gold or gamble – portraits as investment

29 September 2010 § 2 Comments

I have just been reading the last part of a very (perhaps overly) long six-part ‘art market blog’ by Nicholas Forrest (link) on the value of portraits as ‘art market currency’. The basic premise of the feature is that art can be divided in to two markets that behave differently – one market is based on portraits, the other on contemporary art. He equates this duality with the financial markets where gold behaves in a different way to the fiat (ie: trust, paper) currency market.

In respect of gold he says: ‘The market for classical figurative works of art resembles the gold standard because of the intrinsic value many of these works …. Regardless of what happens to the art market or to the artists reputation, such [works] will always have value; just as currency backed by gold will always have value regardless of what happens to the economy of the country.’

On the other hand for contemporary art the value ‘is dictated by the galleries who sell the work…. Just like with fiat currency, if people lose faith in a contemporary artist then their work is severely devalued, or even rendered worthless.’

He makes three concluding points summarised as:

1. The long-term value is linked to the extent to which one can disassociate the work of art from the artist, and the extent to which one can assign value to the actual characteristics of the art object as an independent entity.

2. Portraits have a future-proof intrinsic value because of their status as historical documents. It is this sort of intrinsic value that makes the portrait a good candidate for use as currency.

3. It is possible to take a strategic and mathematical approach that virtually guarantees success over the long-term. This sort of approach requires discipline, patience and objectivity.

It is an excellent article but there are some huge holes in the debate. He only really looks at two very limited parts of the art market – classical portraits and contemporary art. Portraiture itself, even in Classical times was not evenly spread over both time and space. Modern and contemporary portraits are ignored even when they fulfil his criteria as ‘documents’. Is a modernist portrait by Van Gogh or Matisse not as safe an investment as a ‘Classical’ portrait? It is not clear if sculptural portraits, etchings, pencil sketches etc are included in the argument (he usually refers to classical paintings). The reasoning for ignoring other artwork that could be considered as ‘historical documents’ – such as commissioned paintings of places, events and perhaps animals, – is not given. Portraits are selected as ‘a genre’ that will always have a value – but what about, and why not, other genres? Are they actually as stable in value as is suggested? Portraits too have had period where they were deeply unfashionable and had little value – including quite recently. Further, is the contemporary art market really controlled by the galleries?

I also have some problems with point 3 : an ‘approach that virtually guarantees success.’ What!? Please Nicholas, give us just a little clue in to the methodology of this amazing ‘strategic and mathematical approach’ to a sure-fire fortune. Unfortunately this is something that was not given over the course of the six posts.

I do have a reason for making these points however and it is that this line of argument has a certain appeal. Classical portraiture as a genre seems not bo be liable to the boom and bust cycles that bedevils some parts of the market, although it could be said that the same might apply to 19th century railway engravings or 18th century dog etchings. It could also be argued that a part of the market that can be considered to act in the same as gold is rather pointless, unless you have lots of empty wall space to fill – why not buy gold instead?

The main point is of course where purchased within a portfolio portraiture could create a stable ‘core’. If their value could be shown to be more stable than other parts of the market then this would be useful. From my position – admittedly outside the Classical art market – I have not seen this stability clearly enough – I would need to see much more evidence that portraits are the ‘way to go’. Until then I will stick to the – admittedly difficult – task of looking for works that should appreciate in value and where a stable value can be viewed as a useful ‘failure’!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with nicholas forrest at a kick up the arts.

%d bloggers like this: