How (and Why) to Buy In to High-End Art

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- The high-end art market deserves a real shout-out these days -- and not just because Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream sold at auction last month for a record $120 million.

Three of the four pieces that have fetched $100 million or more in auction history have gone under the gavel in the past two years. In fact, 11 of the 20 highest-priced auction sales on record have taken place since the Great Recession began in earnest in 2008.
Edvard Munch's The Scream is auctioned at New York City's Sotheby's in May, ultimately selling for more than $119 million.

"At the high end, prices are very strong," says Scot Levitt, director of fine arts for auction house Bonhams. "Rarity is driving this primarily, plus the collective notion that the best material is always impervious to fluctuations in the market."

That certainly proved true when Sotheby's auctioned off the only one of four versions of " The Scream still owned by a private collector rather than a museum. An unidentified buyer paid $119.9 million for the 1895 painting, crushing the previous auction record of $106.5 million paid in 2010 for Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust.

"I'm surprised The Scream didn't sell for more, actually," Levitt says. "It is one of the most recognizable modern paintings in the world -- if not the most."

The expert admits the Great Recession "softened the art market as a whole, but at the very high end, it's holding up fine."

He says buying a famous painting offers wealthy consumers an experience vastly different from simply looking at a well-known piece in a gallery.

"Owning a work of art is like watching beautiful dishes prepared on The Food Channel vs. eating them yourself," Levitt says. "Once you immerse yourself in the act of collecting, it takes on a more tactile, personal and direct connection with the object. The connection between artist and viewer becomes more personal and direct and far less detached than it would be if you were simply visiting a museum."

The expert believes most people who buy high-end art do so for a combination of personal enjoyment and profit potential.

"Some folks buy pieces that they like, while others purchase things for investment reasons," Levitt says. "Most tend to buy with a combination of both of these issues in mind. They buy because they like something -- but also because they feel that it's attractive enough to have some long-term investment value."

He says newcomers can get involved in the market for around $1,000 to $3,000.

At that price, you'll get a high-end reproduction of a Rembrandt, a Picasso or a work by another famous painter. Or, you can buy an original photo by a well-known photographer such as Ansel Adams or Robert Mapplethorpe, although you won't be getting something that's one of a kind.

Move up to $10,000 to $30,000 and you can probably find a sketch, a small painting or other minor work by famous artists such as Paul Cezanne or Claude Monet.

Alternatively, you can buy pieces by well-regarded but lesser-known artists such as Henri Edmond Cross, a French impressionist who came after Monet but had a similar style.

"Painters such as Henri Edmond Cross, Henri Lebasque, Albert Marquet and Charles Camoin are all excellent artists -- and one can buy nice examples of their works for considerably less money," Levitt says.

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