x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Collect if you must, but buyer beware

More than anything, the Latin term caveat emptor applies to buying art, Rupert Wright discusses the latest investment opportunity on offer in the Middle East.

At the end of the 1920s there was a vogue for collecting etchings in the US. Up went the prices, mirroring the rise of stock prices. When they burst with a resounding pop, so did the value of etchings. They fell and fell, and did not recover their saleroom prices until 50 years later. The loss in real terms was colossal.

This cautionary tale, along with similar studies of how once-fashionable artists suddenly become undesirable, is recounted in The Economics of Taste by Gerald Reitlinger. Published in 1961 in three volumes, it is a thorough review of the prices that artwork achieved from 1760 to 1960. Mr Reitlinger's main conclusion is that "whatever the period, the status of the living painter plays a very large part in determining the price of art".

For example, in the second part of the 19th century the British public went crazy for the work of artists such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Burne-Jones. Once these artists had gone off to the great studio in the sky, the value of their work plummeted. Alma-Tadema's The Finding of Moses sold for £5,250 (Dh30,472) in 1904; when his descendants sold it in 1935, they recouped a fraction of the outlay, making just £861. Twenty-five years later it went for even less, a mere £252.

People who are hoping that buying art might be a hedge against falling stock and bond markets are likely to be equally disappointed. Even such a renowned speculator and artist as Damien Hirst, who famously sold US$125 million (Dh459.1m) of artwork just as Lehman Brothers was going into liquidation in September 2008, has warned: "Everything goes for a lot of money. Until it doesn't."

More than anything, the Latin term caveat emptor applies to buying art. By all means buy a painting if you like the colours or the brushstrokes, but don't rely on the fact that its value will double every few years.