Finding Bargains in the Art World

Earlier this month, New York auction house Sotheby's ( BID) hosted a high-profile auction of impressionist and modern art. But with the last bang of the auctioneer's gavel, works from masters such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse failed to sell.

What happened? Quite simply, buyers stung by the global economic meltdown balked at shelling out big money for these pieces. Fact is, auction houses are seeing fewer well-heeled bidders raising their paddles for a Degas, Kandinsky or Warhol. At the same time, works by emerging artists that in the past have ignited bidding frenzies are more likely to command lower prices -- and that's if they sell at all.

According to art-world insiders, the boom time is over for auction houses after years of big-ticket sales and seemingly boundless demand. But the deflating art market is good news for those looking for bargains as prices continue to drop. "There are lots of good deals out there right now," says Laura Conover, an assistant in the American and European paintings and prints department of Boston-based auction house Skinner Inc. "It's certainly a great time to buy."

For intrepid collectors and gallery novices alike, here are a few tips to get the most out of investing in art.

Know what you like. Art is meant to be enjoyed. After all, it's one of the few investments you can hang above your mantel. So before you plunk down $20,000 for a paint-splattered, abstract canvas, make sure you actually like it. Spend some time visiting local galleries and museums to find out what you like -- and what you don't. "The primary reason people should buy art is that they like it," says Conover.

Know what it's worth. Whether you're buying a house, a stock or a piece of art, the key is not to overpay. Savvy investors do plenty of due diligence on stocks, from weighing P/E ratios on shares of Ford Motor ( F) to combing through Microsoft's ( MSFT) quarterly SEC filings. Smart house-hunters look at comparable sale prices on similar houses in the neighborhood. Art collectors can do a lot to determine if a current work is selling for a reasonable price, from noting what the artist's previous pieces sold for to whether the artist has garnered favorable reviews from critics.

Web sites such as ArtPrice.com offer data on previous auction sales and upcoming auctions for pieces from a particular artist. For example, ArtPrice.com -- which requires registration -- lists details on 37 Andy Warhol pieces and 130 Pablo Picasso pieces being sold at auction houses from New York to Milan.

Know that it's the real deal. Fraud is a real concern for art investors, as unscrupulous dealers have hoodwinked buyers into paying top dollar for elaborate fakes. Advice: Buy only through reputable galleries or auction houses, and avoid bidding on high-priced pieces through online auction sites like eBay ( EBAY). Finally, make sure to do your own research on the piece you're considering.

Conover also notes that auction houses often will provide information about items up for auction, whether it's more information on the quality of a painting or extra digital images of the piece. "And for questions of provenance, we offer documentation to bidders and potential buyers," she says.

Provenance can be a big question in the art world. A few years ago, a former truck driver from California named Teri Horton caused a stir by saying that a $5 painting she bought at a thrift store was a genuine Jackson Pollock. Works by the abstract painter have sold for as much as $200 million at auction, and Horton shunned offers reportedly as high as $9 million from collectors willing to take a chance that the piece is real. Horton, however, has long maintained that her thrift-store piece is worth at least $50 million. This month, Horton's maybe-or-maybe-not Pollack went on display at a Toronto gallery -- with a $50 million price tag.

Horton's story serves as a reminder that investing in art can be a risky pursuit. While it's rare that a piece bought through a reputable gallery or auction house will be tagged as a fraud, art prices can be fickle. A once-hot artist could lose his cachet among collectors, or a piece can be bid up far beyond what it's worth by an overzealous crowd of buyers. For investors considering adding canvasses or sculptures to their portfolio of stocks and bonds, caution and due diligence are the rules.

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