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But is It Worthwhile?: Art as Investment

So, contemporary art might be meaningful, and it might last, but is it worth the price tag?  Of course, this isn’t an easy answer.  A great deal of contemporary artwork is just plain awful, and so I’d say, “No, don’t spend any amount of money on this, especially not what they are asking.”  

Basically, a viewer must become discerning if they want to make a worthwhile purchase.  For instance, though Damien Hirst’s artwork is typically valued at a rather high price, some of his work is notably either poorly executed, or so reminiscent of trash that it is thrown away by museum janitors.  A wise investor ought to look for three things: art they enjoy, art that they think is worth more than the price tag, and art that they think will last.

 First, how do you know if a work of art will last?  Well, take a look at the life and thought of the artist himself, as well as the artist’s body of work, before making a purchase.  “But,” you ask, “what if I’m just seeing this artist’s work for the first time, and I really like it?”  Well, I in turn would ask you to take a gander at that price tag.  Is it a substantial amount of money for you, or a meager investment?  If it doesn’t make a dent in your wallet, then you should most certainly invest in a piece of art that you find enjoyable, and think you would like to see again.  But, if a work of art is of substantial cost, then it is worth thinking over whether or not you ought to invest in it.  


Take, for example, the hubbub over Mark Rothko.  Recently, one of his pieces sold for over forty million dollars.  While, personally, I enjoy Rothko’s work, and even if I was given that amount of money (which I certainly don’t possess), I would not purchase this work of art.  Why?  Well, it helps to know a bit about Rothko’s process.  As one man in this article points out, “To achieve the effect he wanted, Rothko was willing to sacrifice longevity.”  And I feel similarly about Jackson Pollock’s work as well.  While I value the aesthetic, the history, and the potential meaning, I think it isn’t worthwhile as an art-investment.  The previous article points out that Pollock, Rothko, Rauschenberg, etc. all experimented with their mediums to get a certain instantaneous effect, but they didn’t seem to care about the long-term effects of their methods.

“But, why does it matter if the work lasts?” You might ask.  “I mean, really,” you might think, “all I care about is being able to look at it during my lifetime.”  But that isn’t true.  If you spend millions on a painting or sculpture, you will want your family to be able to enjoy it as well.  Or maybe you’ll want the general public to be able to enjoy it.  Maybe not, though.  Maybe you have millions to burn and you just want a statement in your house that says, “I bought a piece of this famous dead guy’s work.  Look how cool I am.”  But honestly, none of you want to do that, right? Also, you probably can’t afford to do that, even if you want to act like a snob.  Anyone who invests a lot of money into something wants that thing to last.  If you purchase an expensive car, you want it to last.  Artwork works the same way.


Second, you ought to look for artwork that is worth more than its current price.  I recently had a discussion with a friend where we both disagreed about this topic.  I suggested that the price attached to artwork isn’t the same as the worth of the artwork.  A piece of art can be worth a great deal, and yet be priced at an excessively low price.  The inverse is more frequently the case: a piece of art can be worthless, and yet given a huge price tag.  We all know the experience of looking at we what we think to be a rather banal little work, and when we look at the price tag we are aghast.  Often, this isn’t because you are an “outsider” to the art world.  Rather, it is because you actually do have some sense of the intrinsic worth of art.  You see that extrinsic label telling you that it is intrinsically worth millions, but you are a better judge of its character than the gallery owners, apparently.  What often happens in the artworld is a kind of proliferation of name.  A piece by Jeff Koons will sell for gobs of money not because his work is beautiful, or even made by him, but because it has the name Jeff Koons attached to it.  An outsider to the artworld could care less about the name, and this actually gives them the advantage of looking at the worthwhile (or uselessness) of the artwork itself.  Is “Michael Jackson with Bubbles” seriously a good work of fine art?  A viewer who hasn’t had the baggage of “So-and-so is such a great artist” tossed at them might actually stand a chance of evaluating the work properly.  Basically, when you’re looking at a work of art, you ought to try to determine whether the piece is worth more than the price.  If so, it is definitely a worthwhile investment.

In the end, there are three basic principles for investing in fine art: buy what you enjoy; buy what you think is worth more than its current price; buy what you think will last.

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