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The Collectibles Market: More Than a Labor of Love, Potentially Very Lucrative

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The collectibles market is vast and covers everything from multimillion-dollar paintings to bottles of wine. It can be an escape for many a buyer and a labor of love, but there’s no harm in looking at it as an investment as well.

The key, most experts will tell you, is to set a focus on an area (i.e. ceramics, furniture, textiles) and work in from there, studying the area and eventually buying the best.

Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie’s, suggests that RIAs or their clients look for collectibles where the investment can be easily tracked.

“There are certain areas where it’s easier because either there is a large supply of similar material or [products] are in editions, so you can easily work out the impact what another one in an edition of 50 has made,” Rendell explains.

He includes wine, jewelry, and print product markets in that list. For example, with jewelry, especially the hot, colored diamond area, a carat weight of a stone is easy to extrapolate to see how that market is doing in those particular stones. Print editions may be limited to 50-100 versions, and records are easy to access, he says.

“Same for Picasso ceramics,” says Rendell. “The market has exploded in the last five years. It used to be a sleepy backwater, but now people are investing seriously.”

In the world of Impressionist modern art, he recommends looking for small sculptures like those by Henry Moore, because, he says, it’s easy to compare prices with similar works.

“Not everything has to be a 30-carat diamond,” he says. “Five carat or two carats are good at retaining their worth.”

Corbin Horn, specialist in European decorative arts at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, agrees. “Fine jewelry is one of the few commodities that has held value and is a reliable investment,” he says. He adds that in almost any category, it’s the rarest and quality that brings in the money. “The middle market has dropped out so only the top 10% is selling,” Horn says.

Art seems to have feasted on some mega-purchases, but Rendell says collectors should keep an eye on post-War World II art. “Whether it’s American or European, not cutting edge contemporary works but solid postwar art, Expressionism from around the world from 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. That’s where the core of painting is right now.

Rendell also recommends European decorative arts that currently are “unbelievably underpriced.”

“People spend a lot of money on their homes and how they want to live, and they project themselves in objects they live with,” he says. “When you go to someone’s place, it’s their autobiography in real objects.” He highly recommends spending money on the “real objects” rather than reproductions.

Another trend now is the move by Chinese investors to buy product that was made largely in China for the U.S. market, and bring it back to China. “There’s a very strong market; not enough Imperial ware,” Rendell says. He doubts we’ll see these items again unless Chinese export laws change.

Rendell also provides some caveats. Pop memorabilia “may be interesting to the generation buying it but will it be interesting to generations down the line?” he cautions. “Baby boomers growing up in ‘50s and ‘60s now have disposable income and may buy things having to do with old childhood idols, but is it a long-term investment?”

In looking at trends, Rendell says collectors also need to review what is problematic. For example, anything with CITES material in it is unmovable.  CITES is an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife.

“So if you have a house full of ivory sculptures, that’s hard luck. Or even 18th century miniature paintings that were done on slips of ivory; it can’t be moved,” Rendell says.

Another CITES example is furniture made of Brazilian rosewood. “That’s a material that turns up a lot in mid-century furniture, not just 18th century productions, but [from the] 1940s, ‘50s and 60s. A lot of Scandinavian furniture was made using Brazilian rosewood.”

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