Weird art-valuation justifications of the day, Sarah Thornton edition

By Felix Salmon
February 8, 2012
Sarah Thornton has an interesting theory on why art prices keep on spiralling upwards:

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Sarah Thornton has an interesting theory on why art prices keep on spiraling upwards:

The burden for the stinking rich is what to do with their money. There is currently no interest to be earned on cash, so they can’t leave it in the bank. The property market is nearly paralyzed and, for these globetrotters, the drawback of real estate is that it is tied to specific currencies. A Mayfair flat sells in pounds, but the Francis Bacon painting that hangs on its wall could sell in Hong Kong dollars and take up residence on a yacht in the South Pacific. Like historic or extra-large diamonds, works by artists with international recognition are a hedge against volatile currency fluctuations.

Fifteen years ago financial advisers were not in the practice of recommending that rich people diversify their portfolios by buying art. Now it is the norm. While buying emergent art is high-risk, speculative investment, acquiring established masterpieces is perceived as the opposite – a back-up in hard times. If all goes wrong in the world, if the eurozone cracks, the Middle East erupts in war, and a tsunami hits Manhattan, that rare, portable 1964 Marilyn by Andy Warhol will still be worth something.

This would be a lot more convincing if Thornton actually named or quoted any of the financial advisers who are reportedly “recommending” buying art as an investment. Because I’d love to talk to one. Art’s a dreadful investment: it’s got a negative carry, it’s highly unpredictable in terms of value, there’s no reason whatsoever why prices should go up rather than down, and, of course, you can put your elbow through it at any time.

In my experience, the only people who ever recommend that rich people diversify their portfolios by buying art are people who are going to make money, somehow, from the deal: people selling art investment or advisory services. Everybody else is generally pretty sensible, and sticks to saying the simple truth: Buy art because you love it, not because you think it’s going to rise in value.

More generally, the stinking rich are, as a rule, swamped with bright ideas from people guiding them on what to do with their money. They all have family offices, replete with highly-paid investment managers: The alternative here is not to simply leave the money in the bank, earning no interest. (More likely, they own the bank, take other people’s deposits, and lend them out at a healthy profit.)

And the idea of art as “a hedge against volatile currency fluctuations” is just bonkers; I’m not at all surprised that the line appears in a column for the Guardian, rather than in Thornton’s normal home of the Economist. If you have billions of dollars and you want to hedge against currency fluctuations, then — and I hope you’re sitting down for this — you hedge against currency fluctuations. Options and swaps and futures and forwards and the like are as commoditized as they come in the foreign-exchange markets, and much easier and cheaper to buy and sell than any major artwork.

Thornton’s wrong, too, about the intrinsic value of a 1964 Marilyn by Andy Warhol. If it was worth 10% of its current value a few years ago, it can be worth 10% of its current value in a few years’ time, too. Admittedly, 10% of its current value is still “something”. But that hardly makes the Warhol a remotely sensible investment. The whole point of art is that it has no intrinsic value: that its financial value is a magical number which is some highly variable function of how much various incredibly rich people love and covet the work.

But she’s right about this aspect of why the two big auction houses are doing so well these days:

Christie’s and Sotheby’s are superlative marketers who are getting better at funnelling demand for objects by a small group of well-tested artist brands.

The key word here is “brands”. CNBC’s Zac Bissonnette recently wrote to me saying that what he hates about contemporary art is the way in which “you can just put it there and all your friends will know what it is. People might as well hang a Nike swoosh over their couches.”

Zac’s exactly right about this: the one thing that pretty much all ultra-expensive art has in common is that it’s instantly recognizable as the work of a given artist. (And that goes for Cézanne as much as it does for Jeff Koons.) Fine art has become the billionaire’s-club equivalent of a Louis Vuitton bag, slathered in logos. It’s not connoisseurship which drives values, so much as recognizability. Which in turn helps to explain why the most prolific artists (Picasso, Warhol, Hirst) are also the most expensive: the more of their work there is, the more exposed to it people become, the more they’ll recognize it, and therefore the more desirable it is.

I do hold out some small hope that the Chinese art market will provide a correction to this syndrome — there, I’m told, the value of an art work is (at least sometimes) much less a function of its recognizability as the work of a certain artist, and much more a function of the way that it can fit itself into a long artistic tradition.

Once upon a time, the western art market worked that way too: there were genres, and artists worked within them, and then would be judged on how well they painted within the constraints of that genre. Those days, of course, are over now. But that doesn’t mean for a minute that the value of a Warhol is somehow forever. As with any other investment, what goes up can always go down.

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