In art market, investors again getting the picture

Andrew Leckey

June 04, 1993|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

The troubled art market, which boomed in 1989-1990 but went bust in 1991, has lately shown signs of revival.

While some impressive auction prices of 1993 have involved highly publicized multimillion-dollar pieces, there are also positive signs in lower-priced artwork that's more accessible to average folks.

In addition, Latin American, Native American, African and U.S. regional art are offering opportunities for new collectors.

"Because the art market had hit such a slump, it's a good time to be buying," said Alexander Apsis, director of the impressionist and modern art department for the Sotheby's auction house in New York. "The market in the past has swung like a pendulum."

The swing back doesn't include all artists or works, however, so the would-be collector must do more homework than ever before to make the most of a purchase.

"Prices are coming back to where they were in 1988, especially in impressionist and modern art, and I would expect them to remain steady," said Bonnie Stretch, editor of The ART newsletter, an international biweekly art market report published New York. "The contemporary art market remains vola

tile, since its artists and works have had less time to be tested by the market."

There had also been considerable speculation in contemporary works, which contributed to the plummet of many items when worldwide recession took its toll.

"Not only do art prices decline in recession, but a lot of quality pieces get pulled back in as collectors become cautious and decide not to sell," observed Mark Morris of the Donald Morris Gallery in Birmingham, Mich., and New York. "All this points out that you don't come to the art market to build your fortune, for the concept of buying good art isn't a casual thing."

Worldwide demand for art has changed as well.

"The lack of Japanese buyers in this market has been responsible for price drops in the impressionist and contemporary works, since at one point they were willing to pay anything, and this kept prices rising," said Karen Tallackson, specialist in modern and contemporary paintings for Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco.

The $28 million recently commanded by the Paul Cezanne painting "Nature Morte: Les Grosses Pommes" at a Sotheby's auction was heartening to the market as a whole, for that's double the initial estimate.

Some more down-to-earth examples:

* A Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster, "La Revue Blanche," with estimated value of $300 when recently auctioned by Butterfield's, sold for $977.

* An oil on paper done around 1910 by California landscape artist Mary De Neale Morgan, titled "Carmel Garden," was worth $750 five years ago and recently sold for $1,300.

African art collectibles are growing in popularity, with one type of dance mask called a Yoruba Gelede starting as low as $300 and going considerably higher for more elaborate carvings. Their value has outstripped inflation over the past decade.

"Both Latin American art and Haitian art are becoming quite popular, with many prices under $10,000, some as low as $500," noted Tallackson. "Another growth area is Native American beadwork, with one Cheyenne bag we sold rising in price from $1,000 to $3,500 in five years."

Buy only art you like, for the vagaries of this complex market make it difficult to call it a true investment. Higher-quality, rare pieces fare the best over the long term. It pays to buy the finest you can afford.

Develop an eye for the items yourself, visiting museums, dealers or auction houses. You can get basic information for free. Don't be pressured into a quick decision. Some dealers will let you try the art in your home on a test basis before buying.

Look into the reputation of the dealer selling the art. Besides word-of-mouth recommendations, professional credentials can help. You can, for example, get a list of members of the Art Dealers Association of America, 575 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.

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