John T Unger left a comment on my
last blog about how art makes
a terrible investment. No it doesn’t, he said:
I’ve found that art makes a great *short-term* investment. I buy what I like,
because I want to hang it, but with limited wall space I’ve often ended up selling
older work from my collection to finance and make room for newer work. So far
I’ve always enjoyed about a 400% profit or better on work sold within the first
I needed to know more. So I asked, and he answered:
I make a full time living as an artist myself, but on occasion I’ve sold
or repped work by other artists to make ends meet. I tend to think back on
the story of Marcel DuChamp supporting himself during his supposed retirement
by selling Brancusi’s sculptures. For me, it’s not so much about the investment
as it is a contingency fund, but on the other hand I’ve always turned a hefty
profit when I have sold others’ work.
Because I’m in the scene (and stick to the ones I’m in), I have a fair idea
of whose star is rising, who’s being heavily promoted, which collectors are
buying what and so on. I’m in the Midwest, so most of the time the prices
are at best in the thousands rather than tens of thousands. But hey, if you
can turn $500 into $2000 without doing any real work it’s not bad. I’m playing
the market on a relatively small scale, but I suppose if I bought in greater
quantity it could be a real income.
A typical example would be four nicho sculptures I bought at an art event
by a Mexican artist who goes by Marcos. I bought the set of four for $550,
sold one for $600 a few years later and see his work bringing $1500 at Chicago’s
Ann Nathan Gallery now. Some of the sequined Haitian Vodoun flags I bought
for $200 to $400 now sell well at $1200 and up.
I mostly buy three types of work: outsider/self taught, "emerging"
artists (usually people in my own circle) and modern ethnographic art, focused
mostly on Haitian or African work. I also buy work with heavy recycled content
and some craft or design items if they’re exceptional in quality. Most of
the time I don’t expect those to appreciate in value, but it has happened
with limited run or unique pieces by artists or designers who’ve become well
The emerging artists I buy are often purchased directly from the artist, though
it’s not infrequent that I’ll be dropping my own work off at a gallery and
see something I really want. On occasion, I’ll trade my own work to either
the artist or the gallery. When I lived in Chicago, I was in Pilsen, a neighborhood
that was home at the time to several hundred practicing artists at various
stages in their careers. That gave me a great opportunity to see work before
the public had a chance to view it and pick the winners. I sometimes now buy
art online, usually after seeing it reviewed in a blog. I also sometimes pick
up some of the ethnographic or craft items at festivals. In all the above
cases, my selection criteria is chiefly about liking the work or seeing something
that seems new or interesting. A few of the friends who I routinely buy work
from are also artists I promote to other collectors and galleries.
The Ethnographic pieces mostly come from curators I know who buy and import
it. Again, the advantage is being able to see the work before it reaches the
market. One of the best collectors of my own work has been Marilyn Houlberg,
who curated the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibit.
Not only does she have access to the best contemporary flag artists in Haiti,
but she also has a pretty heavy influence on which become most successful
and coveted… so, a lot of the work I bought from her over the years
Most of the work I’ve sold went to collectors I know or other artists. Sometimes
I consign work through galleries or dealers I’ve shown with or bought from
in the past. Generally, I try to sell work directly to avoid commission fees.
Every now and then, someone will drop by the studio to look at my work and
express interest in buying something from my collection. Sometimes I sell,
What really works for me about re-selling work is that as my tastes change
over time, I can keep the collection fresh while constantly upscaling the
work. When something sells at higher price than I paid, it’s easier to buy
work that I couldn’t previously afford.
Actually, I used to do the same thing with books when I was a writer. I had
a good idea of the market, so I’d pick up books that were undervalued and
later re-sell them to buy first editions, etc.
I’m not 100% sure if my basic strategies would work for everyone or not. A
big part of what allows me to buy good work is that I have a behind the scenes
pass with both artists and galleries. On the other hand, the strongest part
is definitely knowing the market and having a good eye. After all, there’s
way more stuff I didn’t buy than that I did.
I replied with this:
It’s great you can do this and make a profit – but isn’t what you’re
doing here basically acting as a private art dealer? Most of the time, you’re
buying privately and you’re selling privately. And I don’t think anybody disputes
that art dealers can make money. Crucially, you have quite a lot of access to
art buyers – something that most people simply don’t: isn’t that even
more important, in many ways, than your backstage pass with galleries and artists?
With a bit of effort, anybody can cultivate galleries and artists. But finding
people to sell to: that’s where most people would come up blank.
There’s a long tradition of underpaid workers at auction houses, for instance,
supplementing their income by doing private art dealing on the side. And I suppose
you could say that art dealing is the same as "short-term investing".
But the difference in my mind is that in the former case you’re building
a market, while in the second case you’re simply buying and selling in a pre-existing
market. Which is why I suspect that given the distinction between a dealer and
a collector/investor, you’re more the former than the latter.
Or am I wrong here?
John wrote back:
It’s an interesting distinction you raise… I certainly never thought
of myself as a dealer before.
Although I have a good nose for deals and sometimes get a bit of a discount,
I’m still paying pretty much retail price for most work. Or at least, I’m
certainly not getting the work at wholesale/dealer prices. I feel the access
I have to unseen work helps me to get better quality pieces, but it doesn’t
necessarily get me a significantly better price. And when I consign pieces
to galleries for sale, I still have to pay them their standard commission.
I would think that this is more likely the deciding line between collector/dealer
than access to buyers, no?
Most of the collectors I know have a tendency to swap work out just as I do
over time. Many of the outsider and ethnographic buyers/collectors tend to
run in the same social circuits and often trade amongst themselves. I think
it’s part of the collecting sickness that they’re always looking for more,
new, better work. It’s incessant. There aren’t enough venues for acquisition
so they cannibalize each other’s collections. Seems like you’d see the same
behavior in comic collectors or any other obsessive collector culture.
Making successful short term investments in art probably requires very similar
qualities to blogging, actually. You have to be passionate about what you’re
buying. It helps to specialize in a niche that you can become expert in. It
helps to know people, and if you don’t, to get out and meet them. Finding
things first and then promoting them to other interested parties is good strategy.
It doesn’t hurt to have an outgoing, upbeat personality. etc.
As far as finding buyers for art, you have a point that not everyone would
know where to look. But my access to buyers is something that I cultivate
more to sell my own work than for the purpose of resale from the collection.
My access to the market for reselling art really was a result of my access
to the community surrounding specific art in a specific area. I knew the young
up and comers, their dealers, some collectors, and had a good in with a bunch
of importers for the ethno stuff who all knew each other. Art is a small town,
even in any city, right? You get to know the players and then you can get
in the game.
I think that if someone were to approach short term art resale as a significant
investment strategy, getting into the community and researching who buys what
would be part of the due diligence type work you’d do for any investment.
So there you have it: art can be a good investment. But you need to
be pretty serious about it, and invest a lot of time in the art community, for
it to be so. I, on the other hand, generally can’t stand the art community,
and I’m very happy never go to openings and never to meet any artists or dealers
or curators. I guess I’d make a dreadful art investor.