To ‘celebrate’ the fifth anniversary of the western credit crunch in August, Deutsche Bank published a list of assets that had performed best over the years of crisis. The top performers – corn and gold – provided clear evidence that, in the great stampede toward safety, people have been majoring on tangibleassets.
One asset class unaccountably missing from the Deutsche Bank list (given the bank’s own renowned collection) was fine art, which has also enjoyed a strong half-decade. According to the Mei Moses All Art Index, which measures the returns on works sold in London and New York, the high-end art market returned 11 per cent to investors in 2011 alone – “a huge return in a year of colossal disappointments”, as one pundit notes. Investment returns in the red-hot new art centres of Asia and the Gulf – notably Hong Kong and Qatar, where the art-loving royal family has been single-handedly moving markets – have probably been even higher, causing some discussion about whether the boom is now reaching the end of itsrun.
A new book, SWAG: Alternative Investments For the Coming Decade, argues there is plenty more mileage. The author, Joe Roseman, a former money manager, maintains there’s a direct correlation between the performance of SWAG assets – silver, wine, art and gold – and the money supply. Unlike fiat currencies, he argues, the supply of SWAG assets can’t be increased at the push of a button. “You can’t magic up 10 more Picassos.” And with central banks of troubled major economies likely to continue rolling the printing presses to inflate away debt, the standing of SWAG assets as receptacles of long-term value can only increase.
That’s the Roseman theory, anyway. The problem for the many people buying into it is that their idea of a safe asset (a supposedly bankable artist) is often at variance with what their bank deems non-risky, says Stephenson Harwood finance partner, David Lacey. And now that art collections are increasingly being put forward as collateral against loans for business deals, bridging that gap has become ever more relevant.
The factors influencing the value of a piece of art are plentiful. “For a bank it’s worth whatever someone is prepared to pay for it,” says Lacey – and trends come and go. Who, for instance, would have predicted a few years back that a Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang would consistently perform better at auction than Andy Warhol? Everyone thought the value of the best Impressionists was indestructible…until the Japanese art bubble popped in the late 1980s. Even Old Masters – the most likely genre to pass muster as secure long-term repositories of value in the eyes of many banks – have had their wobbly moments.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So too, in many cases, is the value of an artwork. Is your prized collection really a bankable asset?
The central question for any bank advancing cash is “how quickly could it liquidate the collection if it had to,” says Lacey. “When it comes to valuations, they tend to require a hefty margin for error. That’s why loan-to-value ratios are so low: typically around 30 per cent.” The upshot is that deploying art alone as collateral is rarely enough to secure finance. “Most deals we see spread the risk across artwork and other assets like commercial property or a shareportfolio.”
Bear in mind too that your bank’s idea of what constitutes an ideal collection is probably rather different to yours. “Banks look for diversification, in contrast to collectors who tend to focus on specific things – your Japanese porcelain collection might be priceless, but it’s probably too specialised for a bank,” says Lacey. Their ideal kind of collection would be something similar to the one put together as an inflation hedge by the British Rail pension fund in the 1970s, which featured a whole range of objets d’art. Some did extremely well, some bombed. But the collection overall delivered a total return of around sixper cent.
Finally, there are all the niggling requirements that are vital to a bank’s sense of security. Is an artwork in store (their preferred home for it, so long as the warehouse keeper’s duty of responsibility is properly defined), or giving you pleasure on the wall of your dining room? How are the bank’s interests protected if it is lent to a gallery? What exactly are the insurance arrangements?
These can be tricky legal issues for both parties to resolve and have to be hammered out in detail, says Lacey. “It’s our role to balance the bank’s desire to protect its security and the customer’s desire to enjoy hisor her artwork.”