The Artful Collector: What do SF Art Collectors and “Gold Bugs” Have in Common?

Tim Standish “The Dark Secrets of Chocolate” pen/ink 11″ x 8″ Purchased Philcon 1989, $70. sold eBay 2009, $125. If put $ in the bank for 20 years, $168.

If I told you that 20 years from now 80% of the art of the art you are buying today would be be worth about half of what you paid for it, would you still keep buying?

Most collectors I know would not be happy with this news.  In fact, many of them would be alarmed to hear it.  Yet at the same time, they adamantly tell me: I buy art for “love” and not as an investment.  If it’s purely for love, then, why such a reaction?

No collector I know relishes the thought of losing most of the money they’ve put into their hobby, let alone coming out “even.” This is the main reason I ask people I’m selling art to, if it seems appropriate, “Will you be needing this money for your retirement?”  Because it’s a gamble, whether you love it, or not.  At the opposite extreme are those who make no excuses for their motives.  They tell me straight out, they consider art an “asset” and are buying it (or whatever other collectible they fancy) not just because they enjoy it, but also as an alternate, albeit more speculative, use of their money.  This is what drives many of them to seek out “bargains,” or emerging, unknown or “forgotten” artists.  Thinking the market will one day reward their tastes, or prescience.

What unites both groups is the same mindset as those enthusiasts who buy gold (commonly referred to as “gold bugs”). I had this “aha” moment after reading an article “On Investing” by Barry Ritholtz, published in The Washington Post (“Bitten by the Gold Bug” Sunday, January 12, 2014).  The warning “lessons” for fans of gold seemed so clearly applicable to both kinds of collectors of SF/F art (lovers and investors) that I decided to write about it.  What do they have in common?  An aversion for walking away from their purchases when the value drops, a reluctance to accept the lessons of history, and a higher than average emotional relationship to their “holdings”.

Cutting Your Losses (Walking Away)

Gold goes up, Gold goes down.  Look at the history of gold – and you’ll see that just like other speculative commodities, stocks and real estate – it eventually gets sold.  Sometimes for less than you paid for it, if you bought gold in 2010 and are selling it today.   If you are lucky (and most people are not, for reasons I will explain . . . keep reading) you sell or trade during a ‘run-up’ in the market.  But “gold bugs” do not sell.  They stick to their gold, now valued at $1200. an ounce – knowing it once was (it seems like only yesterday . . . ) almost $1900.  Many collectors of art and collectibles are just like gold enthusiasts….you live in hope.  You repeat, like a mantra, the old maxim “buy low and sell high.”  🙂  The question I must ask, of course, is “when is the price right?”  When is it high enough – or, conversely, low enough – to divest?  Or is that day never coming, for you?  Do you think letting your heirs make the decision (kicking it down the road) is the way to go?

You see the prices for some kinds of art, or artists, going down, for example, but never think of selling.  If you are buying with the idea of coming out ahead, 20 years down the road….. Why?  Surely there is something else you could “love” that would at least retain its value?

At the same time, you don’t shrink from buying when you see prices going up.  Sure, you complain about it (“I could have bought work by XXX for only ¢¢¢ last year”) but you pay his price anyway.  Why is that?  Doesn’t it occur to you that these may be the highest prices ever to be realized for a particular artist and next month they will be out of favor?

No, whether you are a true ‘lover’ of the art, or are buying in expectation of a profit someday, you are forever hopeful, even progressive, in your thinking.  When pressed to answer “what would make you sell?” you say “no thanks, I’ll keep what I have.”  LIKE GOLDBUGS.  You love what you have and keep what you love – regardless of what the market is doing, you keep buying.

Getting a Grip on What Love Means

Experienced traders understand that prices usually reflect what exists, what has already happened in the market.  By the time amateurs are jumping on the bandwagon for “X” or “Y” popular stock, that rise in popularity is already being reflected in its price. Making the equilvalent observation with SF/F art, it’s important to learn what what is already being reflected in the prices in that market, too.  While there can be real surprises (an artist’s sudden death, for example), for the most part by the time you are buying on the secondary market, those prices already reflect the market’s reaction to whatever forces have influenced its value.  You are buying based on what the market already believes about that piece of art; if it’s cheap, that’s because no one values it much, and if it’s expensive it’s because at least two people valued it highly  🙂

The reason most people are not consistently “lucky” – selling at market highs – is because most people who buy art, like those who buy gold, have a hard time answering the question “What would make me sell?”  How high do the prices have to be?  How low do prices have go?  Or is there no point at which you would say, “time to cut my losses”?  Some collectors hang on due to ignorance of the market for what they collect; some will hang on out of greed (“it will go higher”); some hang on because their emotional attachment trumps reason.  The latter is an especially dangerous mind-set, because if NOTHING will make you reverse your position, there’s a huge hole in your collecting strategy.  FULL DISCLOSURE HERE: I have been one of those people, myself.  In fact, for years people referred to The Frank Collection as a “black hole”   As in, Art gets in, but it never gets out.

(Are You?) Too optimistic for your own good

The lessons of history are clear, here.  And I finally learned them.  The day came when I opened a flat file and realized there was a good reason for me storing those pieces there.  It was art that no longer (or never was) “good enough” to hang on the wall.  Some of it cost very little, some of it cost more.  Some of it was fan art, bought on a whim or because I liked the artist.  Some of it was published art, but time had proven that it never was going to be loved enough to hang on a wall. And that day, I decided it was time to stop fooling myself.  The drawing shown above by Timothy Standish is representative. This was art that I was never going to:

1) enjoy in the way collectors do – by treating it as art worthy of framing and hanging it where I could see it (or)

2) enjoy in the way investors do – by keeping the hope alive that someday it might be worth more than I paid for it

What I had, was assets that weren’t giving me the pleasure of ownership while giving me all the downsides of an investment that (like gold) had no dividends, earnings, cash flow or (when I looked at it realistically) potential for profit.  What I had, was stuff that was cheap to store, but which represented money I could be spending on art  I could love “more.”   So I sold it off on eBay.  Was I WRONG?  WILL I RUE THE DAY?  Will my guess that none of this artwork would ever be worth more than (and most sold for less than) what I paid – someday come back to haunt me?  I don’t know.  But I’m asking: What do you have in your closet????

GIL ELVGREN Pretty Snappy
Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) “It’s a Snap” (Pretty Snappy; Snap Judgment), 1958 Oil on canvas 30″ x 24″ Signed. Published in “Gil Elvgren All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups” by Charles G. Martignette and Louis K. Meisel, Taschen Books, 1996. Sold for $215,100 Heritage Signature Auction, July 2009

Forty years and counting and I’ve learned this: There are no bargains in art – except in hindsight.  Like “goldbugs,” and other kinds of gamblers, the only time I will look smart is in retrospect – when I am lucky enough to have walked away “a winner.”

It is impossible to predict the directions of the art market.  If it were possible, art investment funds would be hugely successful (they’re not), wealthy individuals would be pouring their money into fine art as investments (they’re not), and I (for one) might have given Charles Martignette a helluva lot of competition buying pin-up art 20 years ago, back when he seemingly was cornering the market on the stuff.


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  1. I enjoy all of your articles, Jane. Keep’em coming : )

    I have never collected with an eye towards “investment”, but I DO try to not get too emotional about a piece that I pay much more than what I would deem a fair market price. This is mainly because (in the back of my mind) I always weigh the worst case scenario… what if I have an emergency and need to sell my collection? While I do not not expect to “make money”, I simply do not want to “lose money”. I will say, however, that the pieces I have sold so far have netted me more than I paid : )

    Also, I limit my collection to what I can fit on the walls (and still stay married). I don’t stack art. If I fill all of my available space, then I must sell something before I can add a new piece. It is a self-imposed limit that keeps me from going on a crazed art bender!

  2. Thanks for a very astute and cogent article, Jane. As a lifelong collector of many interests (not all, fortunately, at the same time), I’ve come to realize that any gains I see from selling items from a collection are pure gravy.

    For example, I’m selling off my book collection at Amazon, and I’ve been very disappointed by the prices commanded by limited-edition books (Arkham House, Grant, Mirage, etc.) that I bought 40 years ago as future investments. How could I go wrong? After all, Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” from Arkham was selling for $100 in 1972!

    I never dreamt I’d be able to sell more than a dozen Modern Library editions from the 1990s for more than $100 while my rare moldy oldies sat unsold on my shelves. (My biggest score: selling a 6-year-old book that I bought at a library sale last spring for $250.)

    One thing that collectors hoping to turn a profit should keep in mind is that the economy has crushed the collectible market; things are so uncertain that people are holding onto their money to pay for essentials, not fluffy stuff. (On the plus side, buyers should know that bargains abound.) It was far different during the last economic crisis in the late ’70s, when rampant inflation made buying collectibles a far wiser move than sticking your money in the bank. In other words, if you don’t have to sell now, DON’T.

    Finally, collectors should be thankful they at least have a chance to get a return from a pastime that has provided deep enjoyment over the years. Many hobbyists, from gardeners to anglers, have no such hope.

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