With a Modigliani painting selling recently for a staggering US$170M, we asked several art professionals for their key tips when considering a purchase in the Australian Market.

In mid-November, Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian bought Amadeo Modigliani’s painting Reclining Nude at Christie’s in New York for US$170.4 million, the second-highest price for an artwork ever sold at auction.

The New York Times commented: “With some collectors concerned about a bubble in the market for so- called ‘cutting edge contemporary art’, investment-conscious buyers have been looking for blue-chip names from earlier periods. Modigliani nudes are regarded as among the ultimate trophy paintings of the 20th century.”

Meanwhile back in the world of the average potential investor in the local Australian art market, we asked several experts: How might someone starting to collect contemporary art decide which artists to begin looking at?

Susan Borham, editor-in-chief at Australian Art Collector magazine advised: “Find artists who interest you and then ask the gallery for a copy of his or her curriculum vitae. Then there are certain things to look for…”

Throughout an artist’s productive life, there are several landmark events which indicate that the artist’s work is attracting the kind of notice which will be important to the future value of his or her work, says Borham. Things of note include:

1. Has the artist attracted the attention of an important critic or art writer?
2. Is the artist’s work included in a regional, state or national collection?
3. Has the artist won any noteworthy prizes or scholarships?
4. Has the artist’s work been included in any curated exhibitions at government-funded or important commercial galleries?
5. Has the artist gained the support of an important commercial gallery, where he or she will have regular opportunities to exhibit?

“Any one of these events is viewed and interpreted by the market to be a significant indication of likely future success for the artist – and hence predictive of good investment,” Sidney-Nolan's-First-Class-Marksman-she adds.

Michael Hutak, a former art critic for The Sydney Morning Herald suggested a key to unearthing tomorrow’s art stars is to “seek out the graduate shows of leading art schools in the major capital cities.”

He explains: “Art at auction in Australia has peaked, after incredible growth over the past 15 years, so you are better off looking at graduate shows and artist-run spaces to find the best value. The popularity of the ‘mid-century moderns’ – Dickerson, Whiteley, Nolan, Drysdale, Brack, etc – has peaked. And we don’t really know yet what the next ‘Big Thing’ is in Australian art.”

Annette Larkin, director at Annette Larkin Fine Art in Sydney’s Danks Street at Waterloo, brett_whiteley_my_armchair-cautioned: “Avoid fads. If everybody is talking about a particular artist, it is not the right time to buy that artist’s work. The fad will pass.”

“For a new entrant into art investment, or simply purchasing for pleasure, it is fundamentally important to look around for at least six months before you buy anything,” she says.

“You will often find that a work you particularly liked at the beginning will have lost your interest six months later.”

To assist the development of both your education and tastes in art, Larkin sums up: “Take the time to get to know the dealers. Talk to other artists. Chat to people at exhibitions and events.”

And finally a word of caution from Larkin: “If buying on the secondary market – at auction – make sure you personally check the condition of the work prior to the sale.”

Did you know?

The most expensive painting by an Australian artist ever sold at auction is Sidney Nolan’s First-Class Marksman (1946), which fetched $5.4 million in March, 2010.

For the record, Armchair (1976) by Australian artist Brett Whiteley sold for $US3.9 million in 2013.

What makes a good art collector?

The best galleries won’t just sell work to anybody. This especially relates to the best works – which are also most likely the best investments.

These artists may have limited output. And the dealer needs to make sure that, when the artist produces a work, it goes into the right hands: preferably a museum, but if not then to the kind of collector who has what is known as ‘cultural capital’ – someone who will display the work to people who matter for the artist’s career, either in their own homes or by making it available for exhibition in public galleries.

The serious art world has high expectations of its art collectors. It will frown upon collectors who buy art works only to store them for later resale in a vault somewhere unavailable for viewing.

Among the world’s most serious art collectors, buying and owning the art is rarely about its investment value. That’s a benefit which accrues as a by-product of the main aim, which is all about living with interesting and exciting works and supporting the artists who are making a contribution to this country’s visual culture.

Another by-product of buying and owning contemporary art is the ‘cultural capital’ that the collector accrues along the way. Cultural capital is more enduring and more elusive than money. It’s about your reputation.

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