Art safer than gold?

With virtually everyone affected by the world’s current financial problems, it was interesting to see a recent report on artnet.com suggesting that investment in art seems to be bucking the trend.

Pablo Picasso was second only to Andy Warhol in artnet’s top selling artists in 2012 with his top lot selling for over $41 million. Picasso died in 1973 and yet over 2,700 pieces of artwork were sold last year for the staggering total of $335 million. The demand for the Spaniard’s work has endured for forty years since his death and in 2012 produced an overall sell-through rate above 75%.

This kind of profit is not exclusive to Picasso with many modern and contemporary artists producing better returns than financial markets over the last decade. Andy Warhol topped the rankings with over $38.5 million with Gerhard Richter of Germany the top living artist in third on $29.8 million. The works of Chinese painters Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian and Li Keran are all fetching huge sums, as are those of Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon. The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joan Miro completes the top ten, making Richter the only living artist in the list.

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Picasso’ “Nature Morte Aux Tulipes” was his highest selling work of art in 2012. The oil painting of his mistress alongside tulips and fruit fetched $41.5 million at Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sale in Manhattan. It was painted in 1932 and depicts Marie-Therese Walter, the artist’s lover and muse, poised over a suggestive flower arrangement. However, buying art is no guarantee of a secure investment as 30 percent of lots at the same auction failed to meet their reserve.

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Andy Warhol’s silkscreen depiction of the Statue of Liberty (1962) was the highest selling work of art last year at $43.8 million at Christie’s sale in New York. The sale was part of a larger contemporary art auction that brought in over $400 million. “Statue of Liberty” shows multiple tiled images of the famous landmark, with each image having a 3-D effect. The returned sales figures from the show at Christie’s were a postwar record for contemporary art. New record prices were set artist’s Richard Serra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, Donald Judd, Mark Grotjahn and Jeff Koons.

This elevated Koons to the second most expensive living artist at auction. The American is known for his reproductions of objects such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror finish surfaces. Koons’s Tulips sculpture sold for $33.7 million, topping a previous best of $25.7 million for a balloon sculpture that sold at Christie’s London in 2008. The sale had a sell-through rate of 92 percent by lot with only six pieces failing to sell. The sale, along with that of Sothebys, underlines the strength of the contemporary art market. What does 2013 hold for the art world? Judging by the returns of last year, it has better prospects than many alternative investments.

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