The Art of Investing in Art

Wall Street gives new meaning to the term "artist portfolio"

"Well, that's the public!" Iggy shot back with his trademark cackle.

If Iggy Pop had transformed from a rock-and-roll wild man into a budding homeowners' association member, much of Basel's offerings charted a very different course: Porn chic was everywhere, and many dealers dispensed with draping even the thin veneer of artistic pretension over their images of splayed naked figures.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders had moved on from his acclaimed photographs of Academy Award winners to adult-film stars -- clothed and unclothed. And while it may have made an interesting sociological study, with his fully dressed portraits seeming far more intimate than their completely bared counterparts, it was hard to tell the difference between the $35,000 full-frontal photo of starlet Savannah Samson, and the $5.95 version available in Hustler.

Disrobing for the sake of selling art: a lone reveler at Terry Richardson's Art Basel party
Jonathan Postal
Disrobing for the sake of selling art: a lone reveler at Terry Richardson's Art Basel party

Fashion photographer Terry Richardson spun that odd dichotomy out to its logical conclusion at a Delano Hotel party celebrating his Terryworld collection, a playful array of X-rated pics seemingly drawn from an alcohol-fueled home video. "Forty nude models, and anyone else who feels inspired, will strip and bare their souls for Richardson's famed lens," promised Taschen, the book's publisher and art-world standard-bearer.

Ironically the throngs of willing bacchanalians who arrived -- South Beach tourists and causeway kids who hardly need an excuse to doff their tops on any given Washington Avenue club hop -- were turned back at the velvet rope. And "forty nude models" turned out to be two thirtysomething Dutch gals and a creepy older gentleman who accented his birthday suit with a pair of black socks. Their spirit was certainly willing, but their flesh was less than inspiring.

Still Richardson pressed on, snapping away with a palm-size amateur camera, dwarfed by the sea of telephoto lenses poking over his shoulder, all aimed at the exact same scene. However, only one of that night's shutterbugs was going to find his handiwork framed and displayed in a pricey gallery. For this night at least, the emperor wasn't the only one looking for his clothes.

Buy low, sell high. It's as true for art as it is for stocks. Fernwood's first funds are set to launch in February 2005, and their affiliated dealers have been busy filling them with undervalued works from different eras: "X percentage of this fund should be invested in Impressionists, Y percentage in Old Masters, and so on," Winn says. For now the focus is solely on "high net-worth investors." If you're worth less than one million dollars, don't even bother inquiring about buying a share.

"We're taking a long-term view," Winn continues. "If indeed parts of the contemporary market are hot, we won't be investing in them. They'll be overpriced."

So now's the time to buy some old classics like Renoir?

"Perhaps," Winn muses. Referring to the last great art-market boom, she explains: "We saw in the Eighties the Japanese buying up a lot of Impressionist paintings. And now they're trying to sell them while they've gone out of fashion. There are some bargains to be had in Renoirs -- no one really wants them anymore. But they're quality paintings. I could see us buying some and having them be good investments in fifteen or twenty years."

Even at a "bargain" price, though, a Renoir is still out of most folks' fiduciary grasp. Kulchur presses for some other Basel tidbits, perhaps an emerging Miami artist Fernwood is bullish on -- a tip that, say, a collector operating on a reporter's salary could act on at next week's Art Miami fair.

"We're beginning to see some patterns -- " Winn stops short. "I don't know how much more I can say right now," she adds tentatively.

Unless I cut you a check?

"Well," she chuckles, "we are creating proprietary research, which we will be selling."

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