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

The Art of Investing in Art

If you spent much time at this year's Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, you heard plenty of talk about truth and beauty, of how a painting could be so transcendent as to be priceless, its value incapable of being measured in mere dollars and cents.

Save it, sister, at least if you're speaking with the team of Wall Street analysts behind Fernwood Art Investments, a new firm with offices in Boston, New York, and -- natch -- Miami.

"We're very aware and careful to say that art is about so much more than money," explains Jennifer Winn, Fernwood's senior vice president of marketing and communications. "We acknowledge that the primary value of art is aesthetic, it's emotional. That said, if you look at it, you can understand it like any other marketplace."

Accordingly Winn accompanied Fernwood chairman Bruce Taub, a former Merrill Lynch heavyweight and now a Miami snowbird, as well as thirteen other firm members as they fanned out at Basel. Their conversations were much the same as those of the other art aficionados traipsing through the fair's galleries: who was selling, who was buying, and the intricate dance of commerce that went on in between.

Yet Winn and her colleagues were less interested in trying to understand the meaning of Barry McGee's overturned and freshly decorated pickup truck -- yes, an actual 6000-pound truck -- than in observing that Miami collector Martin Margulies reportedly paid a six-figure sum to Manhattan's Deitch Projects gallery for it. To some a sale like that made for juicy gossip. To Winn it's crucial market research. And the imprimatur of the pace-setting Deitch, now certified by the checkbook of Margulies, had suddenly sent prices rocketing on the rest of McGee's graffiti-inspired work.

Likewise the swanky private parties showcasing the world-famous home collections of auto magnate Norman Braman and beverage distributors Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz were more than just glamorous affairs. For the artists whose work they own, simply having a given painting displayed on their bedroom wall was as financially significant as a Goldman Sachs exec touting a stock's upcoming IPO on CNBC, or a Deutsche Bank adviser recommending his clients buy into a new offering.

Margulies in particular may bristle at the notion of hedge-fund managers quickly adding a Barry McGee piece to their holdings based on his own Basel purchase: "These people are not of the same ilk as collectors like me, they're only interested in money," he sniffed to The Art Newspaper. "It's not a healthy thing for the art world."

Healthy or not, with its yearly sales now reaching an estimated $10 billion in the United States alone, art has quite literally become big business. While money invested in the stock market's S&P 500 Index -- a conservative bet on Wall Street's top 500 companies -- has earned an annualized 11 percent return over the past decade, that same money sunk into the contemporary art market would have produced a whopping 29 percent return. On one particularly hot artist, Basel fave Richard Prince, Fernwood found an astronomical return of 43 percent. With figures like that, even drug lords have to be considering a switch in their portfolios' assets.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the same colorful collisions of MBA number-crunchers and creative tyros that transformed Hollywood, the fashion trade, and the music industry are now set to unfold within the art milieu.

Indeed you could witness this cultural frisson throughout Basel. It's hard to imagine punk-rock avatar Iggy Pop and dethroned superagent Michael Ovitz ever shopping together -- let alone being found in the same room. But there they were inside the Miami Beach Convention Center on Art Basel's opening day, Ovitz apparently not recognizing Iggy but stopping to give his statuesque girlfriend, all but spilling out of her skimpy dress, the once-over -- twice.

Fresh from his ongoing Disney trial testimony in Delaware, where stockholders are suing over his $140 million severance package, Ovitz was said to be scouring Basel for a painting by Miami's own Hernan Bas, whose homoerotic portraits of teenage boys falling out of abstract dreamscapes and into each other's arms have become this season's buzz. Ovitz, who famously blamed his downfall at Disney on Hollywood's gay mafia ("If they could have taken my wife and kids, they would have"), obviously isn't holding a grudge.

For his part, Iggy Pop lingered over an inflated VW car sculpture by Misaki Kawai, whose dealer was doing his best not to hyperventilate at the prospect of a celebrity sale.

"It's beautiful, but I couldn't put it outside," Iggy told Kulchur after moving on to another booth. The singer, previously notorious for slashing his chest with jagged shards of glass while onstage, was now concerned about exposing his purchases to the elements at his El Portal home. As for what else caught his eye, Iggy preferred to play coy, though he proved surprisingly knowledgeable about Miami's art scene. He sang the praises of painter Purvis Young, whose work he owns, as well as the shows staged in Edgewater's now-demolished The House space.

When the public thinks of Iggy Pop, they don't really imagine you as an art collector.

"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.

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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