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Art: Are you a collector or an investor?

The caveat emptor principle applies to art as an asset as well. And it’s important to have realistic expectations when diversifying into this market

Art collectors often become art investors, but the opposite rarely holds true. ~ Sylvain Gaillard

For the past two years we’ve observed a change in the buying behaviour when it comes to art. Several factors, including the current state of the global economy to name the obvious one, have affected people’s perception of art.

The general trend has been a flight to quality, with — at least for us — fewer artworks sold, but at a much higher price point and with established names. With this, new collectors’ profiles have emerged, and the old asset manager in me is having a grand old time managing expectations (excuse the irony).

It is now an established fact that more people are looking at art as an alternative asset class. Seasoned buyers and mega collectors fully understand the market, and, if anything, they have been fairing relatively well for several decades.

What I — or we, as gallerists — are confronted with on a recurrent basis is the slew of new buyers hoping to make a quick buck out of buying and selling art. To be fair, the market has contributed to this, with headlines of artworks selling at record levels when bought at the time for the price of a four-person dinner in Dubai. What’s not to like? There’s something inherently exciting about knowing that you’ve bought the right piece at the right time. What the headlines fail to mention, however, is the fact that this scenario is the exception rather than the rule.

What strikes me most is that people who want to treat art like any other asset class assume that the downfalls are magically excluded. When you buy equity, a bond or a fund, everything is in place to ensure you understand what you’re allocating your money to — realistically, you’re just being told with fancy graphs and small footnote that absolutely nothing is guaranteed and that you might lose your investment in its entirety. So how is “past performance is no guarantee of future performance” different in finance and art? Well, for the most part, it isn’t.

I have never (personally) treated art as an investment; I have always bought what I liked, because in a very tacky way the emotional return that I’ve received always outweighs the financial one, and I’m content with that. However, recent market conditions, and collectors’ demand, have forced me to dig deep into my previous career, and I now spend a fair amount of time educating buyers about the reality of the art market and their newfound asset class.

To set the record straight, yes — you can make money investing in art, but it’s not for everyone, nor for the faint of heart. Art is a risky asset class, and much like any other type of investment you need to be extremely clear about your expectations. What’s your time horizon, expected returns, frequency of trading etc.? Also keep in mind that the art market is not liquid, something buyers tend to overlook. 

Finally, to end on a philosophical note: I always like to point out that art collectors often become art investors, but the opposite rarely holds true. 

The writer is the director of Opera Gallery Dubai. The gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary throughout March. This month also marks the regional debut exhibition of NewYork-based Spanish artist Manolo Valdés, considered one of the most influential Spanish artists of the 21st century, at the art space.

Art collectors often become art investors, but the opposite rarely holds true. ~ Sylvain Gaillard

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