The Art of Investing: The Rewards Aren't Always Financial

By Uri Berliner
June 19, 2013


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NPR's Uri Berliner is taking $5,000 of his own savings and putting it to work. Though he's no financial whiz or guru, he's exploring different types of investments — alternatives that may fare better than staying in a savings account that's not keeping up with inflation.

If you go onto a site like Artprice or Saatchi Online, you can shop for art by price, style or even size. It's not that different from buying a mutual fund on the Web. This suits Cappy Price just fine. She's a former Wall Street portfolio manager who now consults with clients about art as an alternative asset. She loves art for its beauty, but she also says it's an investable asset — one that wasn't really accessible to ordinary people until recently.

"The Internet is driving the ability of the masses to do their own research, do their own due diligence just as they do with a stock — really enabling individuals to determine and place their own value on individual pieces of art," Price says.

Why invest in art? One reason, Price says, is that fine art has a proven track record as a good choice during hard times. "It outperforms in times of economic turmoil and trouble. It has outperformed during all of the wars of the 20th century. It's outperformed during the last 27 recessions."

Like any other asset, the market for art goes through ups and downs. Over the past 60 years, the total return on art has been very similar to the return on the S&P 500-stock index, says Mike Moses, a retired New York University business school professor who co-created the Mei Moses World All Art Index. The index tracks repeat auction sales of fine art.

"If you use the last 30 years, the S&P substantially outperforms art," Moses says. "If you look at the most recent eight [to] 10 years, art has outperformed the S&P."

For paintings in my price range — we're talking a few hundred dollars — there's no Mei Moses index, no record of auction sales to use as a guide. So I have no idea whether it's a smart move financially for me to buy art. But I do know this: art is different than other investments. It's there in your house, part of your life.

"You are telling people something about yourself when you hang it," Moses says. "And therefore, I think that emotional investment gives you a certain tie to that work that you don't find in other objects that you buy."

For me, the emotional part of the equation is fairly simple. As I look through hundreds of paintings online, I know for sure I won't buy a rendering of a clown or a panda eating an ice cream cone. The hard part is assessing value in what is so fundamentally a subjective purchase. So I ask Price, "How can I tell if a painting selling for, say, $500 or $1,000 is worth it?"

Her answer: Start by looking at the comparables — see what similar paintings of similar size are selling for.

Before too long, searching online, I find a painting I want. It's an abstract work called Flower Study #14. It's inspired by irises.

"The colors ... they're fresh. They're spring colors, yellow, blue, green, white," says the artist, Vladimir Kryloff. I reach him in Vilnius, Lithuania, on his cellphone.

I'm no art expert. I don't even go to galleries. Kryloff isn't well-known, but he's a full-time painter who sells his work from his studio and online. The way the Web relentlessly categorizes art by price, style and size — that doesn't bother him at all. He says it allows him to watch the competition and keeps him in shape.

And he seems comfortable straddling two worlds: art as commerce and art as passion. "I think most people buy art because they love it," he says.

I purchase Flower Study #14 somewhat impulsively. I didn't bother with research. I just liked the way it looked. I pay $450 for the painting, and $139 to have it shipped from Vilnius to Washington, D.C. Kryloff appreciates my appreciation. But I say, "What if I turn around and flip it for a quick profit? What would you think?"

"It all depends on the price," he says. "So if the offer [was] too good to refuse, you would be right to accept it."

I check in with Price one last time after making my online purchase. Not a bad choice, she says, especially because it's painted in the style of the impressionists; they're always popular. But she offers a caveat: "It's unlikely you'd be able to turn around and sell it tomorrow. This is an emerging artist. This is an artist who is not brand name. That again goes to perhaps there being some difficulty in reselling the work."

Who knows. Maybe, as Kryloff says, I'll wind up getting an offer that's too good to refuse and bank a profit. But if not, I'll be happy to keep Flower Study #14 hanging on my wall.