By Julie Miller
Fine art operates within a unique global sweet spot that stretches across the intersections between culture, commerce and fashion. One of the most fascinating things about the industry is the certainty with which its pundits proclaim their various realities. The internet is awash with opinions (of varying quality) from art experts telling us how the global sector is nothing but a money laundering mechanism, or how gallerists choose personalities, not artists, or how a small group of elite intellectuals control what is viewed as valid, and what isn’t.
Which makes things tricky for the aspirant art investor. With so much certainty zinging around – which is often very contradictory in spirit and message – is it even possible to assess the value of fine art?
Honesty is required in answering this question. The truth is that there are a lot of variables at play in the art world, and that these make value assessments tricky. People do launder cash by buying art. Many significant art careers have clearly grown from the turf of dubious talent. There is also an awful lot of self serving verbiage released from art intellectuals.
But, even with these truths acknowledged, there are still important value fundamentals at play that investors can, and should, consider.
Skill is a subjective idea, but there are nonetheless simple mechanisms that can be used to assess it. The first, and most important, is the basic question: Could you do this? Or, conversely, is the art you’re examining a product of years of technical experience? Even if you’re not an art expert, it is generally safe to trust your gut in this assessment. A pile of clothes on the floor is just that – no matter how extensive the artist statement or impressive the price tag.
Complexity can also be a useful lens from which to assess skill. What – in your view, and in the view of those around you, including those in the business – is the level of complexity of the work? High value artists tend, as they get older, to produce work that is clearly the result of complex, sophisticated effort. The correlation between complexity and art value is strong. An artist producing epic work in a logistical sense is very often bankable over the medium and long term.
Is it unique?
There’s a reason Africa’s exquisite wildlife wood carvings will never sell for huge prices, and it’s not because they are low quality. It’s because they are everywhere. The more generic a work of art, the more dubious its long term value – even if the artist is hot stuff on the celebrity scene. The more unique work is, the better the chance of it achieving, and maintaining, financial value.
Are criminals using the work for money laundering?
Does it appeal?
Are people engaged by the work at galleries? Do they stand around and talk about it? Do they come back to examine it again? These are important questions, but you have to be careful in answering them, because the art world is a trendy place, and you don’t want to get caught in the breaking wave of fashion. If you’re seriously interested in a piece, or an artist, the best way to assess the strength of its broad market appeal is to speak to an industry expert.
How long has the artist been around? Have they got a track record of investment in their art, their talent, and their creative community? These factors speak to longevity and legitimacy, which have an important bearing on value. Simply put, an artist without a long and strong industry track record is unlikely to be a good financial bet. Oh, and do they make art, currently? This sounds simplistic, but it’s an important idea. Prolific artists tend to grow and develop well in terms of financial value. Those who only cough up a few items at random times, on the other hand, easily vanish from the sector altogether, taking the financial value of their work with them.
This is a vital factor. Picking up a piece that was created by a currently famous artist in their youth sounds like a fantastic idea, and it often is. But if the artist knocked out the piece using shoddy materials, your money will go down a black hole.
Here are some pointers:
Don’t, ever, buy a ball point pen sketch, because in ten years the ink will have vanished. Watch out for work on acidic paper, which degrades over time. Canvas quality is also important to value – a poorly stretched or made canvas will lose quality, and value, over time.
The types of paints the artist uses matter, a lot, because pigments vary dramatically. Some are natural, others are synthetic. Some are student quality, some are artist grade. As with a ball point pen, work created with a synthetic, student grade pigment is unlikely to be a good bet in investment terms.
It’s always a good sign if an artist has someone actively managing their career. This person is often a gallerist, but can also be a career manager, or agent. They ensure the artist doesn’t release low quality work onto the market that impacts overall value, and also ensure a general level of professionalism in the distribution and showcasing of work. Equally importantly, a career manager drives the vital PR and marketing engine that creates – and sustains – profile and, ultimately, market demand.
Relationships and reputation
Fine art mythology is filled with stories about crazy, volatile artists, but the reality is much more prosaic – there is a strong relationship between market value and the quality of the artist’s relationships with sales agents, galleries and the art industry as a whole. Generally speaking, artists that people want to work with are likely to produce work that gains long term value.
And, finally, there’s the thorny issue of reputation. We all know that in the media reputations can rise and fall with the winds, but, nonetheless, good reviews from important people matter a great deal. If critics, key galleries and respected industry figures are full of praise for an artist, that’s a good thing.
Of course, if they’re full of outrage and scorn, that could be worth a bet too! While art value is far more predictable than many people make out, weirdness always lurks. Maybe that’s why it’s such a compelling sector to work in.
About the Julie Miller Investment Art Institute
The Julie Miller Investment Art Institute is an art investment and management company focussed on harnessing and developing the global investment potential of the African art industry for the benefit of all stakeholders, and to allow art to make a greater contribution to the economic development of our continent.
Based at the Mall of Africa, the organisation is one of few that offers access for residents
of the north to the fast rising talent of the Joburg arts scene which, while vibrant, remains rooted to specific locations which are often inaccessible to the wider Gauteng public.