Abstract nightmares

Michael Peters learned about the art market the hard way.
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Michael Peters OBE, 55, is founder and managing partner of Identica, a "new wave" brand design, corporate identity, innovations and multimedia consultancy with clients including Unilever, NatWest, United Distillers, Mercury One-2-One, Finnair and Nestle.

After graduating from Yale with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1964, he went on to set up Michael Peters and Partners, which became the largest design firm in the world and was floated in 1983. But he yearned for a smaller business again and in 1992 he formed Identica, which has since achieved a fee income of more than pounds 3m and employs 35 people.

Years ago, when I was at art school in America, I studied under a very famous painter called Joseph Albers. He was an emigre from the Bauhaus, the most influential institute of architecture and design in Germany. This man had a very great influence on me.

It was Albers who introduced me to the Italian painter Matta, and I became a great lover of his work too.

I always wanted to own some of their paintings, but as a student, of course, it was completely out of my reach. It wasn't until the Eighties that I was able to fulfil that particular ambition and acquire works of art by both of them.

By then, like many designers, I had become an avid collector. Over the years I had invested mainly in the work of British painters and craftsmen. It is a passion of mine to spot young artists and designers and give them some support.

But when an abstract by Matta became available at auction, I simply couldn't resist it. He wasn't much in demand at the time as he was known to very few people, and I managed to buy it for pounds 10,000.

I felt such a sense of achievement, owning something I had always admired as a youngster. To have a Matta in my hands felt like one of the greatest gifts in the world. It was like having a new baby. This painting made marvellous use of colour and form, and every day I looked at it I saw something different.

My golden rule has always been never to sell anything, because my collection is very important to me. Just as everybody knows what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, my collection represents to me the chronology of my life.

But the painting was about 7ft by 6ft, and it is fair to say that it took up rather a large amount of the wall. To do it justice required a lot of available space, and when I moved offices a year later there really was no place for it, so I decided with great regret that I should sell it.

To my surprise, when I auctioned it in 1989, it sold for pounds 16,000. I was amazed, because I don't buy art to sell for the profit. However, it had turned our to be a terrific investment and I was extremely happy.

At least, I was happy until 1992 when a catalogue arrived through my door for a big art auction in New York. There, in colour, was my Matta painting with a reserve price of $200,000.

My first thought was `Shit'. I was astonished, absolutely astonished.

I couldn't believe my own eyes, so in order to be certain I compared it with colour photographs which I take of all additions to my collection. Sure enough, it was the same painting.

I subsequently learned that the picture had sold for $285,000. By this time I was gobsmacked. It was hard to swallow that a painting could sell for that price when only three years earlier I had sold it for pounds 16,000.

As you can imagine, I was mightily peeved. It was a very great error on my part. If only I had stuck to my guns and not sold something which formed part of my collection.

But where I really went wrong was in not being savvy to the market. Having decided to sell, I should have done some research, because - like fashion - painters go in and out of vogue.

Had I checked it out I would have discovered that in the early Nineties, Matta had become a big discovery. After all, by that time he was dead.

Apart from feeling sick and fed up, it taught me a very great lesson. If you want to make the maximum return on your investment, make sure you research the market properly.

It's easy to spot trends if you watch what the big collectors are doing, but I just hadn't bothered to check it out. It was a mistake I hope I will never make again, and I have continued to invest in the arts ever since.

The first rule is to buy something that will sit happily on your wall. Personally I couldn't live with having something that was not to my taste simply because it was an investment.

Don't be put off by what others say about it, and be committed to sponsoring the artist, if you can afford it, by having more than one painting.

On the whole I'm a hoarder, and I hope that one day my children will have a very nice collection to hang on their walls.

But buying a fine art collection is a very exciting hobby that can be translated - if you so desire - into a terrific return on your capital.

It is a great pleasure to own a beautiful painting which day by day is increasing in value, providing you don't mind the emotional upset of getting rid of a piece you like to turn it into money.

In this country we are fortunate to have a richness of art that is like an untapped oil well of creativity.

There is a wealth of young talent around, and you can spend anything from a couple of hundred pounds to thousands. You don't have to be an expert; just put the money into what you really like.

If you're patient you should eventually see a return; even if it's only a few hundred pounds.

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