Business

When art collecting can mean big money

Art collector Amy Yuen
Image caption Amy Yuen hopes to make a financial return on her painting

"The first time I saw this picture, I liked it," says Amy Yuen, a Hong Kong entrepreneur, of the painting The Crying Baby Series One by the controversial mainland Chinese artist, Yin Jun.

"I liked the details, I liked the mixture of colours."

She also liked the price: HK$168,000 (£13,100, $21,540), and the potential to make money by renting it out.

Ms Yuen is a member of fast-growing group of first-time investors in art, who take a typically hard-headed Hong Kong approach to art.

She's already bought shares, property and even dabbled in less-mainstream investments such as project financing.

The painting is far too big for her flat in Hong Kong. But she never intended it as domestic decoration. It is perfect to hang in a hotel or a private bank.

'Balance'

Ms Yuen reckons she will make a return of six per cent a year by renting it to such clients.

"People who appreciate art will be able to appreciate it," she says.

In comparison, Hong Kong banks typically pay less than half a per cent interest on deposits.

She's not sentimental: she reckons she'll sell the painting after about three years. In that time, she forecasts its value will increase by 15 to 20% a year.

"I consider this as an alternative investment," she says, "which will help to balance my portfolio. I'm planning to buy more art pieces in order to diversify."

Rail move

The UK's nationalised rail company woke up many investors to the possibility of art in the 1970s.

Its pension fund invested around $100m - around 2.5% of its portfolio - in art. That included 25 Impressionist paintings, and more than 2,000 other items from African tribal art to Chinese ceramics.

Today's investors may find some aspects of the 1970s seem familiar.

Image caption The The Crying Baby Series One painting may be up for sale again in three years

Stock markets were going nowhere. The West faced high inflation and low or no economic growth. The Middle East was unstable, and oil prices surged.

The pension fund started to sell its collection in 1987, and had disposed of it all by 1999. It reportedly made a compound return of 11.3 per cent a year.

Auctioneers and brokers love to tell stories about people who buy a painting for a few hundred dollars, only to sell it later for millions when the artist has become famous. But in real life, such luck is rare.

There are many pitfalls to investing in art.

Fashion

Even experts can be fooled by fakes. Unlike shares, which can be sold in a matter of hours, paintings can take a long time to sell; years even.

Auction houses and galleries may charge high fees for their services.

Fashions change too. Art critics have their darlings, which history may cruelly forget.

The investment guru John Train points out in his book The Craft of Investing that the art establishment can be a poor judge of what has lasting value.

There are no household names in the list of winners of the prestigious Prix de Rome in Paris in the late nineteenth century, he notes.

In fact, the judges felt no painter was worthy of the award in 1888 or 1897 "although Degas, Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec were all available," he writes.

That said, art does have some attractive features as an investment.

Research suggests that generally, the prices of paintings keep pace with inflation; that protects savings from losing their value in real terms.

And buying art to rent to businesses also generates cash.

'Ten years'

The secret, says Jonathan Macey, who's senior art broker at Art Futures Group in Hong Kong, is treat art much like any other investment: do your homework before you buy.

Art Futures is one of the pioneers of buying art to rent in East Asia.

Image caption Auction results can be analysed to decide a painting's worth

It concentrates on investors with $10,000 to $20,000 to spend on mid-career mainland Chinese artists: artists at the start of their careers are too unpredictable, and those who have become world-famous are too expensive for modest investors.

Mr Macey says data bases of gallery sales and auction results can be analysed in much the same way as conventional investment analysts look at cash flows, growth rates for sales and profit margins to decide what a company's shares should be worth.

"We can go back seven or eight years, or even ten for our artists," he says. "So we can forecast what this artist is going to be worth in the future."

As well as helping investors to find the right pictures and artists, the company will also find rental clients.

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