11 de septiembre de 2009

"Art Market & Rich Outsiders"

The art market lure is irresistible to outsiders with money to spend and a weak spot for painting or sculpture. The huge numbers tossed out by auction houses at the end of major sales further stimulate the temptation to have a fling, particularly when they hear that in contrast to the rest of the economy, the art market continues to be bullish

Far from sagging, prices have held up during the recession. New auction records were set throughout the first half of 2009. So, newcomers might conclude, here is the dream area for investors. Sadly, there is a snag. If “investment” means spending cash in the hope of making a profit on the basis of careful calculation, using objective data and dependable measuring instruments, then investment is the wrong word. There are no identical units in art, because no two works are ever absolutely similar, making exact calculation impossible.

In painting, this is obvious. One landscape by Claude Monet does not equal another landscape by the same Monet. Even if painted in the same year, the subject will differ. And even if painted in the same place, the light, the composition, the density of the color scheme will vary. The prices that Monets will fetch may be $2 million or $20 million, or more, depending on a host of factors, like size, period, subject, color. To understand the reasons for each specific price, prospective buyers must have an eye trained to evaluate the quality of the composition, the vibrancy of the tonalities. And even if they enjoy that ability, this is still not enough.

The price of a painting also depends on condition. That again may make any given work twice as expensive as expected if perfect, or unsalable if not too good. The price is also related to the freshness to the market, to the surprise effect on potential buyers. If recently seen, the picture will be less attractive. No work of art will sell at auction for the same price within a month. If re-offered so quickly, it is likely to crash unsold.

Complication does not stop here. Over the long term, tastes change. Impressionist paintings from the early phase of the movement in the 1870s were the rage three decades ago. Today, the near abstract views of lilies floating on the pond of Monet’s Japanese garden at Giverny are more admired. Actually, few are still available. Those likely to come up would be half-finished works, best avoided by inexperienced beginners.

Going to an adviser is hardly a solution. If employed by an auction house, he or she has a vested interest in overstating the merits of what the company will be auctioning in a few weeks. Resisting that temptation requires admirable selflessness. And if the adviser is independent, it is prudent to ask yourself whether he or she is a saint whose sole ambition in life is to help you make millions while the adviser gets a miserable commission.

For amusement’s sake, check the pre-sale estimates of ten pictures consigned to any major auction against the prices that they actually fetched, and you will be lucky if three out of ten match. In Old Master paintings, currently the most rewarding area because many more top-quality works remain available in the market than in the severely depleted field of Impressionist and Modern art, the discrepancies between estimates and the prices eventually realized are greater still.

At Christie’s on July 7, a still life by Willem Heda amazed leading dealers in Dutch-school paintings as it climbed to £1.38 million, or $2.24 million. Christie’s forecast was £300,000 to £500,000, plus the sale charge of over 12 percent. Connoisseurs were not sure that the picture would sell — the background had been entirely painted over, they said. Usually, such drastic “restoration” is enough to kill a picture. Instead, two anonymous bidders sent it flying to a world record price.

Another extravaganza of a different character was the £825,250 paid for the portrait of a young Florentine patrician by the little-known Giuliano Bugiardini. This nearly tripled the highest expectations pinned on it. True, the picture, unsigned like so many Renaissance works, was thought until 1987 to be a self-portrait by Raphael. The Italian art historian Laura Pagnotta then included it in her book on Bugiardini. Four years later, the distinguished English retired curator Cecil Gould made a strong case for restituting the likeness to Raphael. Last year the German scholar Jürg Meyer zur Capellen and the American curator Everett Fahy independently backed Miss Pagnotta’s judgment.

However, the buyer of the “Burgiardini” in July may have preferred to heed the remarks made in a letter dated April 15, 1982, by Sir John Pope Hennessy. The renowned British specialist of Renaissance art had never come across another Bugiardini “so evidently innovative,” or with “so powerful a presence, and none in which the dress is painted with such boldness.”

If the portrait is convincingly dubbed a Raphael once more, it will be worth ten times the price it cost. If not, it may be regarded as Bugiardini’s ultimate masterpiece. Acquired for a world record price, for Bugiardini, the portrait is undoubtedly a marvelous buy — but not necessarily one that guarantees a profit in the future.

In that same sale, there was a river landscape by Jan van Goyen, signed with initials and dated (1653), which had been sold for $300,000 in New York on Jan. 31, 1997. This year, the Dutch picture was knocked down at only £90,000 — well within Christie’s estimated bracket. Knock off the saleroom charge to the consignor and that leaves him or her with less than half of his or her 1997 outlay. Condition perhaps accounts for the disappointment, but in 1997 it was no better. An error in technical and aesthetic evaluation was apparently made.

In all three cases, the causes behind the outcome, felicitous or not, boil down to the central problems confronting art market players. Much hinges on perception, a human factor as variable and unpredictable as the weather. At any given point, there is rarely total agreement about the characterization of a picture among the finest connoisseurs, even if the authorship is beyond dispute. One may deem it admirably composed and another not really vigorous enough.

Not only is perception at the heart of the matter, but any connoisseur’s perception rarely remains constant over time. The best-trained art lovers see things differently as years go by. Which is why buying art is always a financial gamble, not an investment. And, surprise surprise, those who play that game best are the professionals.


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