Alternative investments: Art, antiques, wine and anything odd?

Thursday, 05 March 2009 09:24

With falls in the stock market and savings rates sitting next to zero investors are looking at areas normally thought of as a little bit wacky.

Putting cash in alternative investments such as art is not limited, however, to the Russia oligarchs buying an odd Monet or collectors stacking up old coins.

Data from the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) show the UK’s savings accounts were being emptied in January, with the body noting people were now looking at “alternative financial products”.

What alternatives people are choosing is not clear, but it is certain people are looking further afield – at areas such as art and antiques.

Many antique collectors are collecting as much for the joy of owning a piece as its investment. With this strong interest, is it worth investing, or are judgements likely to be skewed?

Prices dropping

Research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) into the state of the arts and antiques market shows, across all art markets, 41 per cent of valuers saw prices drop and 51 per cent saw them stay the same over the last quarter of 2008.

The number of expected sales is also down.

It appears even the very top of the market – usually insulated from the ill economic winds – is now capitulating.

The best performing areas were silver and jewellery – because such items are seen as a ‘safe-haven’ in times of financial and economic uncertainty.

The weakest performing areas were oils and water colours. The market is also being bashed by the property slowdown – as the demand for furniture declines.

Investing in art and antiques

However, in the slow market, some experts are noting buyers looking to invest cash.

Jeremy Lamond at Shropshire-based Halls Auctioneers explains: “The credit crunch has seen new buyers coming into the market who believe that they might as well buy art because their money is certainly not earning significant interest in the bank.”

However, investors are advised not to walk blindly into the auction room and think a work of art or any antique will provide instant success.

As well as seeking advice on what to buy, people should note antiques and art are slow burners.

“Buying antiques is not about investing, it is about buying something you like,” says Andrew Acquier, a London-based valuer and fellow of Rics.

“Those looking to speculate and buy and sell with a profit after two to three years are bonkers.”

He adds: “The traditional tendency is to break even after ten years and after that look at profits.”

Mr Lamond concurs: “Antiques is not get rich quick scheme, if it was we would all be doing it.

“Making money is about being in for the long game. You wouldn’t buy a property to sell on in six months, and it is those who bought on the margins trying to get rich quick who are being burnt in property. It is the same with antiques.”

Where to start

“The obvious and dull answer on where to invest is buy what you like as you have to live with it. If it is not a good investment you still like it,” Mr Lamond explains.

He also advises people to aim to buy the best they can afford.

“If you buy what is good now in ten years time, it will still be good.

“If you buy something that is cheap at the time, it will still be cheap in ten years time.

“A Clarice Cliff worth £3,000 in 1997 was the top of the market back then and now it could be worth £10,000 as it is still the best around.”

He adds: “Make sure whatever you buy is in good condition and is genuine.

“Also, know the market.”

Recession and pitfalls

However, amid the downturn Mr Lamond does see some areas of seeing interest rising.

“The upper level is a bit depressed, but only as auctioneers are advising sellers to put in lower estimates,” says Mr Acquier.

“Only three areas are up at the moment, books, memorabilia, such as rock and film, and old masters. Most other areas are in the doldrums or holding steady.”

But he does have advice of where to look if you have some cash to invest.

“You could look at books and signed 20th century 1st editions, and old masters – but look carefully, to see if it is well painted, not signed or in need of restoration.”

He also challenges people to “put your money where your mouth is and buy something up and coming” by heading to the graduate shows at art colleges such as the Slade or Chelsea College of Art.

However, Mr Lamond warns about jumping straight into areas such as memorabilia.

“You have to watch for fashions. The car market suffered a bubble a few years back,” he warns.

“I don’t want to mock a market I am not in, but there are certain areas of rock and pop memorabilia in five or ten years that might be lower.

“A pop band may be big now, but not so in the future. If you had the autographs of the Communards 20 years ago it might have been interesting, but not now.

“But the autographs of Led Zeppelin or the Beatles, they have ‘wow’ and they are going to travel.

“You have to be clever with an eye to the future.”

Areas he highlights as now being cheap include Japanese 17th century ceramics, “cheaper than expected” good quality and worth buying.

Investing in a fund

A further way to invest in art and other alternatives is through a fund.

A number of funds have sprung up that invest in art with a central fund – advised by a committee of experts – buying works or art and holding on to them, watching the value grow, and selling them on when the time is right.

“Let’s be frank, not many people have experienced or knowledge about art,” said Gérard Moxon, managing director of Dean Art Investments.

“There are experts in most cities around the world and you can ask for advice. But this is full of problems as the art world is unregulated and many people you may seek advice from are trying to sell you something.”

He explains there are independent advisors out there, but these mainly focus on helping those with millions of pounds to invest.

Mr Moxon expects the recession to create opportunities as, after the market has gone wild and prices have been pushed up, distressed sales are now starting to appear – and not just in contemporary art, which has been the focus of recent speculation and rocketing prices, but also old masters.

He adds people should not be fooled into thinking there is a single ‘art market’.

“There are different categories,” he explains. “Our fund has very small allocation of contemporary art. There is not so much speculation in the market for masterpieces as they are not so available.”

“We are looking for and designed for professional investors and people with serious money.”

He explains the art held by the fund is either stored – “but it is not usually good to tuck something away” – or loaned to museums where they can be seen and increase interest, and hopefully the value.

They are also looking at leasing out pieces – gaining extra income – to companies and restaurants. “London is full of hotels, offices and restaurants, needing something on their walls.

However, even within a fund, investing in art is not a short-term way to gain profits.

“We don’t want to mislead people. Art should be seen as a long-term investment. There is a tie in of three years at the start with one year’s notice.”

He adds investors should look at a three to five year investment horizon, which traditional asset managers would also advise. Investors are also warned the fund is not aiming for 20 or 30 per cent returns – but a more conservative level.

Where to focus

Mr Moxon says Dean Art Investments focuses on masters.

“Masters have always seen steady returns. If you are not overpaying then steady ready returns are possible, for one reason that new pieces are not being produced.”

For that reason the fund focuses on artists whose works are known to be complete collections and are no longer alive.

Mr Moxon adds investors should not put their entire portfolio in art.

One big difference is people are investing in tangible assets. After the Madoff and Stanford scandal, looking at art does mean at the end of the day the asset is not just a set of numbers on a balance sheet

Andri Rybak at Harbour Capital Partners that works with Dean Investments, says: “We believe now is a good time to start, but in five years’ time it will still be good

“Get the right advice. It is not a hedge fund where you don’t know where money is invested. We have a fixed strategy and are regulated.”

Protecting your possessions

If you are buying your own art or antiques and keeping it at home, standard contents insurance may not protect high value goods.

Contents insurance polices will have a limit on the value of a single object – and if it is particularly high value it may be necessary to insure separately.

A first stop would be to inform the insurer and see if it is covered.

Erica Nelson from Direct Line says: “Most policies will have a single item limit – around £1,000 or £2,000 – so any item over that limit would have to be declared – but it varies from policy to policy.”

Ms Nelson also warns an unlimited contents insurance policy would still usually have a single item limit.

“If you have bought several items it could raise you over your contents limit,” she adds.

The danger of stepping over the contents limit if an accident did happen and your actual contents were underinsured – for example by 15 per cent – then any payout would be cut by 15 per cent.

“One thing that is also important is to verify you actually own a piece. There would be no point claiming I had a Van Gogh no one had heard off after an accident, if there was no proof.

“Keep receipts safe and separate.”

She also advises to keep important documents and receipts somewhere higher in the home in case of a flood.

If a piece of art or an antique is of particularly high value, a separate insurance policy could be worth seeking – although it may come with restrictions on how and where a piece is kept and security.

Wine investments

Away from art and antiques, a further alternative is wine.

Wine investment is split between those looking at wine as just another investment class and those who buy wine early, and cheaply, to drink ten years down the line, when the cost of buying would be much higher.

Stacey Golding, investments director at Premier Cru Fine Wine Investment explains: “Most people may understand the concept. they accept old wine is far more expensive.”

However, investing in wine is not buying into cellars full of dusty bottle from the 19th century – it is about picking up new wines that look likely to have a solid long future.

Nor is it enough to head to the local off licence, wine investment firms work closely with individual châteaux, monitoring the weather in the months before harvest to gauge how the grapes will ripen.

They then buy wine almost the second after the grapes are picked.

Individual investors could head off around France buying wines as they drive through the countryside, but as with art and antiques, finding the best investment is about knowing the market.

“Each chateau is it own market,” says Ms Golding. “We tend to find plodders and established plodders, that plod along at a steady pace.

“There is also some older wine to balance the risk

“We deal with individual investors once and we know about their risk attitude, we purchase wine on their behalf,” explains Ms Golding, whose firm only buys from châteaux in Bordeaux where a stronger market over the years is more certain.

Also, as with art and antiques, wine is not for the short term.

“Investments are over the long term, with a very the minimum of three years,” says Ms Golding.

“Over the first seven years the wine matures, from ten to 15 years it is drinkable.”

However, Ms Golding says wine investments are usually the last to suffer in recession and the first to recover – despite fears a global economic downturn will sour the demand for wine right around the world.

A further benefit to wine investment is there is less tax pay.

Capital gains tax is not paid on wine, as it is classed as a ‘wasting’ asset. Nor is income derived from selling wine taxed as income. For inheritance tax purposes, the price the wine was bought at, and not its current value, is taken into account.

She adds wine is flexible – but is tangible and no single human can affect assets – and in the event of divorce can be split easily.

However, investors need to be aware the sector is not regulated by the financial services industry, and Ms Golding admits there are “ethically challenged” operators out their cold-calling investors selling wine at inflated prices, in some case double the true cost of the wine.

“Seek advice before investing,” Ms Golding advises, and also only look at wine as just a single strand of a whole investment portfolio.

Anything odd?

Overall the key to alternative investments is the same within any other investments; making sure you take advice and knowing what you are investing in are paramount.

Just as investing in the shares of a company you have never heard off would be foolhardy to say the least, the same stands for art, antiques or wine.

Getting advice and buying into the best quality investments is important as ever, as well as being aware of what risks investments truly reflect.

Finally having all your eggs in one basket – cashing in all investments to buy a vase no matter how exquisite – is also a recipe for failure.

Daniel Barnes

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