Art for investment's sake

16:00, Dec 18 2012
GILT-EDGED INVESTMENT: The casual collector gets priced out of the real top-notch stuff, like Pablo Picasso's Femme au Fauteuil, but the same buying principles apply even if you're on a budget.

Blow up a term deposit or corporate bond note to poster size. Put it in a nice frame, and hang it on your wall. Take a step back to admire the view. Does it make your heart flutter? Does it speak to you? 
Even the most passionate stockbroker is unlikely to be moved to tears by the sight of a freshly printed share certificate. 
Investing in art offers an aesthetic allure alongside the potential to make some of the folding stuff. But it's a perilous game. 
Tastes and styles change over the years - sometimes rapidly - and you always run the risk of being stuck with a piece of work that the market has no appetite for. 
Vanilla investments - cash, bonds, shares - are much easier to measure and quantify. 
Let's be honest right from the start; if you actually make money while collecting art, you're doing well.  
Nevertheless, there are some steps you can take to maximise the chances of getting something that you enjoy while it appreciates in value. 
Market Research 
The art market is big, and expanding quickly. You don't just have the massive body of established artists to dive into, but also a growing wave of contemporary practitioners. 
If you can't tell your Cottons from your McCahons, or thought Dick Frizzell was a particularly awkward skin disease, it's time to either find a new hobby or do some serious homework. 
To get your finger on the pulse and work out what suits your tastes, you need to be going to galleries, auctions, awards, reading books and catalogues, and talking to dealers. 
If your bean-counting financial adviser is a bit out her depth discussing the merits of impressionist versus renaissance, you could always employ an art consultant to help out. 
Canterbury-based art consultant Gillie Deans proved her credentials straight away upon meeting at an Auckland cafe. 
A cleancut bloke in blue overalls popped in for a coffee at the table behind us. That's Michael Parekowhai, she said, jumping up to say hello to the renowned local sculptor.  
Deans has to know the industry inside out, because her job requires her to meet the artistic demands of all kinds of individuals, families, businesses and institutions. 
When it comes to treating art as an investment, "there are no givens", she says. 
Nevertheless, there are things that you need to look out for - investment criteria, if you will. 
Investment Criteria 
''What's really important when a work comes up for auction is the provenance,'' says Deans. 
That means its history, creation and ownership over the years - which all influence the value and prestige. 
Of course, the newer work will have little or no provenance to go by. 
"People love to talk about 'emerging' artists," says Deans. "But I actually think you have to wait until they've emerged." 
To use a crude financial metaphor, unknown artists are the equivalent of start-up companies in their earliest stages.  
They're waving an exciting business plan and you can spot some talent, but there's no way of knowing whether they'll turn into the next Trade Me. 
The potential rewards are high, but so are the risks. Few people will put money into a company until they've seen some evidence that they've got the wherewithal to stick to it. 
The same applies to artists. You have to look for someone who is committed to a career in art, has been recognised with some kind of award or scholarship, or formed a relationship with a reputable gallery. 
Middle-aged office workers who have taken up watercolours to unleash their creative streak need not apply. 
Blue Chips 
What does that make the big-name artists, the likes of Bill Hammond, Charles Goldie, Colin McCahon or Frances Hodgkins? 
The equivalent of the solid and reliable blue chip companies, of course. 
"I'd hate to be quoted to be using that term in relation to art - but people do!" says Sophie Coupland, a director at Auckland auction house Webb's. 
But you should always buy the best piece you can afford. 
"You're better to buy one really good picture and pay a substantial price for it, then buy a whole lot of lesser things." 
Throughout the late nineties and early noughties there was a general surge where pretty much everything rose, says Coupland. 
Now the market is more discerning, but the top end has remained sound. 
Buying a "representative" work is important too. If someone is a famed landscape painter, you'd probably avoid the misshapen results of their brief foray into pottery. 
There are other obvious things to watch for, like condition, and many subtleties too. Take Goldie's striking portraits, for example: 
"A subject that is very downcast and melancholy is going to have less appeal - generally - to collectors, than a subject that is proud with mana," says Coupland. 
Minimum Investment 
The casual collector gets priced out of the real top-notch stuff, but the same buying principles apply even if you're on a budget, says Coupland. 
"Obviously you're not going to get a Bill Hammond painting - you'll be looking at some of the younger practitioners." 
There's a body of young artists tied to dealer-galleries where you could be reasonably sure the value of their work would stay sound, she says. 
If you can't afford originals, don't lose hope. 
"Limited edition prints are a very good way to start to collect, because they are affordable," says Deans. 
You can find prints starting around $1500 or so, and while they don't often gain hugely they will increase in value if you buy carefully, says Deans. 
"It's very democratic from the artist's point of view, because it does make their work available to the modest collector." 
Prints are usually made in small batches and are not the same as reproductions, or posters signed by the artist. 
Buy Low, Sell High 
Is there such thing as getting a bargain when buying art? 
Deans laughs. "Don't be so vulgar!"

But, yes, she says, it's possible. For example, there was a period when even the august Goldie fell out of favour. 
If you pick something that's out of vogue right now it well might swing back around. The problem is there's inevitably going to be a certain amount of guesswork involved. 
But there are also opportunities to get good deals for those who are clued-up and always on the hunt. With the sheer volume of art coming through auction houses, some don't get categorised where they should be. And you can always take advantage of others' misfortune if they are forced to auction. 
Return on Investment 
Industry veteran Warwick Henderson recently released a book titled Behind the Canvas - An insider's guide to the New Zealand art market. 
It delves into the whole industry, yet almost everyone who's interviewed him has hounded him about investing. He graciously agrees to give his take on the subject yet again. 
"If you're worried about economics, and indices, and returns and things, you're best off sticking to the sharemarket." 
While an internet search dredges up all kinds of figures purporting to measure returns, he's sceptical of the idea that you can predict annual returns with much accuracy. 
"You can juggle figures any way you want." 
Often a successful art 'investment' happens by accident rather than design, Henderson says. 
He knows of one couple who were given a McCahon back in the day when they were cheap as chips. It sold for several hundred thousand dollars recently. They didn't even like it. 
That's certainly not to say you can't buy sensibly to maximise the chance of protecting your money, but it can't be coolly calculated like a bank deposit. 
Henderson says the ongoing reward you reap - or dividend, to extend our financial metaphor - is the thrill and enjoyment of owning art. 
"With the knowledge also that if it's a serious New Zealand painting you'll at least get your money back, or close to it. If you double it, then that's a bonus," he says. 
With the size and diversity of the market today, it's not too hard to find something that ticks all the boxes. 
The message coming through from all our art boffins is that you must at least buy something that you personally connect with. 
Otherwise it might just sit on your wall for all time, reminding you with every glance of the foolishness of trying to outfox a particularly fickle market.