THREE STEPS TO INVESTMENT SUCCESS: BUYING THE RIGHT ART, ANTIQUES, AND COLLECTIBLES
|THREE STEPS TO INVESTMENT SUCCESS: BUYING THE RIGHT ART, ANTIQUES, AND COLLECTIBLES|
Ark Limited Publishing
You can purchase THREE STEPS TO INVESTMENT SUCCESS: BUYING THE RIGHT ART, ANTIQUES, AND COLLECTIBLES by clicking here.
‘Collectors buy art for many reasons: some buy purely for investment, others for love. Sometimes a collector tries to find a balance between their love of the art form and the possibility of their piece increasing in value. A good eye coupled with good business sense can be a powerful combination when buying any art’.
--Andrew Van Emden and Dr. George Pantela, authors of ‘Collecting Animation Art’
What I am going to relate is what you need to know about art, antiques, and collectibles if you want to make smart financial choices in what you buy. If you follow my advice, you will make an investment profit on your art, antiques, and collectibles. You can make art, antiques, and collectibles not just a source of enjoyment but an enjoyable source of value. And what can be more pleasant in this life?
I am a long time professional art, antiques, and collectibles appraiser, certified and highly experienced in the sale of art, antiques, and collectibles as well as their appraisal. I felt I had to write this book because I got tired of holding in my disbelief with the poor financial choices people make in their art, antiques, and collectibles purchases. I got tired of muttering under my breath to myself as if I were arguing with a collective buying public that I see to be definitely off cue in acquiring with an interest in value and quality as well as matching the color of the drapes, filling a hole in the corner of the room, or buying to satisfy a whim.
In this book I relate my own experiences as an appraiser and investor in a field not traditionally accepted as a place to invest money. I also tackle the enormous social and intellectual obstacles standing in the way of the interested public viewing their appreciable personal properties from a serious financial perspective.
Further, because quality in art, antiques, and collectibles is more or less tied to price, your attention to the markets and how they work has a reciprocal effect in helping you to enhance your overall expertise and enjoyment of the experience of collecting sophisticated artifacts. This is activity that requires effort and knowledge, but I do it, and so can you. You just have to lay the proper groundwork for the activity, and that’s what I will tell you all about.
Reading this book will enable buyers to accommodate their particular areas of interest within the wide universe of art, antiques, and collectibles with a viable financial acquisitions strategy pertaining to those interests. Despite its focus on weaning the beginner from using a scattershot acquisitions policy to purchasing more carefully and systematically from a financial standpoint, this book will also appeal to more seasoned collectors by tailoring their collecting more closely to value and appreciation.
How to Use This Book
This book is divided sequentially into three steps designed to get you from less-than-zero in your ability to effectively invest in art, antiques, and collectibles to where I might be tempted to ask you a question, because you have surpassed me in your knowledge of a particular area of the art, antiques, and collectibles investment field. The book is full of amusing and interesting anecdotes largely relating my experiences in the marketplace which I use to illustrate the principles I present.
These steps are as follows:
STEP I: CLEARING YOUR MIND ABOUT ART, ANTIQUES, AND COLLECTIBLES
This part describes what you need to unlearn before you can start to think effectively about appreciable personal properties as investments. It deals with misinformation, misconceptions, attitudes, and poor buying habits rampant among the public at large—things which impede effective investment strategies. By describing and discounting these obstacles to rational thinking and action which are almost Biblical in their pervasiveness and in their hold on the popular imagination, I will cause many of you to see yourselves as ignorant in your knowledge of the appreciable personal properties markets and compel you to discard old ideas and attitudes. After wiping your mental ‘slate’ clean, I can then provide you with the information that you will need to develop effective buying habits in the steps that follow.
STEP II: PREPARE TO START BUYING WITH A FRESH APPROACH (Don’t start buying yet!)
This part of the book describes what you need to learn before you can start buying as an effective investor. It describes the evolving market in investment-quality appreciable personal properties, and it outlines their similarities and differences with other types of investments. It defines quality art, antiques, and collectibles and describes what means are available to educate yourself about your interests in these objects.
Here I also give you an outline of the general structure of the personal property markets to familiarize yourself with how all personal properties are bought and sold, including art and antiques. I do this so that you will start to develop an internal ‘map’ of the valuable properties marketplaces and have a general idea about what you are buying and selling and where you are buying and selling it.
STEP III: GO FOR IT: BECOMING A COLLECTOR AND AN INVESTOR
Here I unleash you on my friends, the unsuspecting art, antiques, and collectibles professionals, newly armed with useful knowledge and ready to cut a swath in the market. In this section I also provide basic principles and ideas associated with knowledgeable buying and selling and how they are used by the value minded collector. I revisit the markets I described previously only now with specific reference to your being a knowledgeable buyer and seller. I also talk about strategies for buying, selling, or bartering, and I talk about effectively maintaining your collection.
STEP I: CLEARING YOUR MIND ABOUT ART, ANTIQUES, AND COLLECTIBLES
CHAPTER 1: THE ABYSMAL STATE OF ART, ANTIQUES, AND COLLECTIBLES INVESTMENT
The Strange Hypocrisy of the Marketplace
It’s been a popular tradition that when collecting someone shouldn’t associate value with the personal choices involved in that activity. I believe that many people are so intimidated by the double standards and muddled thinking traditional in dealing with these two topics in tandem, that is, personal choice in collecting and the financial value associated with that collecting, that they avoid its rational consideration.
So, as they follow me around while I’m evaluating their collections, clients often protest that their collecting choices are governed strictly by what they like and that they are not motivated by financial considerations. To say the least, this makes for very strange conversations, because while my customers are protesting the thought of assigning value to priceless family heirlooms they have one ear cocked as I tell them what their properties are worth in the present market and their characteristics as effective investments---which is why they hired me in the first place!
But someone doesn’t have to broadcast, after all, what they pay for anything, and that includes stocks or bonds as well as valuable personal possessions. Talking about investments is one thing. Intelligent consideration of investments is another! This kind of low regard for mixing appreciable personal properties and investment has existed has more to do with poor conceptualization, incomplete market data, and lack of knowledge than from any satisfactory analysis that would definitively discount these properties as investment vehicles. The art of investing intelligently in appreciable personal properties is still in its formative stages, and even in this general circumstance it is possible to draw useful comparisons between appreciable personal properties as investments and other types of investments for the benefit of readers.
Later on in the book I speculate why this state of affairs exists, what solutions are available to bridge the gap between casually buying items of interest and true investing, and why I think the present is a good time, as opposed to any previous time, for presenting a book that does this. I do not believe that art, antiques, or collectibles are sacred cows huffily defying explanation and that there can be a sensible consideration of these topics such that collectors can benefit financially from their buying activities.
Thinking About Appreciable Personal Properties and Buying Them: Oil and Water
It’s possible to over-personalize and under-analyze the choices someone makes in buying or selling valuable properties—(or any investment property for that matter!) That this is regarding valuable properties has to do with a lack of interest or focus on the factors contributing to value in art, antiques, and collectibles, both by the buyers of these properties but also by people in the industry (Not only that, but it has become fashionable on the antique valuation shows for appraisers to encourage owners of valuable properties to actually use these properties despite their high value and thereby risk damage to these properties, which is the unfortunate outcome of an incorrect industry bias which is dead set against regarding any such properties in a serious investment or financial light!) There is also a pervasive anti-intellectual tenor in America which contributes to negative attitudes pertaining to analysis of art, aesthetics, and other pertinent concepts which are important in effective purchasing.
And when it comes to the capabilities of buyers, I make no distinctions between blue collar working folks and businessmen, doctors, investors, or software industrialists. All seem to carry the same baggage of little hard knowledge about appreciable personal properties and a lot of misconceptions which are reflective of widespread slogans or platitudes. If anything, bigger mistakes are made on bigger budgets, because the frugal blue collar guy collecting on a budget may seek to inform himself before buying because he doesn’t have the luxury of making expensive mistakes. Maybe.
Let’s review then some of these platitudes by reciting a sampling of these misconceptions and examining them from my standpoint as an appraiser with good experience of the marketplace. This is a necessary and effective approach for getting you turned around and in the right frame of mind to begin thinking about where you spend your money.
Misconceptions That Pass For Knowledge about Appreciable Personal Properties
Sometimes in our society you just can’t tell people what to do with their money. ‘I know what I like, I own it, and that’s all that matters, people sometimes say. Especially with art or collectibles or other valuable properties, people’s eyes are quick to glaze over when the discussion gets too involved and they quickly lose patience with or don’t bother to take on board important fundamental concepts before they indulge their tastes. So our discussion brings us to the first widely held and insidious investment misconception, which is:
Misconception #1: I may not know anything about art (or antiques, or collectibles), but I know what I like.
What this says is that there is no difference between what someone likes and what may truly be worth collecting, a concept reinforced by general cultural thinking that tends to look down on choices governed by too much mental effort mixed with the pleasurable disposition of one’s money. With respect to art, it is the emotional reward that comes with the assertion of a buyer’s own tastes that may trump any consideration of intrinsic value. Mix these dispositions with a lack of clear knowledge about the factors making up real merit and quality in collecting, and you end up with a lot of people spending their hard-earned resources on property that ultimately has no value.
This one idea, that I may not know anything about art, but I know what I like, is the biggest barrier to effective investment. And it works its way into the whole issue of buying valuable properties in the most unexpected ways and into the collections of even the most apparently avid collectors. And, again, it’s an idea reinforced and publicly supported by many in the art, antiques, and collectibles business.
Again, one aspect of this is that collecting first and foremost involves emotional choices, and it is in dealing with emotions unleavened by sufficient knowledge that people get themselves into trouble in the art investment game (and, incidentally, in other investment games). I have to admit that it is often more difficult to separate emotions from rational investment choices in art than in many other investment areas. Art is art, and not, for example, pork bellies or widgets or other products making up the boring produce of ordinary life.
Appreciable personal properties are not widgets and that is good. Widgets are manufactured articles for the accountant to tally. Valuable personal properties are more intimate and are something that makes life interesting beyond the dull necessities and preoccupations of ordinary life, as they properly should. This means that the dry machinations involved in balancing your accounts or stock market investments can get horribly muddled when applied to investing in valuable personal property.
This book is not a dry discourse that tries to objectify the emotionalism of the appreciable personal properties market, because emotionalism is inherent in such properties. But you still can think beyond the emotional choices you make in buying art, antiques, or collectibles, just like you can rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. It just takes a bit of practice! It is just as easy with education and thought to buy something of value you love as it is to buy something which you love that has no value. If you don’t have a framework for objectively analyzing your choices, you just feel what you feel, and that will create poor investment choices.
I mentioned earlier the bigger mistakes which people often make on bigger budgets. Again, the basic problem is that buyers with generous budgets allow their tastes to completely dominate their investment choices without regard to rational investment considerations. What’s more, such buyers may tend to discount any advice or expertise brought to bear by a professional in the art, antiques, or collectibles field because of problems which academia and the industry traditionally have had in effectively articulating what quality and investment worthiness really mean.
One of my clients was a very successful lawyer in the Eastern Washington State town of Richland, where he was known as a local art, antiques, and collectibles buyer of note (he is now deceased). He had called me in previously to appraise artwork for a number of clients for different purposes, and finally I got the bright idea to ask him if he had ever had his property appraised for insurance. He said that he never had, and that I had better schedule a trip to Richland to undertake this process.
So I drove in the dead of winter across the Cascade Mountains, arriving about noon in the Tri-Cities, and went in search of my client. I entered the exclusive area indicated in my directions and found my way winding up, and up, and up the hillside, the houses getting increasingly fancier and fancier—until, finally, I arrived at the ‘Charles Foster Kane’ mansion on the tip-top of the whole shebang. The estate lay somewhere in front of me, I had no doubt, but I couldn’t see it as it was hidden behind a cottonwood forest. What I first saw was the spiky and formidable black wrought iron gate with my client’s intertwined initials on each door. The only effects missing were the darkness of night and the lightning from the Citizen Kane movie!
I pressed the call button and heard the familiar response of ‘Mr. Kane’ (actually, Mr. Mitchell Soulani), himself. The huge gates creaked open and I drove up the large paved drive towards the great stuccoed house with the Mexican tile roof. I got out and approached the gorgeous carved set of seventeenth century French double doors and rang the doorbell.
Mr. Sulani expansively greeted me and we went into the living room to chat and eventually get down to business. But before we entered the living room, I noticed the bronze torcheres in the form of nubile art nouveau women each fully five feet high and flanking the doorway to the living room with its ten million dollar view off the entry. I was struck by the crude workmanship (obvious in the sausage shaped toes, where I look first) and the new appearance of each statue. At first the significance of what I was looking at didn’t really register; sometimes it takes me awhile to assess my surroundings in a household appraisal situation, but once things finally click…
Anyway, after a little pleasant chit-chat and admiring the chilly yet still stunning view of the Columbia River, we proceeded to tour his collection, starting with the displays of the elaborate scrimshaw carvings in glass cases in the living room, complemented by a selection of Lalique glass radiator caps. The furniture we were sitting in was in Javanese nineteenth century style, there were East Indian paintings on fabric framed and hanging on the wall, and academic style paintings of lions and other impressive looking animals on canvas in heavy gilded frames lurked in half-light on the walls.
“I want you to appraise these items”, said Mitchell, and he continued: “Everything here I got at a discount from dealers who were going out of business and needed to sell quickly, so I got it all for a real steal. I’m sure these items are worth much more than what I paid for them.”, and he gave me a look that suggested I was to admire him as a Real Sharp Player and a Fellow in the Know when it came to dealing in art, antiques, and collectibles. After hearing about his buying strategy, and seeing what he bought in combination with his explanation of how he bought it, I began to see clearly the lay of the land and began to formulate a general, working picture of the property I was being asked to appraise.
(As an appraiser, when I enter a client’s home I always ask for a quick tour of the premises to gain an impression of the scope of work required, following which I sit down with the client to write up the contract. After the contract is negotiated, I go back through the house and record in detail those properties requiring valuation).
But to get back to the story: As yet, I said nothing. Instead I coughed very softly into my fist and bowed my head slightly as he then led me further into the house and into the dining room, where there were items of a conspicuously Chinese character on display in what was overall a Chinese/Japanese decorative theme.
Featured on one wall was a folding screen.
“I’m particularly proud of my Chinese screen, a real antique and something for which I had to pay plenty although I managed to talk the dealer down considerably.” he said.
“How much did you pay?” I asked.
“I ended up paying $20,000”, he sniffed, “…discounted from $35,000.”
He then led me up a grand staircase to the bedroom, which on entering I noticed was decorated in an 1870’s Eastlake style with various pieces of walnut furniture reupholstered in faux tiger skin fabric. On we went, each room having its own decorative motif. As we proceeded with our tour, the conversation was punctuated with my client’s exclamations: “Got it for a steal.” Or “didn’t know what they had.” Or “had him in a bad position” or similar exclamations as we moved through the mansion.
He showed me an enclosed Chinese bed that he solemnly assured me was a 12th century opium bed, although it looked like an ordinary 19th century Ch’ing Dynasty Chinese bed to me…
Finally, he stopped and said he had something really special to show me and he winked at me and motioned to follow him into the inner sanctum, the billiards room, with its dramatic down lighting. He then pushed a button, and as I watched the mechanical doors on the wall behind the pool table silently parted to reveal…
“Yes, it’s a genuine Frederic Remington,” he said, as I viewed the appalling fake. “I paid twenty thousand for it. I figure it’s worth at least $100,000!”
At last I’d had enough.
“Mitchell,” I said, “for a Remington of that size (approx. 3’x 5’) you would have to pay millions of dollars if it were real. I’m sorry to tell you I have my doubts that this painting is by Remington. It doesn’t look like any Remington I’ve ever seen.”
His jaw dropped, and he challenged me, “Well, are you sure about your Remingtons?”
“Pretty sure”, I said, although in my mind even the most cursory examination by an ordinary observer of any real Remington paintings should have revealed the vast differences between those and the thing in front of me, even with the big ‘Frederic Remington’ signature at the bottom and with a rousing composition of a cowboy lassoing a calf in a draw.
“…Let’s go back” I started, diplomatically, “and talk about what we need to appraise for you for insurance.”
And we started to retrace our steps back through the house. At each stop, I informed him of the true nature of the properties we had reviewed. The 12th century bed? Nineteenth century. The Chinese screen? A mid twentieth century decorative screen worth about $2,000 at the most. The bronze torcheres? Crude modern copies of turn-of-the-century French bronzes. The scrimshaw collection? All molded plastic fakes. The Lalique crystal radiator caps? Modern reproductions from the original molds. The animal paintings? Modern European decorator copies. The Javanese furniture? Absolutely modern. And on, and on, and on…
Not everything was fake, new, or comparatively ordinary. The Eastlake furniture was worth a little bit and he had a few paintings by local artists which required appraisal for insurance coverage. But everything else was not what my client thought it was. So I ended up appraising the few things in his grand estate which I felt were worthwhile and sent him the report.
The upshot? Well, a week or so later Mitchell sheepishly called me to ask me if he and his wife could hire me to show them where the ‘real’ bargains were.
“Mitchell”, I sighed, “there aren’t any.”
What happens is that because strong and clear collecting criteria based upon knowledge of what constitutes lasting value are lacking both in the buyer and as points of reference in the marketplace, the overriding factor in such collections eventually becomes the cheap price, and shopping expeditions become bargain hunts. The purchaser is not buying true bargains, which may be considered a cheap price paid for a quality product, but is buying merely cheap merchandise without redeeming quality.
Don’t look for bargains unless you know what bargains truly are. Further, you must be prepared to look very hard. Bargains are hard enough to find for informed professionals in the industry, and so you can imagine how much more difficult it is for someone who lacks basic information about such products to actually stumble on something of value at a price less than the going industry price.
Misconception #2: I’m going to make a bundle with an undiscovered masterpiece, because I hear about people hitting the jackpot by just looking through their attic!
Yes, fairy tales can come true. People can win the lottery, and a Michigan couple can discover that they are living with a Van Gogh in their living room (this actually happened). But the chances of even an informed person, much less an uninformed person, of making a major find are so small that it’s a circumstance no one should count on. I can think of people who spent decades going to garage sales and pinned their hopes on making the big money-making find and never found anything. Not only are these people who don’t have enough information to realize that they are chasing pipe-dreams, but they are also people who really don’t ultimately understand what it is they are looking for!
Misconception #3: I Couldn’t Possibly Care About the value of what I Own because what I have are Family Heirlooms which are PRICELESS
…they say as they are talking to the money guy, the appraiser, and on national television for all to see on the appraisal shows. How silly. People feel guilty about evaluating what they own, which is not necessarily silly, as people don’t necessarily like to affix dollar signs to their possessions. But when they are telling this to the appraiser, they do look a little silly. This an idea closely allied to, and implicit in, the slogan I may not know anything about art but I know what I like. It turns this slogan into a defensive protest.
This I think has at least a partial genesis in the fact that such properties are considered so personal that to assign a dollar value seems inappropriate. An admirable sentiment, but hardly meaningful if by consulting with an appraiser you are trying to satisfy your curiosity about what you own is worth.
Misconception #4: Good Art is a Matter of Individual Taste
Here’s a slogan which is profound in its implications, which can be dangerous, and which can and has thrown better and more knowledgeable people than me into fitful intellectual discourses and has sent very intelligent art buyers back squarely into the impulsive realm of emotional art purchasing without financial purpose or structure. But I believe I can offer ways around this profoundly flawed investment idea that provide you, the investor, with solid footing in your quest for investment quality art, antiques, and collectibles.
Collecting art is a matter for individual taste. Collectors have to pay attention to their own tastes in buying art, or what’s the point of enjoying life? One person’s fine china can be another person’s old teapot. But to say that good art is a matter of individual taste is completely wrong, both from an investor’s point of view and from an intellectual standpoint. It’s one thing to say that a work of art appeals to one person and not another. It’s another thing to say that quality art is a matter of individual perception! It can even be argued that a person cannot be a true collector unless they take stock of things outside of their own likes and dislikes in buying valuable properties, that unless they pay attention to general ideas of quality that they are only accumulators of stuff and not true collectors.
There must be an absorbing emotional or intellectual response to a work of art as a basis for collection and investment on a personal level. But in assessing a work of art beyond a collector’s strictly personal tastes, a collector should decide what it is it is that an artist is expressing generally to his audience and the responses to that expression. There must be good communication established between artist and viewer through the medium of a work of art, a communication dependent mainly on the effectiveness with which an artist presents what it is they are trying to express. This idea implying a commonality or a meeting of the minds is central to the concept of quality art. So in other words, the idea of quality is not really a matter of individual taste but a matter of informed opinion and consensus across broad areas of the art world, and you ignore this at your peril as an enterprising art investor. Also, an interest in broader ideas of quality and value have an effect in enhancing your own appreciation of objects and sharpening your tastes.
I will deal with what quality means in a future chapter. Suffice here to say that, based on my knowledge of the personal properties market, I find myself increasingly in the position of identifying items of quality and value as I buy them without knowing anything about the particulars of what attract me other than my understanding of general factors determining quality in the market beyond my own personal biases or tastes, as well as other factors which I will tell you about. I can predict that what I buy at a cheap price either I can sell at a much higher price to the right buyer if I happen to find it under priced—and be right, or that I can buy something with the idea of investing in it for the long term and see an appreciation in that investment.
I could not do anything like this if all art, for instance, were strictly a matter of individual opinion because there would be no structure to the art market and no prediction of future value would therefore be possible. Nor could I be an effective appraiser, as an appraiser offers his clients values based on the consistency afforded by pricing information relating to any group of objects having identifiable characteristics in common with the item I am appraising. If I couldn’t effectively do this, then appraising would fit into the same category as tea-leaf or palm-reading, and I believe it is an activity with more value than that.
‘AHA!’ Some of you will say, ‘You are responding to questions of taste which collectively are categorized as fashion!’ And my answer is—yes, as an appraiser I must take into account the value of property influenced by issues of fashion and, for example, give a high price to objects which I believe have no long term value as investment-quality property. As an investor I must as well recognize fashion and trends, general fluctuations in the economy, and other factors which I will discuss shortly. And not everything appreciates consistently, but then neither do any other investments!
If you ignore concepts making up collectively the idea of quality in art, antiques and other collectibles you will find yourself in the position of people I hear about who sank all of their money into fashionable Beanie Babies and received high appraisals of their properties at the height of the collecting boom some years ago. Those high appraisals have not held up for the long term because Beanie Babies do respond to a market concerned with fad or fashion and not to a market interested in determining intrinsic quality. There is a difference. And what is that difference? Well, once again, I am putting off that consideration for another chapter. Just keep in mind that because you don’t know the underlying rules of the personal properties values game doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and if you don’t understand them you won’t succeed as an investor. You will be subject to the ebb and flow of more transitory investment considerations and will have no understanding of the characteristics that underlie a truly significant portfolio.
Misconception # 5: Art, antiques, and collectibles are only worth what someone will pay you for them.
This is one more misconception in the family of Gee-I-don’t/know/like/understand-art-and-antiques-and-so-its-all-a-matter-of-personal-taste-or-anyone’s-guess clichés. What this cliché is implying is exactly that, what I’ve just strung together--but folks, so what if something is only worth what someone will pay you for it? Houses, chickens, biscuits, skyscrapers, and rubber bands, among just a few million other things-- are all worth only what someone will pay you for them. Artworks, antiques, and collectibles are commodities just like everything else.
Misconception #6: This is a really popular artist. Everybody is collecting his work; therefore it must be a good investment.
Just because everybody is buying Riddley Jewels artwork from retail galleries featuring her offset sentimental landscape prints (not original art, an investment danger sign) doesn’t mean that it’s a good investment. It’s popular, pricey, and, especially, it is well marketed, but it probably has no long term investment value if the market history of such multiple products are any guide. Don’t automatically assume marketing hype equates with quality from an investment perspective. Multiples editions of art are generally not as effective in competing with one of a kind art products for the long haul, and are a particularly difficult area of investment for the novice collector, if investment value is an ultimate objective.
I do want to emphasize that I am not advising people to buy or not to buy any particular artwork in the market; I am only telling people to use care when it comes to purchases which do not show investment history or potential, or if they have no real knowledge of art--if they are at all interested in such issues.
Misconception #7: I know what I paid for it, therefore, I know what it’s worth.
Five seconds thought should dispose of this idea. There is nothing that remains the same price after you buy it. I recently obtained a copy of Warman’s Antiques and their Current Prices from 1966—an antique in itself!—and the prices assigned to items then which are much more valuable now make me wonder what I was doing with my time in Junior High School. For example, a bronze and favrille glass Tiffany lamp is listed for $250.00. This same lamp would sell now for $20,000. A Staffordshire 18th century Tobey jug is listed for $200; similar ones now sell for $5,000-$8,000; a stoneware American crock with a glaze drawing of a bird on it lists for $30; try finding one for less than $300. A 5 foot high carved wooden Indian from the nineteenth century on a wheeled stand lists for $475; I wouldn’t be surprised to find one similar selling for $50,000 or more. Not all items have increased in value over forty years beyond the expected rate of inflation, but I think I’ve made my point.
Recently I was contacted by a representative of a company that manages financial affairs for the wealthy. When she called me, I was all ears! What she had to say was surprising. She said that no appraiser had ever bothered to contact them and that the brochure I sent was the first indication she had that there was an organized art, antiques, and collectibles appraisal industry! She said she didn’t know what list I had consulted to send them my brochure, but they certainly had a use for me.
“To appraise their art, antiques, and collectibles and let people know what they owned?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “They know what they own. My clients need advice on display and framing, could you do that?”
“Sure”, I answered, but pressing the point I asked: “How do they know what they own?”
“Oh, they just do.”
Because people tend to buy into the feeling that the very rich walk on water, they are tempted to take on faith that through osmosis, superior supernatural perception and god-like intelligence the rich just know what they own! But because I was feeling frisky, I pressed the point: “But how do they know what they own?’
“Well, they know what they paid for items.”
“Well, what about now as opposed to what they paid for items in the past. Values do change on art like everything else. Do you mean they have their valuables appraised periodically to keep up on prices?”
… (pregnant silence). Then: “No, they keep up on prices.”
“How do they do this?”
“They have collection curators that assist them with this.”
“Oh... (embarrassed silence)….they all do?”
“Well, no, I am just thinking about one client in particular whose name you would instantly recognize. We have found generally that our clients have between $75,000 and $225,000 worth of antiques” (not Bill G., I thought). After a few more pleasantries and promises of business, the conversation concluded.
What was it I failed to learn from this conversation? I have many wealthy clients who realize the need for periodic appraisals for insurance coverage. But short of having their property actually appraised, how did my caller’s clients know what they own?
The answer is: they don’t. Even this financial handler for the wealthy was ignorant about any connection between value and collectibles, and, particularly, investment value, a determination that requires periodic monitoring of purchases like any other investments, like houses, like stocks, like gold…. like the $5,000 snuff box my client was using for an ashtray and which she damaged because she was ignorant of any value beyond its general appeal to her tastes.
It could be that financial handler’s clients are not interested in the values of their collections. But, most probably, they are. And, again, if you think they don’t care, believe me, they do, and are grateful when I have a chance to evaluate what they own.
Misconception #7: The artist is dead. Therefore his works have to be worth more.
No they don’t, because his death can be a blessing in disguise for art aficionados as his art was basically no good and he quickly will be forgotten. Also, many artists make money while they are up and walking around. An artist’s value and reputation depend on more than the state of his health. Now it’s true that the death of a great artist will put upwards pressure on the prices of his or her remaining works because while demand has remained stable or increased, there is no longer anyone to produce more art and therefore to match supply to that demand. But this doesn’t often happen.
Misconception #8: It’s old, so it must be valuable.
I have boring, round, gray and brown garden rocks that are older than Methuselah. But they can’t compete value-wise with the more recently produced Matisse paintings. So in fact, as I explain later, age is not really a factor in valuation of anything!
Misconception #9: It has a certificate of authenticity, so it must really be authentic!
Legions are forged. It’s actually easier to forge the certificate than the art itself.
Misconception #10: This is by an artist whom the critics are calling a new fresh talent, an up-and-comer, and certainly a great investment for the future! (Or something similar, part of gallery promotions).
It is possible for someone with a great discerning eye to spot the future. There are people who have an uncanny talent for spotting the best from the first. And artists who present a drastically different vision from what has gone before may present great investment opportunities when their works first appears in the market; artists like Warhol, or Picasso, or Monet, for instance.
Still, take with a grain of salt the hype about an otherwise unknown artist from any source as a basis for serious investment. Neither you nor the gallery can predict the future—the artist may become an investment success but, then again, they may not for a variety of reasons. Among the reasons an artist’s works may not pan out as an investment include: the artist may quit producing quality artwork or--worse yet--he may die, the gallery may quit promoting the artist’s work, the artist’s work may suffer a downturn in quality, or he may turn out to be a minor talent as his career progresses.
Similar kinds of reasoning should apply to the appellation ‘future collectible’ (or ‘future antique’, if you like), which is a vaguer idea but which describes items which are only one-off sales successes, exist in too large a quantity to be significantly appreciable, or may not have the requisite quality required to be of sustained interest in the secondary (or investment) market, among a variety of other reasons which we will explore in more depth later in the book. The bottom line is that you just have to wait and see whether certain favorable conditions are met--you have to give a new artist’s work or a new collectible time to weather the exposure to critical and market interest and you have to keep tabs on the secondary market—all before you decide to invest in something which you also find attractive as a work of art or collectible.
Misconception #11: I have only a few things that are valuable, most of what I have is not worth anything.
…Oh, and how do you know that? The larger issue here is that people often think that they are sure about what is valuable in their home based on mythology, misconceptions, Family Feelings About Things, and their own mistaken conclusions based on faulty knowledge and reasoning absent an appraisal of their property. And, again, the industry is partly to blame! Keep an open mind and understand the value of education in determining quality.
Misconception #12: It’s a big gallery, so what they sell must be valuable.
There’s a big, impressive new gallery or auction in town featuring what appear to be fabulous antiques. But everything is new merchandise produced in China—that’s right, everything is completely fake—and the ‘gallery’ is really a glorified imports outlet, a front for flogging Chinese export decorative fake artwork or antiques.
But whether they are fly-by-night traveling auctioneers in the local motel ballroom, there one weekend and gone the next, or whether they are big shiny new galleries suddenly popping up out of nowhere in your neighborhood, all they have to do is take your money, give you your item, and forget about you if they choose to do so (Of course, I am only referring to dishonest establishments, not to honest and legitimate businesses). Later they might send you periodically inflated ‘appraisals’ indicating regular increases in value of your investment—not appraisals at all, actually, but retail price increases of dubious authenticity—just to keep you happy and ready to be suckered once more into buying on another occasion. Others vastly overcharge for items which can be obtained for more modest prices at less visible or glamorous locations, leaving little room for rational investment.
Never let yourself be overawed by splashy presentation or a big fancy gallery. Watch out for auctions not rooted in the area, keep a wary eye on big new galleries suddenly appearing which are completely different than other gallery operations typical for the locale. Never be tempted to buy in bulk or do all of your shopping in one location. And again, be very wary of fakes!
Picture a new antebellum style mansion with a big paved driveway. In the center, a fountain plays softly over a concrete cupid holding a cornucopia. I am greeted at the door by the youngish casual-and-Capri lady of the house, and I gingerly enter, half nervous and half elated, because of the responsibility I evidently was granted after my clients made an involved search for the right person to evaluate their collection.
We start our walk around the house and it starts to dawn on me that I am not seeing antiques, only decorative artwork.
Now, from my client’s perspective, they had a house full of Art Deco ivory statues by Dimitri Chiparis plus a few other odds and ends; from my perspective I was looking at modern Chinese fakes all purchased, apparently, from the same source. But how to break it to her?
“Where did you get these Art Deco statues?”
“Oh, we bought them from a big gallery in Miami about five years ago.”
“Are these what you want me to appraise?’
“Yes, our insurer requires appraisal on fine art items for separate scheduling.”
“But I think many of these are reproductions, and reproductions are decorative art or depreciable property carried under your general household policy.”
“Well, we thought some might be, but then we were told by the man in the gallery we bought them from that some were reproductions and some were real; he sort of picked and chose a mix for us.”
“I’m pretty sure they are all reproductions--fakes actually--because they have the forged signatures of an Art Deco master sculptor who has been dead a long time.”
And I proceeded to point out the bad workmanship, including the poor casting and detailing of metal portions of the sculpture, the rough and ready cobbled appearance of the marble bases, the vaguely Chinese appearance of the faces, the primitive labeling—moving from one ivory statue to the other (oh the poor elephants who gave their lives for this stuff!). She even showed me the less than stellar work of a previous appraiser, who was taken in by one of the more impressive pieces and who gave it a price far, far lower than what it would actually be worth were it real, but still way too high by an order of ten for a reproduction/fake.
Bottom line? These people had about $10,000 worth of insurable art (not the statues, the odds and ends) in their whole million dollar mansion. I didn’t appraise the statues. I sincerely hope that these people had other investments going for them other than their art collection!
Misconception #13: Buying art when you are vacation is a good time to buy!
Be careful buying while on vacation in Las Vegas, or Hawaii, on cruise ships, or in any of the vacation destinations, if you want the best investment value. I specifically exclude the better galleries in New York, Paris, London, Rome, Los Angeles, and other major population centers (which are also popular vacation destinations) because they are the heart of the world art, antiques, and collectibles trade and careful and informed buying in these locations can put you at an advantage relative to investors purchasing at the geographic margins. This is because of the better quality and quantity of choices in these locations, but don’t expect to make a killing. You are making prudent investments for the long haul.
However, be leery of buying in locations which are primarily known as vacation destinations or where tourism is the major industry, or buying when you are in a vacation frame of mind. When you are on vacation, you might be tipsy or otherwise feeling liberally disposed, and you like being ushered into a cool, velvet, down lit studio, where, wearing your flowered shirt and sandals and feeling casually well-heeled, you are suddenly presented with—Ta Da!--the overpriced and very possibly fake Salvador Dali print for which you will pay just oodles as a souvenir of your once in a lifetime vacation!
This is absolutely the worst time to buy, for the sharks have been lying in wait. Of course, I’m not referring to the honest and reasonably priced galleries in those locations, only to the dishonest ones and the ones who charge inflated prices for art that is available at a much cheaper price in a less glamorous setting, or wouldn’t even be sold at all. (By the way, any and all galleries and business venues referenced in this book have both good and bad players, and it must be understood that it is the bad players which you want to avoid).
I was contacted by a couple who said that they had purchased a Marc Chagall print while on vacation in Hawaii. They said they were calling me because they had heard that there were Chagall fakes and wanted to verify that what they purchased was real. I sucked in my breath, anticipating the worst, and told them to bring it in.
They brought me the print and it looked pretty good. It was signed in pencil in what appeared to be Chagall’s hand, and I took in out of the frame to look more closely at it. Now this inspection was less than satisfactory, as I noticed that under the matt there was a distinct yellowing of the paper consistent with what is referred to as mat burn. Mat burn occurs when a print or other framed paper comes into contact with a pulp paper mat which has released sulfuric acid onto the print and thereby stained, or in some cases physically destroyed, the artwork with which it has come into contact. The acid is produced because the mat has been saturated by liquid water, or, more typically, has been in a humid environment (Hawaii?) and has created the conditions which have allow the acid to be produced. Acid free matting should have been used to frame the print so that this would not have occurred, a touch that recommends a quality gallery over other galleries. Ominously, the client reported that the seller had asserted it was in perfect condition, which it was not.
I said I had to research the print to further determine authenticity. They took it with them (after I had taken appropriate notes and photos) and left. After a few minutes research I found the auction records from the auctioneers for the exact print in question, certainly relieved that it was real. I found out that it had sold at auction to an unknown seller two years before for $5,000.00. The picture of the item when it was sold indicated no discoloration of the margins.
I called the client and asked her: “Judy, what did you pay for this print?”
“We paid $27,000.00 for it.”
I told her what I had learned.
“Do you think we were cheated?” asked she.
I told her, very reasonably, that an item is worth what somebody pays for it, but that I certainly would have rather bid at the auction by phone or on line when it had originally sold and saved myself some money.
The last I heard from the clients was that they were trying to get their money back because of the print’s condition, which the gallery apparently asserted was still perfect.
Misconception #14: I had a professor at the museum look at I and he told me what it was worth and that’s ALL I need to know.
It’s hard to know where to begin on this one. First of all, professors are not typically found at museums. Most are found at universities, unless they are associated with a university museum. More to the point, professors and curators have high sounding titles which do not mean that they are experts in the markets for artwork, antiques, or collectibles.
Now it is true that academics are the thinkers that create the concepts which influence the determination of quality for many valuables in the market, but that doesn’t mean that they are regular participants in the market. And unless they are actually in the market as dealers or appraisers, they know just a little more than the man in the moon. Keep separate the worlds of academia and the appreciable personal properties commercial marketplace. They are related but are not the same!
Misconception #15: It’s too difficult to learn about all this art and antiques stuff—again, I know what I like and understand.
Is it too difficult to learn about stocks and companies? Is it too difficult to learn about football teams and the NFL? Is it too difficult to learn what constitutes good nutrition? Come on, folks, laziness and or lack of interest in a subject can take many forms. What’s certain is that if you are not learning where any of your money goes, whether into expensive art purchases, rookie baseball cards, or Supra-Cola stocks—you will pay the price. Misconception # 15 is only a variation on Misconception #1.
Misconception #16: Hey, I’m an impulse buyer. When I see art I like I grab it!
I sometimes get the feeling that people often associate artistic creation with impulse, with joie-de-vivre, and that they therefore should buy art in the spirit of the artist creating the masterpiece. It doesn’t help that artists such as Salvador Dali in his public posturing contributed to such perceptions of artistic creativity and the creative life.
But the best artists work hard and carefully at their craft (and that includes Dali at his finest). You owe more to them and to your pocketbook to assess their work carefully and consider purchases prudently if you are at all concerned with an investment perspective.
Misconception #17: Because this artwork is old, or shows Civil War soldiers, (or has a signature, or is in good condition, or is large, or came from the Hoity-Toity estate, or has any one quality which I am focusing on to the exclusion of all other qualities)-- it must be valuable!
Never be tempted to focus on only one quality of anything as a basis for assigning value to it. There is no one magic characteristic which automatically means an item will be valuable. Look at different factors in deciding the worth of an object, factors which I will tell you about in the discussions to follow.
Misconception #18: This piano has a long family history, and my grandmother provided extensive notes as to where and when it was purchased. I also have lots of family letters describing family gatherings around the piano. This must make my piano more valuable.
Unfortunately, valuation television programs sometimes show appraisers expressing an interest in the family photos and notes accompanying the antiques featured by the television cameras. They cite the value of tracking family history and encourage the beaming owner to make notes to describe when and where the item was bought, who used it, and so on.
But many people are tempted to believe that this translates into value for otherwise ordinary or unremarkable family heirlooms. The whole issue of establishing provenance for a valuable property must take into account: 1) The quality and nature of the property itself, 2) the extreme importance of the personality who had a connection with a family heirloom or 3) a very important event associated directly with that heirloom to be of importance to the value of that property. Ordinary family history is only of importance to the family and has no role in enhancing the general value of otherwise ordinary items.
Misconception #19: All art, antiques, and collectibles appreciate in value.
Because art, antiques, and collectibles are really just ‘stuff’ in disguise, like rubber biscuits or skyscrapers, they respond to the same market forces as any other commodities. This means that they can either appreciate--or depreciate!
Anyway, there is a lot we need to discuss. So let’s begin!
Tags: Scott Zema, virtual book tours, first chapters