The fine art market is booming: It seems like every day, another auction record is set for "the highest price ever paid [fill in artist's name here]." So what does that mean for the painting you bought to match your sofa a few years back? It may increase in worth, or it may be as salable as your kid's pasta-filled craft project.
So how do you tell? Well, as with any investment, you need to do your research and go beyond your comfort zone. The art market is fickle, and there are no guarantees of profitability, but with a little legwork and forethought, you can fill your home with images that may prove worthy assets down the line. Consider these tips for choosing fine art and identifying the Michelangelo from the macaroni.
Original Ideas: Paintings and Giclées
You walk into a gallery and fall in love with a $5,000 painting, but you can't justify the price tag. The gallery owner shows you a selection of the same artist's work for a humble $500, explaining that the pieces are giclées. A giclée is a machine-made print, a reproduction printed on fine paper or canvas with color and clarity that can rival the original. But it's still a copy.
The rarity of a work of art is what gives it value, so an original will always be worth more than a reproduction. While a giclée may come labeled with superlatives like "museum quality" or "archival" and the seller may hawk a certificate of authenticity, it will never be as valuable as an original. Some artists and appraisers even view giclées as a gimmick for novice artists and neophyte collectors.
Still, there's no denying that a giclée puts fine art within reach for many art enthusiasts, and while a certificate doesn't lend much value to the reproduction, a fresh signature and especially a remarque (an original drawing made by the artist in the margin of the giclée) could bump up future value.
You may hear stories of giclées being proudly exhibited at such noble institutions as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the pieces held in these collections are limited edition Iris prints of digital images or digital manipulations – such as "Nest and Trees" by Kiki Smith at the Met. They are not reproductions of original paintings. Museums do, however, sell giclée versions of masterpieces to generate income. These giclées, though pleasing to your eye and soul, won't pull in any future income for you.
Doing the Loupe de Loupe: Prints and Posters
In the mid-19th century, Currier & Ives brought art into the homes of America with their mass-produced prints. During the first half of the 20th century, a quarter of U.S. households were decorated with prints by artist Maxfield Parrish ("Ectasy," one of his most popular, illustrates this article). These images are the predecessors of the posters sold in malls and museum shops today. Posters, like giclées, give you access to a masterpiece, but a poster is not the same as a fine art print, which can be in the form of a hand-pulled silkscreen, lithograph or block print.
You can often distinguish an artist print from a poster with the naked eye, though in some cases, you may need a loupe or magnifying glass. The process of offset printing leaves a tiny dot matrix on the paper: Think of a comic book or a Roy Lichtenstein painting with its exaggerated dots of color.
Several factors determine the value of an artist's print: the size of the edition (that is, the number of prints the artist makes of one work), the significance of the work, the condition of the print, and whether it is signed and numbered by the artist. In the prints market, it is a rarity that bestows value. A low run of limited edition prints is more valuable than a mass-produced image. Even an earlier pull of a print—say No.10 of 100 (rather than No. 80 of 100)—can mean better value.
Cruising Cruise Art Auctions
A cruise art auction is precisely as it sounds: it's a sea cruise that displays and sells fine art. With name-brand artist prints, drawings, and paintings that come hyped with certificates of authenticity, the cruise auction can seem like a boon to the aspiring art investor. The artwork changes each day as lots are sold off, and written appraisals suggest pieces are offered at a fraction of their value. You might feel like you've stumbled into a floating investment paradise.
The artwork at these auctions is genuine, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good investment. Cruise auctions work on the principle that buyers believe authenticity equals high value. Unfortunately, authenticity does not guarantee the rarity of a piece or its importance in the art world. The critical guideline for buying art cannot be repeated too often: rare art is valuable art.
But how can you know whether your auction find is a rare commodity? Do your research. Hit the internet café on your ship before you plunk down the plastic. You can google the artist and the specific artwork to get some history and check sites such as artfact.com or eBay to get a representative sample for pricing.
Selling Your Art Investment
Most people who buy paintings don't end up selling them later on, and that fact can skew pricing samples for art. When a painting is auctioned, it's often because the owner of the work thinks the piece will attract a handsome price. Auction prices reflect only a tiny amount of art resales, and some experts estimate that only 0.5% of paintings bought are ever resold.
If you have a true find hanging on your wall, and you're ready to part with it, your best shot at a decent payout will be a fine art auction house, which will typically charge as little as 3% or as high as 50% of your sale price for auctioning your piece, according to ChicagoAppraisers.com. The do-it-yourself internet auction sites usually draw far less coin.
Still, art is a long-term investment, and while the art market can be stable or even show gigantic returns on investment during boom times, it is one asset that can easily plummet in value during seasons of recession.
Final Tips for Investing in the Arts
Gallery owners will tell you that buying art is an emotional decision, but don't fall for that line if you are thinking of it as an investment. Research any living artists who catch your eye. Learn about their education, their commissions, and their exhibits.
Visit museums, galleries, and art institutions in your area regularly so you can recognize potential movers and shakers in your region. If you're considering a piece by a renowned artist, get an appraisal. Look for quality, and don't buy anything in bad condition. With a little effort, you may befriend the next Rothko or unearth a lost masterpiece that's worth a million.