Investing in art -- buyer beware!
The annual Nine-Ring, Multimillion Dollar Art Circus is upon us once again. With Labor Day out of the way and with everyone safely back in town, the art dealers are readying their wares and opening their galleries for what they hope will be a banner year.Skip to next paragraph
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What the public may not know (and what the art press tends to ignore) is that not everything seen or sold in these galleries will be art. A great deal of it will be junk -- or at best superficial work mimicking fashionable styles or unabashedly catering to the banal and the sentimental.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the more serious-minded and responsible members of the art community -- and this includes the critical fraternity -- is that if such work is ignored, it will go away.
Well, it hasn't. If anything, the situation has gotten worse. The number of slick, empty, and hackneyed works masquerading as art in our galleries is greater now than at any time I can remember. A major reason is that buying art is now considered both the fashionable and the economically shrewd thing to do. Everyone seems to be doing it -- often with prestige and profit as a result --and so the idea has taken hold in these inflation-conscious times that buying art might indeed be the answer to our investment and future security problems.
Fine and good -- if one knows what one is doing. Unfortunately, too many who try it don't. Not only is buying art for investment tricky, it is also dangerous unless the buyer knows a great deal about art, has a trusted friend who does, or goes to an established and reputable dealer.
One of my recurring and most frustrating experiences is seeing beginning collectors seduced by impressive galleries, expensive frames, and fancy salesmanship into buying paintings at stiff prices that vaguely resemble impressionist or School-of-Paris works, or that are pure hack -- even though painted in the most up-to-date and apparently daring style. Or to see them laying out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for what they assume is a fine-art print by a contemporary master, when what they are actually getting is a pencil-signed and numbered mechanical reproduction -- or at best a large-edition serigraph or lithograph -- by a famous but slick magazine illustrator.
The buyer of art should be wary even if investment is not his motive. It is too easy to be bedazzled by novelty, impressed by mere verisimilitude, taken in by highly touted names, or stampeded by a critics enthusiasms. Although I can think of no better reason for buying a work of art than that one likes it, I would still suggest that a novice collector think twice before buying -- unless something strikes hime so forcefully that he just has to have it.
Over 20 years as an art appraiser have taught me that a passion for art is one of the surest guarantees of a quality collection. And that is true if the collection reflects a strictly historical or highly idiosyncratic point of view, or is so lovingly and thoughtfully -- but daringly -- assembled that it becomes a major force in influencing less adventuresome collectors, critics, and museum curators.