Is buying art still a valuable investment?

PUBLISHED: 10:12 02 December 2019 | UPDATED: 10:14 02 December 2019

Is art a viable investment? Unless you have plenty of money, the answer is ‘probably not’, says Peter Sharkey. Picture: Getty Images

Is art a viable investment? Unless you have plenty of money, the answer is ‘probably not’, says Peter Sharkey. Picture: Getty Images


Whether it be classic cars, art, stamps or wine, alternative investments are a potential minefield says financial columnist Peter Sharkey.

A number of years ago, my wife and I owned a small retail chain which, with hindsight, was slightly ahead of its time in one respect but boy, am I glad we sold it when we did and extricated ourselves from the retail sector.

Our main branch was located in an up-market part of town and, when the shop next door became vacant, I was delighted when, only a few weeks later, an art dealer, let's call him Michael, moved in, together with 50 or more original works, most of it abstract in nature.

Michael was (is!) a great guy: witty, amusing, well-educated, full of scandalous anecdotes and clearly knew his stuff. His early evening viewings attracted dozens of well-heeled art lovers who stood, enthralled, as he provided them with details of a canvas's provenance and the artist's deeper meaning, assuming they could see through the four foot square mass of indecipherable shapes and colour.

After I got to know him well, I would poke fun at his interpretations. Instead of referring to a piece as a 'powerhouse of concentration and complexity', he should, I suggested, look for a new way of saying something like, "Actually, it's a modern-day version of the emperor's new clothes." He laughed. And agreed.

I haven't seen Michael for perhaps a decade, but I've remained conscious of his pragmatic attitude as art and other collectables have become increasingly popular with investors.

Call me a Philistine, but I wouldn't want anything on the wall that I didn't like, irrespective of its value. Why? It would be far too much like wearing a pair of expensive shoes because, in a critic's opinion, they looked good, but they didn't actually fit you properly.

Nevertheless, according to Investors Chronicle, between 1900-2017, investable art produced an annual return of 1.9%. That's more than platinum (1.4%), gold (0.7%) and diamonds (minus 0.5%) yielded each year over the same period.

Returns on art sound perfectly reasonable until you examine the range of returns over the 117 years being considered - anywhere from minus 47% to plus 48% in any given year. Mind you, the range on UK shares over the same period is even wider - from minus 54% to plus 98%, although on average, shares have produced an annual return of 5.2%.

Does this make art a viable investment?

Unless you have plenty of money, the answer is 'probably not'. My friend Michael was very good at advising clients on up-and-coming artists whose work could prove valuable in future and no doubt there are similarly well-intentioned experts willing to point clients in the right direction, but the art market is expensive to enter and transaction costs are very high. A better option might be to visit the National Gallery and invest in one of their excellent prints.

If art is a non-starter, investment-wise, how about a few bottles of Bordeaux? The annual return on wine between 1900-2017 has been an impressive 3.7% and the Live-ex fine wine index provides would-be investors with an objective measure of value.

You can download details of the wines that constitute the index and impress people with your intimate knowledge of Mouton Rothschild or Petrus, although it might be advisable to avoid talking like some wine experts. One chap suggested that a particular bottle of red offered a dark intensity: "The palate has immense richness and depth with a super succulent and very long, fleshy, deeply weighted array of dense, velvet-wrapped tannins that run so long."

Whether it be classic cars, art, stamps or wine, alternative investments are a potential minefield, although the past few years has witnessed a surge in people buying coins made from precious metals, not least because they have a calculable intrinsic value.

Returns over a century may not appear particularly attractive, but during turbulent times, the value of gold and silver tends to rise. Coins offer a modicum of investor protection without offering any financial yield as their values could increase should a protracted period of uncertainty hang over the country for any length of time.

However, investors who consider themselves risk-averse may wish to avoid the alternative investment scene and opt instead for the comparatively less expensive, more saleable area of investment ISAs where, fortunately, they're unlikely to see any fund described as a powerhouse of concentration and complexity.

TAM Asset Management Ltd offer savers the opportunity to invest in Investment ISA portfolios comprising a variety of different funds pursuing cautious, balanced or adventurous strategies. For further details, please visit the MoneyMapp website.

For more financial advice, check out Peter Sharkey's regular column, The Week In Numbers.

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