Buying art for love or money

The dotcom shakeout has shaken up the fine-arts market, too.

"The last 14 months, we have seen trillions [of dollars of value] evaporate," Charles Moffet, co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's, the auction house, told the Toronto Star this week. A May 10 Sotheby's sale projected to earn $108 million pulled in only $85 million, with nearly half the works unsold.

Instant millionaires who wanted to put a Picasso - any old Picasso will do - on their walls have stopped buying.

Art has always had an informal market of its own, and it's clear that it's now cooled off after a big run-up. But can art prices actually be tracked over time and quantified as an investment?

A pair of New York University economists think so. Jianping Mei and Michael Moses have created the Mei/Moses fine art index, which tracks the prices of fine arts from 1875 to the present.

Their conclusion? Art is a good, but not spectacular, performer. "As an investment, art gives a return comparable to government bonds - plus you have something nice to hang on your wall," Mr. Moses told The Associated Press this week.

Over the past 125 years, artworks increased in value by an average of 5.6 percent per year. Over the same period, corporate bonds rose 5.7 percent annually and the stock market, 11.1 percent.

Buy art for love, not money, the adage goes. This week a work of "textile art" - a pair of 1880s denim jeans - sold for $46,532. They were purchased by the Levi Strauss Co., which loved the idea of getting hold of the oldest-known pair of Levis in existence. And for the seller: What an investment!

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