The Business of Purchasing Art

Profit or Pleasure?

In the preface of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde proclaimed, ‘all art is quite useless’. An Oxford University student named Bernulf Clegg was so intrigued by the statement, that he wrote to Wilde and asked him to explain this now famous quote. To his surprise he received the response, ‘A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.’

Since ancient times, ownership of art has represented a display of wealth and power. The Renaissance was characterised by the rise of materialism and a growing demand for consumer goods. A new social class made up of rich merchants and bankers, the nouveau riche of the day, increased the demand for art and art became a traded commodity. Adorning rooms with paintings and sculptures was no longer just about the aesthetic value, but was also about a demonstration of reputation and social status. Artists also benefited from this perception, especially in early modern Europe when they relied on patronage. However, this
generally meant that the artist did not have creative freedom as a patron dictated, not only the subject matter, but also the materials or pigments to be used. For example, ultramarine blue was a very rare and expensive pigment, but many patrons would insist on it as it was the colour used for Virgin Mary’s robes.

Buying art these days still generates a feeling of victory, cultural superiority and social distinction. However, the vast majority of buyers purchase works of art simply because it gives them pleasure of one kind of another. This includes art that will be displayed in public places, in the office or in the home. So works are generally purchased just to look good in a
specific place.

When art gets to a considerable price point, however, it is only common sense to think about the investment value and resale potential. All investments come with risks and therefore require careful consideration, so sometimes buyers will seek the help of art advisors. Even so, not a lot of art dealers buy to resell but will add the purchase to their overall investment portfolio.

It’s certainly not a get rich quick scheme and can be an unpredictable investment. Art is therefore viewed in the long-term asset class for various reasons. Firstly, it is subject to changes in trends and fashion, it is not a liquid asset, meaning that you cannot always sell it when you want or need to, and it does not produce an income. Secondly, selling art has been long association with debt, death and divorce and no one wants to look like they need the money. However, the value of art is not just in monetary terms and investors are usually art lovers who want to enjoy their purchases as well as buy works that will increase in value.

There is the added risk, that even with the best of advice, it can all go terribly wrong. In 1970, the National Gallery in Dublin purchased the famous painting, The Goose Girl for £500 and it was thought to be the work of the Irish artist, William Leech. The painting was the subject of a long running debate in art circles and eventually in 1996 the gallery confirmed that it was
the work of a lesser-known English artist Stanley Royle. So should this fact affect the value of the painting, and should the value have anything to do with fame or popularity of the artist? Or should the value be in the work itself? It is still the same painting that it always was, even though the discovery may change the reason that there is an interest in it.

Art is most certainly an asset in the broadest sense of the word. Its aesthetic, cultural or historical value can be limitless. It might be financially valuable too, but just because some people happen to own art that is worth more today than what they paid for it, does not mean that buying art in order to make money is somehow easy to pull off.

Becoming an art collector is a process and prior to starting out, as with any investments, it’s a good idea to undertake a little research. The best way to get started would be to become a member of a gallery or museum or at the very least, get on their mailing list. You will then be kept informed of events such as exhibitions, lectures and art classes, and here you will also get to meet with others who share your interest.

Your first purchase will probably be the most daunting, but it’s good to know that you won’t need pots of money to get started. Art galleries and emerging artists need small collectors and therefore tend to facilitate this or this type of customer. At a fundamental level, the best advice is to listen to your heart and buy what will bring you pride and pleasure, because art that gives you joy will pay you dividends every day.

IMAGE: The Money Changers – Marinus Van Reymerswaele (follower of): © Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa-Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

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