Buying works of art is continually proving itself to be one of the most smart and reliable investment decisions there is. In the seven years since 2010, seven paintings have sold for more than $100 million at auction. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) was the latest to join that exclusive group. The expressionist painting sold to Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa this May. Yusaku plans to display the work in a museum, but if he chooses to sell it years down the line, there’s no doubt he’d make a huge return.
It’s clear that art investment can be lucrative, but this is only true if investors buy the right pieces. How can you tell which artworks will be worth millions, and which will just gather dust? Figuring this out is crucial to successful art investment. It isn’t easy, but thankfully there are a few guidelines you can follow to help you find the right masterpiece.
Art that explores political and societal issues of the era
There’s a reason Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) sold for such a healthy sum. The artist himself died when he was just 27, giving him an immediate status as a cult figure. He was a friend of fellow $100 million-club artist Andy Warhol and, let’s not forget, a great artist in his own right.
While these factors may have helped drive up the price, the most important reason his art is so treasured is its political value. Basquiat’s work captures the frustration, anger and despair that African Americans experienced in his era in an urgent and creative way.
Any art that similarly encapsulates political moments or movements has the potential to sell just as big. Picasso’s “Guernica”, for example, responded to General Franco’s fascist rule in Spain, while Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures challenge genetic engineering.
At the moment, some of the best political artwork is grappling with the harsh realities of the refugee crisis. Take Japanese multimedia artist E.B. Itso, who investigates the idea that refugees “shed” a layer of their past in his “Sheddings” series. Art like this is likely to acquire value in the coming years, as good political art traditionally does.
Artists with an instantly recognisable style
Another money-making aspect of Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) is the painter’s hugely idiosyncratic style. With his roots in New York graffiti culture, Basquiat took many techniques from the streets with him when he moved into the more traditional realm of expressionist painting, giving his work a uniquely recognisable edge.
Artists with recognisable styles often create works that greatly increase in value over time for a variety of reasons. For example, if the artist was ahead of their time, and their style eventually gains appreciation or imitators, they will be hailed as a visionary. Perhaps more likely, it will just gain value because it is beautiful, moving or provocative, and difficult to replicate.
British Painter Ian Davenport is a pioneer of the “poured lines” technique. His deceptively simple work is layered and complex, with incredible technique. No one else makes paintings like these. Indian artist Prabhavathi Meppayil takes minimalism to a new level, using the tools of a goldsmith to create tiny notches in panels.
Artists at the forefront of their movement
If you are convinced of the merits of art investment, and you’re planning to spend a lot of money, perhaps the safest bet is to buy artworks by artists who are leaders of their movements. Picasso, widely considered the leader of the Cubist movement, is the only artist to have sold more than one painting for over $100 million. In fact, he has sold three. To be completely accurate, he didn’t sell them for this much money, the paintings’ owners did.
More recent movement leaders include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin of the Young British Artist movement, both of whose work is highly lucrative; and Edvard Munch, a key Expressionist figure, whose iconic painting “The Scream” sold for $119.9 million in 2012.
The artworks don’t even have to be the best each artist has produced. Picasso’s “Garçon à la Pipe” sold for $104 million in 2004, yet most critics consider it a below average effort from the great artist.
Getting in on the ground floor with a new, up and coming movement may be the best way to make returns with this approach. Digital art, for example, is on the rise. In years to come, the pioneers of this genre may find their names on the biggest-selling artists list. And whoever bought their paintings while they were cheap will make a huge return on investment.