How to invest in art
You've begged, borrowed or stolen your deposit and the house is yours. Now, what are you going to hang on the walls? After years in the doldrums, the Irish art industry is bouncing back and, if you know where to look, it's a great time to buy, writes Nathalie Marquez Courtney
Last month saw the sale of one of the most valuable paintings to be offered at auction in Ireland in recent years. Blue Still Life by William Scott sold for €450,000 (€560,000 including commission and VAT) when it went under the hammer at Whyte's auction house. So, are things back with a bang? Not quite, says Ian Whyte, managing director at Whyte's, who specialise in art and collectibles.
"Things fell off a cliff in 2008," he recalls. Art prices tumbled, along with property and stocks, with Ian estimating some pieces falling by as much as 60-70pc. "There was a lot of anguish in the market."
The slump slowed in 2011, with prices gradually steadying. Like the housing market, since then, values have started heading north. "There's still room for improvement, we've a bit to go yet," he says. "But things are increasing steadily without getting crazy."
Unlike the Irish property market, savvy steals are easier to come by on the art scene right now. "Most collectors are looking for good value - they don't want to buy something that's going to be worthless next year," notes Ian. "Buyers are a bit more cautious, and there's not the same frenzy that we had."
The Irish art market is split into three tiers, with the top-end (pieces priced from €10,000 up to €40,000-plus) currently performing strongly by many accounts. At the entry-level end, many would-be collectors find themselves still saving for a house, and not art to decorate it with. "Ten years ago, there were a lot of young spenders, but there's less activity now," notes Ian. "A lot of young collectors don't have as much money to spend, as they're busy trying to get a mortgage, so there is a lot of good value to be had in pictures that are below €5,000."
What art should the wannabe collector invest in? Ask an industry insider this question, and no doubt they would wrinkle their nose in distaste. From wealth management experts to gallerists, artists and auctioneers, the message is clear - if you want to buy art to make money, consider betting on another horse.
"'Investing in art' is the wrong phrase," says Suzanne MacDougald. The former owner of Dublin's Solomon Gallery has over 30 years' experience in the industry and is credited with establishing sculpture as an art form in Ireland. She now works with individuals and businesses, advising them on how to add to their collections or helping them to start new ones. "There are people who would look on art as an investment vehicle, but the first and only reason to buy art is because you're interested in the work."
This message got a little lost during the boom years, during which time, Suzanne says, many people "bought art as a status symbol", with no real love of the work.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Those wanting to dip their toe in the market will find the art landscape richer and more diverse than before. Street art, photography and craft have all become a stronger part of the mainstream art scene.
Artist and curator James Earley launched Iverna (iverna.ie), an online art collection that showcases emerging Irish artists, in late 2015. Known for his own striking street art, he also curated the Dean Hotel's collection on Dublin's Harcourt Street, which consists of more than 230 pieces from a wide range of disciplines and artists, including over 40 Irish works. Much of the collection has doubled or trebled in value since it was installed and, he says, the project opened his eyes to how under-represented many urban and street artists were in Ireland.
"I was gobsmacked that a lot of the artwork I wanted to place into the hotel didn't have representation," he recalls. "There wasn't an outlet that would value their work. Contemporary artists were leaving Ireland and being taken on by galleries in London."
James also noticed that a lot of these small, underground galleries in cities such as London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles were growing rapidly, putting on more and more shows.
So-called 'outsider art' was initially not taken seriously but, James explains, interest has grown exponentially. "Like with any art movement, even the likes of Pop Art, it takes 10, 15 years for it to mature, but it's a very investable art genre now."
This sentiment is echoed by Ian Whyte, who described graffiti artist Banksy as 'another Warhol', whose work continues to be highly bankable.
For younger collectors, urban and street art might be their first brush with the art scene, but they're not stopping there. Ironically, interest in street art has rejuvenated interest in Pop Art too, and in artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. "People who began collecting street art started exploring where it came from, looking to the '60s and '70s," Ian explains.
Younger or older, the advice for putting hard-earned cash into this new, growing scene is the same as any other. "Figure out what you like and really start to educate yourself about that genre or movement," says James. "Research the forerunners within the movement, look at the galleries they show in. You can even check the price of their work online and explore the trajectory of their career - that will help you understand why a work costs what it does, and whether you're getting a good bargain."
There has also been a growing interest in Irish photography in recent years and a jump in international fairs and auctions. "There is a much more active and vibrant culture here now," says Tanya Kiang, director at Dublin's Gallery of Photography. "In the past, photography sales in Ireland were often limited to historical work, such as black and white archive imagery. But now we're seeing photographic art being incorporated into the wider visual art scene." Most major Irish galleries now have one or two artists who are predominantly working in photography on their books.
A popular and accessible art form, it can be more appealing to first-time buyers or people new to collecting. "Photography is inherently democratic and shareable, so it works against the elitist values that informed some of the collections of the past," explains Tanya.
However, much of this growing interest is coming from abroad and this is where Irish collectors are missing a trick. "We are definitely behind," says Tanya. "There is a real opportunity for forward-thinkers to get to grips with the flowering of Irish photography that's happening now, and put down a marker for the future."
There is currently a big interest in Irish street photography, much of it attributed it to the photographer Eamonn Doyle who, Tanya says, has "single-handedly rejuvenated and revitalised" what had been considered a played out, tired genre. Doyle's work shows in many major art fairs, and he is represented by well-known London photography gallerist Michael Hoppen - expect to pay roughly £1,500 (€1,713) for a small edition.
Other names on Tanya Kiang's watch list are Paul Gaffney, whose forthcoming work, 'Perigee' is out soon in a special edition Artist's Book. His work is available as large photographs and is priced at around €3,000 (Oliver Sears Gallery). His work has been selected for exhibition at the prestigious International Photography Rencontres in Arles - 'the Cannes Film Festival of the photo world', according to Tanya.
Dragana Jurisic, who hails from the former Yugoslavia and is now based in Dublin, made her name with YU… the lost country, which showed at the RHA and was published in a now sold-out photobook (represented by Feld+Haus Gallery, Frankfurt). She will show at the Gallery of Photography next year.
THE GALLERY MYTH
When people think of 'investing' in art, often what they really mean is they'd like to buy pieces they love, from artists they find interesting - but, of course, make sure they get value for money. The road to a well-informed buy often starts at a gallery.
"I would always advise somebody to establish a relationship with a good gallery," says Suzanne MacDougald. A huge percentage of the income an artist earns is through their gallery and "any artist worth their salt" is attached and represented by a good gallery, with whom they often have a close relationship - Louis le Brocquy showed with Dublin's Taylor Galleries for more than 50 years.
"Many people don't understand what galleries are about, though," says Suzanne. Commercial galleries invest in artists, putting on as many as 12-13 shows a year, each one a risk. "A gallery only earns money if the works sell." This means that galleries are invested in educating people about the work and being approachable, open spaces. "Galleries are friendly places," asserts Suzanne. "The idea that they are intimidating places you have to tip-toe around and talk in hushed tones goes back 30 years." And don't be afraid to ask questions, she adds - if you wanted to buy a diamond, you'd listen to advice and do your research, and art is no different.
Our attitudes towards art are slowly changing. Few artists felt the harsh nosedive of the recession more than Kevin Sharkey - his bright, abstract pieces drew international fans such as Kate Moss and Whitney Houston, and led to sell-out exhibitions both at home abroad, but much of his business dried up during the recession and at one point, he became homeless.
Since the crash, Kevin believes that the art scene has diversified hugely. "The reasons people are buying art now are very varied, and that's a good thing," he says. "We're much more open to art." Life is busy again for Kevin - among commissions from interior designers, he also exhibited at Art Loft, at house 2017's showcase of design, art and interiors, which ran last month.
"I'd get killed for saying this by the art snobs, but some people look on art as furniture," he says. "As an artist, whatever reason somebody buys my work - whether it's to go with the curtains or with the collection - I'm honoured and humbled. Every purchase enables you to stay being an artist."
We are becoming, he says, "a lot less snooty and a lot more practical" about art-buying, less afraid to browse and to ask questions. "People will even come to you now and talk about payment plans," he says. "In the boom, they would have been too embarrassed to do that."
THE SHARING ECONOMY
This focus on getting value goes all the way to the top of the market. Rory Guthrie, who manages the art department at deVeres, recently started pulling together "buying funds" - groups of like-minded individuals who come together to pool their resources. "In the past two years, we've put together two groups of about 20 people, with each person putting in around €20,000," he explains. "We bought on their behalf or advised them on which Irish paintings to buy. They'll keep them for five years, after which point if they want to hold on to them, they can, or if they want to sell, hopefully they'll make profit."
Schemes like this are great for people new to the market, who may not be in the habit of buying art. "We put together very nice collections of around 20-25 paintings and they each hang a picture of the year - then they swap," he says.
Rory also has a more pragmatic take on the "only buy what you like" approach to art collecting. "It's become a bit of a golden mantra, but it's not necessarily the best route to take," he cautions. "Yes, you've got to like the picture - I don't think I've ever sold a piece to somebody who didn't like it - but you also have to ask if what you're buying is good value. Not enough people are doing their research."
If you're investing your hard-earned cash in Irish art, taking advice on what to buy and current market trends is a no-brainer.
"You need to find the balance between buying because you like it and because it's reasonable value," he advises. "It's not about wanting to make a huge profit, but if your money is safe and you can enjoy a good picture, that's a good place to start."
Who is hot right now: Four to Watch
Rosa Abbott, of Kerlin Gallery (kerlingallery.com), shares her pick of artists generating a buzz...
1 Richard Gorman
Richard is an artist who has seen an explosion of popularity in recent years.
In 2014, he became the first Irish artist to design a carre scarf for the French fashion house Hermes, and last summer, he celebrated his 70th birthday with a spectacular exhibition at Castletown House.
A gifted colourist, Gorman’s paintings and works on paper explore the dynamic interplay between geometric forms. His work is influenced by his frequent trips to Japan.
2 Paul Winstanley
A British artist of international renown, having previously exhibited at museums including Tate Britain, IMMA and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Winstanley revisits the traditional genres of still life, landscape, interior and figure painting with a sharp, conceptual viewpoint.
3 Samuel Laurence Cunnane
Samuel graduated from IADT in 2011, and since then has exhibited at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, here at Kerlin Gallery and THEODORE:Art in Brooklyn. He uses analogue photographic techniques, hand-printing his photographs himself. The resulting C-type prints are small, with an intimacy that resonates with the mood of his work. He travels extensively in order to make his pictures, with recent excursions including Iran, Turkey and Siberia.
4 Jan Pleitner
A highly expressive abstract painter living and working in Dusseldorf, we presented the first solo exhibition by the artist in Ireland last year (Water for the Tribe) and it was a resounding success, with the exhibition selling out and a sell-out. Pleitner’s energetic and colourful abstract paintings are influenced by science fiction and driven by subconscious thought. The artist works in bursts of great intensity, often completing his vast paintings in marathon sessions.
How to get started: Tips from the pros
- Investing for the first time? Look for an artist with a bit of a CV under his/her belt and an established reputation. Ask around to fFind out if they are represented by a reputable gallery.
- Get on art gallery mailing lists for invitations to openings and exhibitions, so you get first dibs on interesting work
- When you visit an exhibition you like, ask the gallery for information on who else they represent
- Wrangle a ticket to art college graduate shows, such as the National College of Art and Design’s end of year showcase, or Dublin Institute of Technology’s photography show, to pick up interesting work by emerging artists. Buy out of interest here, not with an eye on making a fast buck — there is no guarantee that a young graduate is going to continue as an artist, let alone go on to become successfulone
- Always buy the best example of the artist’s work. Don’t invest simply because it’s a Paul Henry or a Jack B Yeats. Having a name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a quality piece
- Photography books have become investment pieces in their own right, and are often published as limited editions. They can be a great way to start a collection
- When it comes to framing, consider the whole lifetime of the painting or print. Even if you’re buying only a limited edition print, taking the time to frame it properly will help to hold its value