Investment Pieces for Lean Times

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Don't spend the recession staring at bare walls. For the price of a power boat, you can own a great work of art--and it's safer than the stock market.

They say that, in uncertain times, small-time investors should stick to what they know--which is great if your hobby happens to be credit default swaps and windmill technology. But what about the poor sods (there are a few of us out there) who get their jollies poring over obscure pictures by long-dead artists? It turns out we might just be on to a good thing.

Last week in New York, the Metropolitan Museum opened a show about Perino del Vaga, a Renaissance master who was one of Raphael's chief pupils and, in his own day, one of the most famous artists around. The exhibition celebrates Perino's gorgeous Holy Family, almost 500 years old, that the Met nabbed at a Sotheby's auction last winter for a paltry $2 million. If that sounds like real money, consider that someone recently paid four times that much for a Nurse painting by Richard Prince that isn't even a decade old.

Andrew Butterfield, a New York art dealer and expert, says that even at $2 million, which was a record price for a Perino, the Met's Holy Family was "a very good purchase--he's a major painter, and there are very few paintings by him." And unlike more recent artists, he says, Perino's stock is unlikely to suddenly fall. Can anyone say that about Peter Doig or Neo Rauch, current art-market favorites?

If the Sotheby's auction had gone differently--you could feel the excitement when the Perino came up--the Met could have spent as little as $300,000, the low estimate. That would be about what some recent Yale and Columbia graduates can see their works go for--and what some surgeons pay for a powerboat.

At the Sotheby's sale, the Perino was keeping company with plenty of centuries-old works going for less than $10,000, including a charming relief of Apollo, carved by an anonymous Netherlandish artist in about 1650, that went for $5,000--the kind of investment even an art critic might manage. "If people can't attach a name to it, for whatever reason, then you're getting significantly better value, in terms of an experience," says Butterfield. …