Art as an Investment? A Survey of Comparative Assets, by Melanie Gerlis - book review: What's wrong with this picture? A great deal


Should we be putting our money into art? Melanie Gerlis, who works for The Art Newspaper, urges caution in this new book. Why? Because the world of art buying and selling is much trickier, and more slippery and open to abuse, than it seems to the innocent outsider. Who is to say what a contemporary painting, perhaps the work of a single furious night, is really worth?

It has no intrinsic value. Only those who have the power – vested in him or her by the artist, who is so flattered to be singled out for attention – get to put an arbitrary price on it. And who would that arbiter be? The dealer who stands to gain from selling it.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, art dealers were urging those with assets to defend to look towards art's steadiness and dependability as a safe haven. This is not exactly so. As this book so well describes, the world of art dealing is a wild and relatively under-regulated one, with much information held tightly to the chests of a few very powerful people. The dealer Larry Gagosian, for example.

There is nothing illegal about much of this, but there is much that is highly questionable, and much that would simply not be acceptable in the other kinds of buying and selling described in some detail in this book – private and public equities, and dealings on the world's stock markets, for example, which are hedged about with regulation.

Not so the Wild West Show of art dealing. There is a genuine lack of information at all levels of the process, and seldom any legal compulsion to reveal what ought to be revealed if there is to be honest, transparent dealing between seller and purchaser.

One of the difficulties is that the world of art dealing has changed little in 200 years. Fifty per cent of all art sales go through the auction houses, and the way that sales proceed is as emotional and histrionic as it has ever been. And much about selling at auction is also hidden from view – or, at best, partially concealed. No one need know who is putting in a bid for a particular work. No one need know whether a bidder is not really an enthusiastic collector but the artist's own dealer, who stands to gain hugely.

There exists some intangible spiritual allure at the core of art's mystery, but when that allure gets mixed up with issues of big money, everything can become very messy, opaque and ruthlessly materialistic indeed.