Wary of the stock market? Invest in fine art instead

As investors hold off on putting their bucks back in stocks, the art market is newly attractive. Wes Cowan, who owns an Ohio gallery and is an expert on two of the greatest TV shows in the history of mankind, History Detectives and Antiques Roadshow, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that for a recent auction of American and European paintings, he got 1,000 registered bidders for something that used to attract only around 700.

In 2008, the value of the art market decreased 4.5%, while Standard & Poor's 500 index went down 37%. Like gold prices, the art market has shown itself to be steadier than the stock market. But over two decades, stocks delivered more for their investors. They just weren't as solid, as last fall showed us.

Further attracting bear investors, art prices are deeply discounted right now, as galleries struggle to hook collectors. Sales are down, as they are everywhere, but analysts say that if you plan to hang onto your artwork for many years, an auctioneer can be a safer bookie than your stockbroker.
The big lenders seem to trust fine art. Banks won't give you or me a loan to buy a car, but A-list artwork is being successfully signed over as collateral to get some big names through the hard times. New York City's Metropolitan Opera has put up its acclaimed Marc Chagall murals to secure a $35 million loan, and Annie Leibovitz is hauling herself through red ink by signing away the rights to her life's work.

Should you put your nest egg into a golden frame? I wouldn't recommend it. In order for you to have a chance of getting your investment back, you'd have to sink your money into works by artists who are well-known enough to be virtually guaranteed to rise in value. Those artists are almost uniformly too expensive already for the common man.

And it's a dangerous gamble. As Cowan himself and his colleagues have proved to disappointed fortune-seekers time and again on Antiques Roadshow, you can often buy something thinking you've hit a the mother lode, only to find you've bought attic-worthy granny junk that appeals to a market consisting of you and no one else. A few days ago, the Associated Press said someone made $1,525 on eBay for a painting the seller believed was a Keith Haring. An art expert, though, called it a fake.

Collectibles with true historical importance are big, too. If Mohandas Gandhi had been able to hang onto his glasses and sandals, he'd be a rich man today. They fetched $1.8 million at auction last week.

The next big auction, coming next month in Los Angeles, is Michael Jackson's vast collection. The lots reveal the singer has an uncomfortable fixation with Disney's Pinocchio. Will the King of Pop's art stash yield big bucks despite the taint of having been associated with the scandal-tarnished M.J. name? If the sale nets high prices, it'll say more about the collectibles market than it does about the Gloved One's image rehabilitation. Never say Neverland.
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