4% to 6%, factoring in taxes).
And, as I’ve said, art offers so many desirable attributes beyond ROI that I’d be happy to take my 8.5%. But as I’ll explain, I have good reason to believe that one day my core art portfolio will equal or better my “collection” of stocks.
Let’s look at the facts:
Art is tangible.
When you buy a share of stock or a bond, you are not buying a thing. You are buying a promise: the promise that the issuer of the stock or bond will pay you exactly what it is worth at some time in the future.
Stocks and bonds are representations of agreements. They have no intrinsic value. A hundred shares of stock entitles you to be paid 100 times the share price of that stock when you go to sell it. But if the company behind the stock goes out of business, those shares are worth nothing.
The same is true for bonds. The bond buyer lends the bond issuer money in return for the promise to return that money, plus interest. But if the company or institution behind the bond goes bankrupt, the certificate you have in the safe is worth nothing.
Art is different. You are buying an actual thing. You can see it, touch it, and feel it. You can hide it in the attic, put it on the wall, or keep in in a vault. Its value, like stocks and bonds, depends on the market. But the value of art is in the art itself, not in a promise.
Think of it this way: The wealth that I have in stocks and bonds is, I believe, real wealth. But where, exactly, is that wealth located? Certainly it isn’t in some database at some brokerage halfway across the country!
It’s nice to go online and look at your brokerage account when your stocks are doing well. It’s nicer still to see your bottom line get bigger year after year. But what if the unthinkable happens? What if, one day, you check your account and see zero at the bottom line? Or: “Notice. Your account is frozen. Please consult a lawyer.”
This is not something I worry about on a daily basis, but it’s not paranoia. Digital wealth disappears from digital accounts all the time for all sorts of reasons. Most of it can be recaptured through legal and regulatory processes. But not all of it, and not in all cases.
With tangible assets like art, you don’t have to worry about any of that.
Art is safe from theft.
In the past, stealing investment-grade art was a profitable business. But today, you rarely hear about it… for one good reason. Over the past 20 years, and especially in the last 10, millions of pieces of investment-grade art have been identified, photographed, and registered in online databases, including registries with the specific purpose of protecting art from theft and forgery.
If someone steals one of my Jean Derain portraits, for example, I can register it as stolen in one of these databases – and that notice will appear anytime anyone searches that piece again, either casually or because they are thinking of buying or selling it. The notice instantly becomes available to thousands of brokers, dealers, gallery owners, and auction houses worldwide. This would make it very hard for the thief to sell my piece anywhere except to a pawnbroker at a tiny fraction of its value.
Art is a hedge against inflation.
Another advantage of art (and most tangible investments) is that its value tends to rise alongside inflation. If you own bonds, for example, and inflation soars to 10% a year, the value of your bonds will likely decrease by that percentage.
That’s not the case with art. Art typically tracks inflation. The $10,000 piece you bought this year will be worth $11,000 next year in a scenario of 10% inflation. We haven’t had much inflation in the USA during the first two decades of the new millennium, but there is every reason to believe inflation will resume and could possibly accelerate into hyperinflation due to all the coronavirus spending by the government.
Art is portable (transportable).
Portability is a beneficial characteristic of art that most people never consider. But for several reasons, it can be a considerable advantage.
If, for example, you want to move some of your wealth from one residence to another, you can do so privately and discreetly, without having to notify brokers or bankers or leave an electronic trail. Since the value of a piece of art has nothing to do with its size, you can move a lot of value this way. A million-dollar piece of sculpture can be shipped by postal service around the country (or around the world) for just a few hundred dollars.
Art can be tax friendly.
Gallery owners and brokers of art are subject to the same tax rules as owners and brokers of any kind of business. But private collectors can take advantage of many strategies in place (and okay with the IRS and other taxing agencies) that can reduce the tax burden on buying and selling art. (We’ll discuss this in more detail later on.)
Art is insurable.
While you can’t insure your returns from art, you can insure it against loss – either by theft or accident, both of which rarely but sometimes happen. Art insurance is easy to buy. (You can do it online.) And the policies are flexible. You can, for example, insure a single piece or an entire collection with a single premium. In some cases, you don’t even have to identify every piece in your collection.
Art insurance policies also cover damage. Years ago, when a housekeeper accidently broke a Picasso ceramic of mine, the company that was covering my collection at the time sent me a check just a week or two after I filed the claim. And the check was for more than I thought the piece was worth!
But here’s the best part…
These are a few of the benefits and advantages you’ll have as an investor in art, benefits and advantages you won’t get from stock and bond investing.
And that’s not to mention the biggest benefit I’ve received from 40 years of collecting art – the daily joy I get from being surrounded by beautiful, personally meaningful, and historically important objects.
Buying art is a lot of fun – especially when you know that you are making a smart buy and/or adding to a developing collection. And owning art, as I’ve explained, is a good investment with lots of fringe financial and wealth-protection benefits. But I wouldn’t recommend collecting art to anyone that was interested in it only for those reasons.
To get the full experience of art, you have to learn to appreciate it. We’ll talk about that in the next time installment of this series.
* This series of essays gives you an advance look at a new book that I’m working on, based on my experiences over the past 40+ years as a collector and investor in fine art.
This essay and others are available for syndication.
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