This past weekend, a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti broke the previous record for most expensive piece of art sold at auction. An anonymous bidder purchased “L’Homme Qui Marche I” for $104.3 million, up to five times more than the expected price. This may be a good sign for the art world in need of a recovery from a bubble and crash. Only a few months ago, Lehman Brothers was selling off art within the company’s possession at any price possible in order to pay back their creditors.
The winner of the auction is remaining anonymous, and that’s probably a good idea. Many owners of high-priced art are investment banks. Consumers are still angry about taxpayer money used for bailouts and executive bonuses, so from a public relations perspective, no one would want to be seen spending this much money on one piece of art. In addition, storage, security, and insurance for this valuable sculpture is sure to be a significant expense, as well.
However, well-chosen art could provide to be an excellent investment. There are drawbacks. With the expenses mentioned, art as an investment is cash flow negative. Unless you are able to lend the works to a gallery, they will not produce income for the owner. The only chance to come out ahead is to sell the art for a higher price than the purchase price, and this is a very risky proposition. Art prices fluctuate and tastes change.
While small-time investors may be used to transaction fees no larger than $10 a trade, the art market isn’t as modest. Not only does the selling price need to be higher, but exorbitant transaction fees must be factored in. Even if you sell a work of art for 20% more than you paid for it, everyone involved in the sale, from the auction house to the banks that facilitate the purchase will find a way to eat into your profit margin.
From one perspective, $104.3 million seems to be a large amount to spend on a work of art when people are suffering throughout the world. The money could save lives. But art is an essential component of culture, and if this purchase broadens awareness and appreciation, the world may be better off.
Do you feel a work of art is a good choice for spending $104.3 million right now?
Published or updated February 5, 2010.