Those of us familiar with the art world constantly hear the names of famous artists thrown around. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Willem de Kooning are just a few of the modern artists whispered about in hushed, reverent tones - almost as if their names invoke a supernatural power. These artists and their many contemporaries usually have their works breathlessly described with words like ground-breaking, powerful, avant-garde and unique. Their works also often sell for astonishingly high sums of money. 10 million dollars - 20 million dollars - 30 million dollars - it almost seems as if there is no limit to the prices some works of modern art can command. And yet, these artists' works are rarely good investments. Why?
To be blunt, they are fads. The people paying outrageous sums of money for non-representational blobs of brightly colored paint on a white canvas are not really art connoisseurs. They wish to be perceived this way, but wishing doesn't make it so. Today's modern art collectors are largely nouveau riche financial services executives or wealthy technology entrepreneurs who want to be recognized by their peers as cultured individuals. Collecting art is a good way for them to appear as urbane sophisticates. And no art serves this purpose better than abstract works from well-known modern artists. Most modern art can be simultaneously opaque, unapproachable and sometimes, quite frankly, unconscionably ugly. But these works are popular right now and make for great conversation pieces. So out comes the checkbook and before too long another record price is set.
And now we've arrived at the heart of the matter. Most of these hedge fund manager and Silicon Valley CEO collectors don't know the first thing about art. They are just parroting what they hear their jet-setting friends and business associates say. Instead of understanding and appreciating the art itself, they are "collecting the artist". In some ways this is a very human reaction to what can be a very intimidating field of study. Art is often complicated; meaningful commentary on a work can rarely be distilled into a glib, dinner-party sound bite. And if you don't really care about art - but only about impressing your very wealthy colleagues - then collecting the artist (especially modern artist) might seem like a reasonable move.
All of this focus on artists instead of art creates an opportunity for those investors who are willing to educate themselves properly and not be deluded by the latest craze. Real art is instantly, undeniably beautiful. It stands on its own merits, never relying upon a famous artist for its desirability. When reasonably priced, authentic, high quality art tends to appreciate in monetary terms far into the future, regardless of who created it. Don't be caught chasing a hot artist in a fad that you don't understand. Always collect art for the beauty and allure of work itself; never just blindly "collect the artist".