If you're not having as much fun looking at your portfolio as Gareb Shamus does when he looks at his Amazing Spider-Man No. 303 comic book, you should rethink your investment strategy. Shamus, founder of the comic book industry magazine Wizard, has been well-served by the advice heeded by many collectors-turned-investors: Buy what you like and do your homework.
In Shamus' case, he so desperately wanted a Spider-Man cover drawn by artist Todd McFarlane featuring Marvel Entertainment's ( MVL) flagship hero and the villain Sandman that he "grossly overpaid" $1,700 for it 14 years ago. The book's value climbed to $30,000 to $40,000 after Sandman appeared in the last installment of the Spider-Man films. "I bought it because I enjoyed it, I was a McFarlane art collector and I was a Spider-Man fan," he says. "I couldn't go wrong with it." Whether it's a 2005 Bordeaux, a Damien Hirst painting or an Incredible Hulk No. 181 featuring the first appearance by Wolverine, some collectibles make Wall Street's blue chips look like a house of cards. However, the markets for wine, art and comic books can prove just as volatile as the Dow Industrials, with consequences just as severe. Lisa Ryan has owned cases of Dom Perignon that she says could have put her kids through grad school. The third-generation owner of BLM Wine & Spirits in Boston has seen the value of a 1975 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac rise from double digits to $825 a bottle and a 2000 Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes mature to $650, only to see new vintages fall to earth this year thanks to the economic crisis and fluctuations in the euro.
"If I were just starting out I would put away nice old Argentinean, Chilean and Australian wines," Ryan says. "If you go on the whim of the euro, it gets ridiculous." Recent economic unease has been just as rough on the art world. Two days before Lehman Brothers collapsed, British artist Damien Hirst shattered Sotheby's ( BID - Get Report) record for a single-artist sale after pulling in $198 million for 218 works. Fast forward to May, when Sotheby's and Christie's International brought in $213 million on 936 pieces, including work by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. Among the biggest losers was a Hirst piece that went for $52,500 after selling for $72,000 in 2007. "The riskiest work is the work that's become so inflated so quickly," says Marshall Price, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Academy Museum in New York. "There's going to be contraction in the art world. I think a lot of galleries in Chelsea are going to close." Robin Starr, director pro tem of the American and European paintings and prints department at the Boston appraisal firm Skinner, says even seasoned art appreciators might have a tough time diving into an art investment without doing research. While the work of world-famous artists tends to hold its value, collectors should be careful about buying pieces from unfamiliar artists or movements. "As with buying stocks, you really need to do your homework first," Starr says. That's why comic book collectors consider a book's story as important as its cover. Tie-ins with television shows, video games and summer blockbusters can triple the price of a book. Robert Downey Jr. isn't the only one making money off the Iron Man series.
Since Marvel started releasing its Spider-Man movies, fine-grade copies of the webslinger's first appearance in Amazing Fantasy No. 15 have gone from $3,500 to $12,000, with near-mint copies jumping from $150,000 to $300,000. The company also plans to bring The Avengers to the big screen, boosting the price of a fine copy of The Avengers No. 1 to $3,000 from $800, with better copies jumping from $15,000 to $30,000. Marvel has another Iron Man movie in the works, as well as films based on Thor and Captain America. The value of Shamus' collection of original cover art from D.C. Comics' 12-book Watchmen series, which he purchased at Sotheby's 15 years ago, rose exponentially after the film version debuted in March. He has been approached with offers but, as is the greatest risk of this kind of investment, Shamus has become too attached to sell it. "You look at every successful collector out there, and they have such a great appreciation for what they own," Shamus says. "That's one of the greatest parts about comic collecting: Not only does the book have a story, but you do too."