“I collect human relationships very much the way others collect fine art.” – Jerzy Kosinski

 

Collecting Art: The Six Lessons I Had to Learn*  

If done correctly, a first-class art collection will serve as a secondary investment portfolio to fund your retirement, protect you from inflation, insure you against economic or political instability, and provide a lasting legacy for your heirs or a charity of your choice.

My education in buying the right kind of art – art that makes sense as an investment – began when I was lucky enough to wander into an art gallery owned by Bernard Lewin. I didn’t know it when I met him, and he never mentioned it, but he was the most important broker of Mexican art in the world at that time.

I spent a lot of time browsing in his gallery and asking a lot of questions… all of which he answered simply and clearly. With his help, I learned some very important lessons and made what turned out to be some very profitable decisions.

 

Lesson #1: Don’t Buy on Impulse 

“Fall in love, but don’t buy on impulse.” This was the first big lesson that I learned from Mr. Lewin. This advice, which I barely understood at the time, proved to be invaluable over the years.

The point is, first impressions can be deceiving. You can’t know whether a particular piece will “hold up” (sustain your interest) unless you’ve looked at it at least several times and have thought about it in between.

 

Lesson #2: Not All Art Is Created Equal 

Some art is, indeed, relatively worthless – just “pictures that you hang on a wall,” as Sid, my surrogate Jewish uncle used to say. Some, like antique paintings and sculpture, has definite and assessable value. And some, fine art, can be an immensely good investment.

When talking to new collectors, I suggest thinking about art in terms of four broad categories: decorator art, commercial art, amateur art, and investment-grade art. (Note: These are my own categories. They are not used across the industry.)

Decorator Art is art (paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, prints, and so on) that is created strictly as decoration. The images and colors are often “made to match” (i.e., chosen to blend with or complement the overall interior design of a particular space). It’s the kind of art you see in chain restaurants and budget hotels.

Commercial Art is, in my mind, a touch above decorator art and is meant to appeal to a slightly more sophisticated buyer. It is produced by artists that have developed a competency in their craft and is marketed by dealers for the general public. In other words, it is made to sell well and quickly in the kind of galleries you find in upscale shopping malls, resorts, and cruise ships.

The quality of commercial art varies widely, from pretty good to very bad. And even the best pieces have modest to no investment potential because of the way they are made and sold. The most popular images are replicated by the hundreds or even thousands, and have little value for serious collectors and museums.

Amateur Art is art produced by artists who don’t make a substantial living from their work and are rarely represented by dealers. It is the art that is produced by students and spouses and retirees for the fun of making it. In terms of quantity, amateur art is by far the largest category. You can find it in attics, basements, yard sales, and flea markets – and also in many small galleries and antique shops.

The quality of amateur art ranges from very good to very bad. Good pieces that are old (100 years or more) can be sold as antiques – and as antiques, they will have lasting value. But if it is not antique, amateur art is not good for investment because it is, by definition, produced by “unknowns.” As a result, it is unlikely to appreciate much (if at all) over the long run.

Investment-Grade Art is art that is likely to appreciate in value.

What makes a piece “Investment-Grade”?

For most people, art is all about beauty. But if you think about the history of art, you will recognize that a piece that sells for tens of millions of dollars today isn’t valuable because it’s more beautiful than similar works. It’s valuable because, for whatever reason, the artist who produced it made his way into the small galleries, then the better galleries, then the smaller museums, then the bigger museums, and finally into books on art history.

So, if you think about future historical value, rather than aesthetics, when you buy art, you will have a much better chance of developing a valuable collection. And predicting what will be historically valuable in the future is much easier than predicting what will be considered beautiful in the future.

You do it by asking yourself the following sort of questions when you consider making a purchase:

* How respectable are the critics who support this artist?

* What art-world big shots are buying his work?

* What museums are buying his work?

* What media/images/techniques of his are most sought after?

Now when I happened into Mr. Lewin’s gallery years ago, I did not have this perspective. Nor had I spent much time wondering why some art becomes more valuable over time. I was lucky that my interest in collecting art was stimulated by a gallery owner who happened to be selling investment-grade art. Had I walked into a different gallery, I might have ended up as a different kind of investor than the successful one I’ve become.

 

Lesson #3: Buy Only Investment-Grade Art 

The first pieces I bought from Mr. Lewin have appreciated considerably over the years. I haven’t done the math, but my guess is that I’ve realized an annualized return of more than 8%.

Considering the fact that I knew so little about collecting at the time, I’m very happy with that. So, the third lesson I have for you is this: If you want to build a financially valuable art collection, you must limit yourself to investment-grade art.

You may think that you don’t have the money for that. In fact, you probably do. One of the first pieces that I bought from Mr. Lewin was a pencil sketch by Rufino Tamayo, the great Mexican master. It cost me $750 – equivalent to about $1000 today.

You couldn’t buy that drawing today for $1000. (It is worth more than 10 times that.) But for $1000, you can find plenty of good pencil drawings by other artists whose works are in museums. And you can buy their pastels and gouaches for a bit more.

 

Lesson #4: Buy Unique Pieces by Established Artists 

After helping me narrow down my choices to four investment-grade works that I could afford, Mr. Lewin surprised me by telling me that he’d be happy to buy them back in the future. (This is something I’d never heard a salesman say.)

He explained that I was buying pieces that had a very high chance of appreciating nicely. He had no doubt that I could sell any of them back to him for a profit… and that he, in turn, could eventually sell them for even more.

“You see,” he said, “you are buying original pieces by established masters.”

He picked up the Tamayo sketch. Pencil on rough paper. Hardly a masterpiece, but still one of a kind.

“For the same price,” he said, pointing to a print leaning against the wall, “you could buy that limited edition print of one of Tamayo’s paintings. But,” he said, holding the sketch up to the light, “there is one – and only one – of these. And there are 199 additional versions of the print. Which do you think will be worth more in the future?”

 

Lesson #5: Buy the Best Pieces You Can Afford… Then Trade Up 

Another one of my early purchases from Mr. Lewin was a watercolor  by José Clemente Orozco. It wasn’t the best Orozco Mr. Lewin had in his gallery, but it was better than some, and it was the best I could afford. I paid $18,000 for it, and it’s recently been appraised at between $125,000 and $150,000.

Fact is, better-quality pieces tend to appreciate more and faster than inferior ones. So, had I bought a lesser Orozco, I suspect I might not have gotten that same return. And that brings me to the second part of this lesson…

As you develop your collection, gradually sell off the mediocre pieces and use the proceeds to buy better ones that are likely to give you a higher ROI. (This, by the way, is the same strategy I use with my real estate properties.)

To develop the sort of collection I want, I need at least two or three major pieces by each of the Central American masters that I’m now focused on. Right now, for example, I have about 15 works by the great El Salvador master Carlos Cañas. Half of them are fairly minor works – smallish drawings or pastels on paper. A few are good, medium-sized paintings. And two are masterpieces, the sort of paintings that the Museum of Modern Art would display to show Cañas’s genius.

I’m happy to sell all of my mediocre Cañas pieces and a few of his good ones. But I will never sell the two masterpieces. I intend to enjoy them – and watch their values rise – as long as I live.

 

One Final Lesson…

If you do an internet search for “art investing,” you will find many articles and essays by dealers that eschew buying art as an investment. Instead, they say, you should “just buy what you like.”

This is not good advice… for several reasons.

First, it is illogical. It presumes that there is a difference between an art object that you like and one that has investment potential.

Second, it is harmful to the novice collector. It presumes that the art you are likely to “like” as a novice investor will continue to please you after you’ve been at the game for some time. And that is not, usually, what happens. Novice collectors like art that they see as “beautiful.” But what is beautiful to the inexperienced eye often looks derivative and obvious to the experienced eye.

You might, for example, absolutely love the $5000 Peter Max you bought when you were on that Caribbean cruise. But 10 years later, you may be embarrassed to have that thing on your wall. And then when you discover that you can get – at best – only $2000 for it (after 10 years), you’ll feel doubly duped.

Third, the statement itself is disingenuous. Dealers usually throw it in as a sort of disclaimer after pitching you on a particular commercial-grade artist or work of art. It translates to: “If this doesn’t appreciate as I’ve led you to believe, don’t complain. At least you like it.”

So why are all those “experts” telling you to buy what you like?

Here’s the thing about buying what you like: Tastes mature. The more exposure you have to art, the more sophisticated your tastes will become. Your goal as an art collector is to buy pieces that you like now and will likely still like in 10-20 years. And guess what? Most investment-grade art has that durability.

* 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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derivative (adjective) 

Something that’s derivative (duh-RIH-vuh-tiv) is not the result of new ideas, but has been developed from or imitates something else. As I used it today: “What is beautiful to the inexperienced eye often looks derivative and obvious to the experienced eye.”

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Bernard Lewin was born in Germany in 1906. In 1938, he fled the Nazis with his wife Edith, immigrated to the United States, and became a US citizen. He tried several professions before becoming an art dealer and collector. Eventually, with Edith’s help, he accumulated the world’s largest private collection of modern Mexican art.

Before his death in 2003, Lewin and Edith donated more than 2000 pieces to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These included works by Carlos Mérida, José Clemente Orozco, Rafael Coronel, and Francisco Zúñiga.

Lewin was a personal friend of Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros. His collection included the only portrait of Frida Kahlo by Diego Rivera that was not part of a mural.

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The Last Dance (Netflix)

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have watched this, but K recommended it so I gave it a look. I was drawn into it immediately. It was dramatic. And compelling. Bingeable, though I resisted.

I’m talking about The Last Dance – a 10-part documentary about the Chicago Bulls during the years Michael Jordan played for them. Co-produced by ESPN Films and Netflix and directed by Jason Hehir, the series has received nearly universal critical acclaim.

As we are taken back and forth through the Jordan era of the Bulls, Jordan and his teammates (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr) and coach Phil Jackson comment.

As Barney Ronay, writing for The Guardian, pointed out, The Last Dance could be said to be more a hagiography than a documentary. I was a basketball fan for a number of years and saw Jordan play several times, but I never fully understood how great a player he was until I watched it.

But it’s not all accolades. It does get into Jordan’s love of gambling and, more importantly, the accusation that he became something of an unbearable bully. To quote Ronay:

Is Jordan, the man-turned-logo, the inspiration to millions, actually a bit of a dick? The answer is obvious. Yes he is! But it doesn’t matter. In fact this is in many ways the best part of the film.

 

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the week in review 

Jul 27-Jul 31, 2020 

 

a look back at this week’s essays… 

 

Asians in America, Part I:

Why Are They So Successful? 

 

Let’s take a break from identity politics. Let’s talk about Asian-Americans!

 

Just kidding. But the facts are noteworthy.

 

Click here to read more.

 

 

Asians in America, Part II:

Why Are They So Successful? 

 

On Monday, I talked about the amazing success Asian immigrants have had in America. In terms of wealth, health, education, and optimism, they outrank every other racial group, including White Americans.

 

Why is that? Why is it that Asian-Americans, themselves victims of bias and discrimination, have achieved so much?

 

Click here to read more.

 

 

How to Buy Gold Bullion Coins:

A Quick Guide for Beginners 

 

Suddenly, everyone wants to buy gold!

 

I’ve been reading about gold for 40 years and writing about it for the last 20. During that time, gold’s popularity among investors has gone up and down in longish waves. Recently, the tide has been rising like a tsunami.

 

To answer all the questions I’ve been getting on gold, I’ve put together the following Q&A. It’s meant for tyros, but there may be information here that will surprise experienced coin buyers.

 

Click here to read more.

 

 

what I’m reading 

 

Legado de Generaciones: Antología poética 

 

I’m really enjoying this little paperback. I got it accidentally. It came in a box that held an expensive bottle of Flor de Caña, a Nicaraguan rum. I bought the expensive bottle because it came in a box designed by a Nicaraguan artist that I collect and represent: Augusto Silva Gomez.

 

A very surprising little book, it contains poems by 49 poets from 38 countries expressed in 16 languages. I have read only about half of them, but every one so far has been a gem – like this one, which I reproduce here in its English translation:

 

Some Days the Sea

 

The sea is never the same twice. Today

the waves open their lion’s mouths hungry

for the shore, and I feel the earth helpless.

Some days their foamy edges are lace

at my feet, the sea a sheet of green silk.

Sometimes the shore brings souvenirs

from a storm, I sift spoils of sea grass;

find a broken finger of coral, a torn fan,

examine a sponge’s hollow throat, watch

a man-of-war die a sapphire in the sand.

Some days there’s nothing but sand.

Quiet as snow, I walk, eyes on the wind

sometimes laden with silver-tasting salt,

sometimes still as the sun. Some days

the sun is a dollop of honey and raining

light on the sea glinting diamond dust,

sometimes there are only clouds, clouds –

sometimes solid as continents drifting

across the sky, other times wispy, white

roses that swirl into tigers, into cathedrals,

into hands, and I remember the days

I’m still a boy on this beach, wanting

to catch a seagull, cup a tiny silver fish,

build a perfect sand castle. Some days I am

a teenager blind to death even as I watch

waves seep into nothingness. Most days

I’m a man tired of being a man, sleeping

in the care of dusk’s slanted light, or a man

scared of being a man, seeing some god

in the moonlight streaming over the sea.

Some days I imagine myself walking

this shore with feet as worn as driftwood,

old and afraid of my body. Someday,

I suppose I’ll return someplace like waves

trickling through the sand, back to sea

without any memory of being, but if

I could choose eternity, it would be here:

between every grain of sand, in the cusp

of every wave and every seashell’s hollow.

 

 

recommended links from this week’s blog 

 

* “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen” – Unless you are brain-dead, you will enjoy this TED Talk by Hans Rosling.  LINK

 

 

* “Harvard vs. Asians”?

 

 

* How good are you at naming colors? Take this test and find out. (I got only 12 of 18!)

 

 

* Click here to read some of the latest Rancho Santana news.

 

 

* “A Progressive’s Guide to Political Correctness” – In this video, George Will helps progressives be more progressive.

 

 

* Tito Ortiz had a reputation for being a bad boy in mixed martial arts. He does a good job of changing my view on that in this short interview.

 

 

Q&A 

 

Your Question: 

 

Unarmed African-Americans are killed by police almost every day all across the US. How can anyone explain this except as the result of egregious and systemic racism?

 

My Answer: 

 

For most of my adult life, I believed that unarmed African-Americans were much more likely to be killed by cops than whites. And like many, I saw the gruesome murder of George Floyd on May 25 as another example of what I thought could only be attributed to racism. But when I started researching the data to write my June 5 blog post, I was shocked by what I found. It contradicted my assumptions.

 

Turns out there were 208 killings of unarmed people by police from 2016 to 2019. (That’s an average of 52 per year.) Of that 208, 62 (about 30%) were African-American and 100 (48%) were white. And the ratios were even more startling for 2019 alone. In that year, 41 unarmed people were killed by police in the US – and of that 41, 21 (51%) were white, 10 (25%) were Latino, and 9 (21%) were African-American. In other words, since 2016 at least, the risk of getting killed by police (if you are unarmed) has been less for African-Americans than for Latinos and whites.

 

Those were the facts. I could hardly believe it.

 

I’d had several personal experiences that convinced me that police racism was a real threat to African-Americans – and on an emotional level, I still feel that way. Perhaps because I felt that way, I asked several members of my family to guess how many unarmed African-Americans were killed by cops every year compared to whites. They gave me a range of answers that was very similar to the estimates that the three young African-American men gave in this video.

 

 

I suspect that if a survey were done across the US asking this question, the great majority of responses – coming from every ethnic group – would overwhelmingly mirror those guesses. And yet, this widely held belief is not true. Unarmed whites have by far the greatest chance of being killed by police – twice the chances of unarmed African-Americans.

 

After I published my June 5 essay, a good friend wrote to say that she, too, found it hard to believe that my numbers were accurate. She asked for the source of the data. I presume she assumed it came from Fox News or some right-wing think tank. In fact, it came from The Washington Post, the left-leaning newspaper that had started tracking police killings in 2016 to document its own convictions about racial bias among the police, and especially the white police.

 

And another good friend, a very bright, Harvard educated man, sent me this email:

 

I often wondered about this, in particular given that the data you cited appeared to be referring to an absolute number – i.e., not adjusted for share of population. So I did a bit of easy digging and found that, as reflected in the attached chart, while whites are indeed shot by police about twice as much in raw numbers each year, when adjusted for the percentage of population of each group, blacks are killed by police more than three times as much, and that number seems to be growing rather quickly over the last three years.

 

He supplied this chart:

 

Shot to death by Police whites 457 399 370
blacks 223 209 235
Ratio white to black 2.05 1.91 1.57
Population whites  249,000,000  250,000,000  250,500,000
blacks  43,000,000  44,000,000  44,000,000
Ratio white to black 5.79 5.68 5.69
Percentage of Population whites 0.00018% 0.00016% 0.00015%
Shot to death by Police blacks 0.00052% 0.00048% 0.00053%
           
Ratio black to white shot to death    2.83  2.98  3.62
by police as a percent of population

 

This was my response to him:

 

Thanks for sending that chart. I thought it was interesting.

The chart tracks the total number of blacks and whites shot to death by police, while I was quoting data on unarmed people.

One thing we can conclude from comparing this data to the data I cited is that the chances of getting shot to death by police if you are carrying a gun is about 10 times greater than if you aren’t. However, whichever data you look at, the idea of comparing these deaths to an entire population, however sensible it seems when you first hear it, is specious.

Let me explain.

As I’m sure you know, when you are analyzing data through a ratio (or percentage), it’s essential to use the correct fractions. We agree on the numerators: the number of people shot to death by police. But my proposition is that you are using the wrong denominators.

For the right denominators, you have to choose numbers that reflect the question you are trying to answer – which, in this case, is whether these data might reflect racial bias on the part of the police.

To answer that question, you can’t use the entire population of each group as your denominator. You have to use the number of people killed by police while being pursued and/or arrested for violent crimes, because that is when 99% of police killings occur.

Does that make sense?

If so, we must look to arrest records for those numbers. And when we do, we find that among all those arrested for and convicted of violent crimes, approximately half are African-Americans.

If you can see the logic in this, you will agree that since African-Americans are arrested and convicted for 50% of the violent crimes, the “right” ratio (the ratio that would indicate that there is zero bias against African-Americans) would be 1:1. In other words, the same number of African-Americans killed by cops should be roughly equal to the number of whites killed by cops.

But, in fact, roughly twice as many whites as African-Americans are killed by cops. So if the goal of the analysis is to find out if there is anti-black bias in police killings, the data says there is not.

This conclusion had already been reached in 2016 when The Washington Post started tracking police killings – to verify its assumption (the one so many of us shared) that African-Americans are more likely than whites to be shot and killed by cops. In that year, Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., Ph.D., who is African-American, examined more than 1000 shootings in 10 major police departments and found “no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.”

Fryer did find that African-Americans are more likely than whites to experience other types of force by the police, including being handcuffed without arrest, pepper-sprayed, or pushed to the ground. But as to the risk of being killed by a cop? Whether the individual is armed or unarmed, the chances of getting shot are twice as high for whites as for African-Americans.

I am sure that seems absurd to you. It seems absurd to me.

One possible explanation might be due to what some social scientists call implicit bias. This is the idea that beneath one’s pronounced views on race and racism, there is an unconscious bias that determines subconscious and emotional reactions.

To test that theory, studies called implicit association tests (IATs) have been performed using a variety of psychological methods, from questionnaires to simulations where biological responses are measured against images of African-Americans and whites in a variety of circumstances.

One such study explored whether implicit bias predicted police decisions to shoot. The researchers found that officers were less likely to erroneously shoot African-American suspects, and were slower to shoot when faced with African-American suspects as compared with white suspects.

That was one study. Other IAT studies have come to different conclusions. And meta studies that looked at all of these IAT studies found that when it comes to the use of lethal force, it is impossible to conclude that anti-black biases exist.

We are talking, here, strictly about police killings. We are not talking about other possible expressions of bias, such as how suspects are questioned and handled in non-lethal situations. My personal view, based on my own experience, is that African-Americans – not all African-Americans, but young black men – are likely to be viewed by police as more dangerous than whites and are therefore treated with less respect, more dominance, and greater fear than whites. That is a serious issue that I will tackle some day in the future.

But as to the assumption that African-Americans are more likely to be killed by police, the data says otherwise. In fact, it says quite the opposite. So that should be good news to anyone that, like me, has long believed the myth that the mainstream media and left-leaning academics and think tanks continue to propagate.

 

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