Fine art investments take a discriminating eye

Suzanne Sigmund Special To The Business Journal

In terms of financial investment, the usual choices quickly come to mind. There are stocks and bonds, mutual funds, commodities, or even diamonds--but what about art investment?

A relatively untapped segment of that market, according to Guy Swanson, owner of Photographic Image Gallery in downtown Portland, is investing in emerging artists--famous artists in the making. The price tag for work by a promising new talent can easily go from $800 to $10,000 in six months' time.

Swanson, who opened his gallery in 1984, has been advising clients on art investment and acting as liaison between artist and collector since the gallery's inception. The gallery was a result of a mid-life career change for Swanson, who for 17 years worked as a corporate scheduling manager for a freight liner.

He said that his discerning eye for quality photography is something he's developed over time. He also teaches a class at his gallery, educating novice collectors in art acquisition, and acts regularly as official reviewer at two annual photographic meets--Photo Fest in Houston, Texas, and Photo Americas in Tulsa, Oklahoma

For would-be buyers, Swanson has some straightforward advice: "It has to be good first. But then, being good isn't good enough; you have to fit into the economic system of the buying and selling of art. Anybody who invests in something, the primary thing they look for is reliability."

Zeroing in on up-and-coming artists as opposed to established masters makes sense for more than one reason, he said. For one thing, since the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and New York City' s Guggenheim Museum established endowments in 1984 to buy photography for their collections every year, it gave the photography market a huge boost while elevating the status of photography to serious art, along with painting and sculpture.

Even so, when the Getty spent $22 million on photography in one year, that in effect pulled much of the good photography off the market. With museums snatching up works by established masters, the pattern was set: steadily increasing demand on a finite product.

Here's where the more accessible emerging photographer comes into the picture as a potentially lucrative investment. Case in point is contemporary photographer Michael Kenna, whose black-and-white landscapes have won him international recognition in the last few years. Swanson was selling his pieces for $500-$700 in 1992; Kenna's limited-edition prints are now selling for $4,000-$5,000.

Another of photography's enfants terribles is Texas artist Dan Burkholder. The Southwest photographer typically works with digital images, an area that's impacting the photography market heavily right now.

Though digital photography has become commonplace in the last 10 years, Burkholder does something completely original with the medium: he uses digital images and prints the finished work in platinum, a technique dating from the 19th century. Big collectors, including Steven Spielberg and Calvin Klein, are currently buying up Burkholder's creations.

Likewise, Oregon landscape photographer Christopher Burkett was selling his works for $500 in 1992; today his nature studies are fetching between $1,500-$3,000 apiece.

Burkett said there is an "inherent conflict" between the ideals of the artist and those of the business person, often leaving a perpetual, uneasy tension between the two.

"The artist wishes to be free of all restrictions, encumbrances and limitations," Burkett said. "The business person is concerned with practicality, common sense and the bottom line.

"If artists listen too carefully to the business person they will find their work commercialized or degraded," he said. "But if they pay no heed, they will often find themselves unable to produce their art. Each person needs to find their own way to follow their inspiration with the least amount of compromise."

Burkett said while this tension can be difficult and frustrating, "it can sometimes sharpen the focus and direction of the artist, resulting in even stronger work."

Phil Borges, a portrait photographer, has been garnering plenty of attention internationally with his photo portraits of indigenous and endangered cultures. As Swanson pointed out, cultural diversity is an especially hot topic right now and Borges's photo portraits of the Tibetans and various African tribes are finding an incredibly receptive audience.

"When he did his first show in Seattle, he was selling photo portraits for $200 as a fund-raiser," Swanson said. "We did a show here and we were selling them for $400-$500, and that was two years ago."

In 1996, after Borges sent one of his works to an AIDS benefit art auction in L.A., a California art collector quickly plunked down $2,700 for it and, bingo, the market value for Borges's work shot straight up.

Finding photography that you like that is also a good investment is definitely a doable proposition, said Swanson. He advises the buyer to always get purchase documentation as to the work' s value, such as a letter of provenance or an of official art appraisal.

"I usually find that people's judgment is really good; bad art doesn't really make it in the market. For the most part, there's a lot of good work available," Swanson said.

Generally, Swanson said, collectors feel that if they expose themselves to fine art photography through exhibitions, galleries and one's own collection, they can recognize a good value when they see it. Other than that, each has his own distinct taste and price range. For example:

* Doubletree Hotel executive Brad Hutton and his wife collect photography that gives them a "sense of place," based on how the image feels, "because it takes us to the outdoors; it brings back the realism; it makes us feel good."

* Fine art collector Charles Simison of Seattle generally budgets $500 to $1,200 for a photograph, looking for the piece with the most appeal in that price range.

"I only use two dealers--one for paintings and one for photographs. That way they keep me informed, they know I'm a long-term client and I get calls on the new artists when they come along," Simison said. "They know I want limited editions of unique things.

* Jack Bullard, innkeeper at the Inn at Occidental, north of San Francisco, collects photographs that "view nature's images beautifully composed for the guests to enjoy."

He said prices are very competitive among photographers. "I buy in the $600 to $1,100 range for the Inn, and have a hard time choosing because there are so many good pieces in that price range."

Swanson said he is interested in establishing lasting relationships with artists and collectors because longevity is good for business.

"Those of us who own galleries--and I've been in Portland for 15 years--have a long-term interest in doing what we're doing," he said. "We're not just setting up on a street corner then moving on to something else."

1997 American City Business Journals Inc.