The Minor Arts – Beyond Painting & Sculpture

The Minor Arts - Beyond Painting & Sculpture

When I talk about investing in art, most people assume I'm talking about paintings and sculpture.  And while these categories of art have been the traditional focus for artists, art critics and wealthy art collectors for centuries, I generally find them to be the least interesting type of art from an investment standpoint.  For one thing, they tend to be relatively large, requiring a great deal of space to properly display.  In addition, because paintings and sculptures are intimately associated with the idea of art in the public mind, the field has largely been scoured clean of investment bargains.

When I write about art on the Antique Sage website, what I'm usually referring to is a relatively obscure category of art known as the "minor arts".  The minor arts include jewelry, silverware, objets d'art, coins, miniature sculptures and carvings - in short, anything excluded by the "major arts" such as paintings, prints and monumental sculptures.  Throughout history, academia has had the tendency to diminish the importance of the minor arts while endlessly analyzing and discussing the major arts.  I think this dogma has been a great disservice to the fields of both art history and art connoisseurship.

For example, everyone has heard of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece painting, the Mona Lisa.  It has been endlessly mythologized in popular culture, such as Dan Brown's bestselling book "The Da Vinci Code".  It has also been over-analyzed by smitten art historians for centuries.  In fact, the very first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, breathlessly wrote about the Mona Lisa in his groundbreaking 16th century book "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects".

Now there is nothing wrong with paintings in general or the Mona Lisa in particular.  It is a very fine late Italian Renaissance painting created by a renowned artist.  But does it really deserve its reputation as the single greatest painting ever created in human history?  And, by the same token, is the Mona Lisa really better than every single one of the minor arts ever created?

Let's examine one specific example of the minor arts as a point of comparison.  The photo accompanying this article shows the Crown of the King of Bavaria - one of the Bavarian Crown Jewels.  It was commissioned for king Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria in 1806.  This magnificent work of minor art was designed and crafted in Paris in 1806-1807 by the very best jewelers of the Napoleonic court, including the most renowned goldsmith of the time, Martin-Guillaume Biennais.  The result was a magnificent gold and silver crown encrusted with countless diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds.  And until it was removed in 1931, this royal regalia also held the stunning and historically important Wittelsbach Diamond, a 35.56 carat, deep gray-blue diamond.

And yet, few people have ever heard of the Crown of the King of Bavaria.  It simply doesn't show up on society's cultural radar.  Yes, the Crown of the King of Bavaria is one of the minor arts, but is it really any less impressive than the Mona Lisa?  I think the answer is no.  They are both phenomenal pieces of art, even though one is a painting and the other is a piece of jewelry.

But they are also very different works.  So in a very real sense I don't think it is even possible to directly compare the two works.  It is like comparing apples and oranges.  In the final analysis, I believe the Crown of the King of Bavaria is every bit a masterpiece for the ages as the Mona Lisa, albeit crafted from gems and precious metals instead of paints.

Now, none of us are likely to acquire ownership of either a Leonardo da Vinci painting or the Bavarian Crown Jewels anytime soon.  Instead, most people looking to diversify into art or other tangible assets are probably interested in spending more modest sums of money - usually less than $10,000 per item.  Luckily, this is the value region where the minor arts absolutely shine.  In contrast, choices in the major arts - paintings and large sculpture - are somewhat constrained in these lower price ranges.

The minor arts - coins, miniature sculpture, jewelry, silverware, objet d'art and the like - have, in my opinion, been perennially overlooked in not only academic settings, but also the art marketplace.  Normally this oversight would be a mildly thought-provoking, but ultimately unimportant historical footnote.  However in this case, I think whoever buys the right minor arts today - for ridiculously cheap prices, I might add - will make a lot of money tomorrow.

Art in general is an intimidating field, requiring a certain amount of technical knowledge to properly navigate.  And most people don't have a great understanding of the traditional art market, much less the minor arts market.  There is a persistent myth that you need to be a millionaire in order to invest in art.  But, the reality is that the minor arts are far more budget-friendly than most people realize.  As little as $100 is enough to start investing in art.

And this is the real reason I started the Antique Sage website.  I firmly believe that the minor arts have a greater potential for future price appreciation than any traditional asset class at this juncture in history.  The minor arts may be small, but, as the saying goes, good things come in small packages.

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