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.

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.

That same experience has taught me that nothing will ruin a collection so easily as mixed or tawdry motives. I have appraised valuable collections so confused and jumbled in style, quality, and attitude (although they all shared one thing: a hefty purchase price) that it was painfully apparent they had been assembled exclusively for profit or prestige. As a matter of fact, owners of such collections invariably discuss recent purchases only in terms of their market value and resale potential -- or point them out as though they were new diplomas awarded for exceptional achievements.

Asked over the phone by such a collector to drop by and appraise his recently acquired John Marin for insurance, I asked if it was an oil or a watercolor. "I don't know," he said, "let me check."

On the other hand, I have seen collections worth relatively little money so carefully and lovingly put together that they themselves became works of art, and served beautifully as expressions of their owners' character and enthusiasms.

It all depends on why one collects. I have no sympathy for the collector I once heard teasingly berate a painter for remaining unknown -- and thus failing to increase dramatically the value of the painter's works the collector had bought a dozen year's before.

And I have none for the collector whose extraordinary collection of modern masters I appraised in a bank vault -- where they had lain, neatly wrapped and stacked, for the previous two decades.

I have known novice collectors so greedy for a bargain that they became angry at me for advising them against the purchase of works whose authenticity was in question (although I had been expressly hired for my advice). Others were so eager to score a coup against a rival that they had their checkbooks out even before the provenance of the work for sale could be checked, or indeed even bofore a close examination of its condition could be made.

To such collectors I have nothing to say anymore. I have, as a matter of fact, stopped advising them.

But I feel very different about the beginning and not partticularly informed collector who wants to buy art he genuinely likes and that he hopes will also increase in value -- one who has no overwhelming desire to impress anyone with his good taste, inside knowledge, or shrewd bargaining.

I would advise such a person to shop around thoroughly, get advice from a professional or a knowledgeable friend if he wishes, but to buy only what he really likes, and by all means to forget the investment side of it.

Be pleased if the painting or piece of sculpture you buy today doubles or even triples in value over the next 30 years. that's very nice, but it's not very shrewd investing -- not only because you could probably have done better elsewhere, but also because, when the time comes to sell, you will have to pay a dealer a hefty consignment fee (anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent) to sell it for y ou.

So stay out of the art-for-investment business -- unless you want to do it asm a business. Look around. Visit all the galleries you can. Compare what you see there to what is in the museums and in the art books. Involve yourself in art and in art history until you feel you can trust your own judgment. And then buy from the heart.

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