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This portrait of a young Florentine patrician by Giuliano Bugiardini was auctioned at Christie’s for £825,250 last month, nearly triple expectations. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

The art market lure is irresistible to outsiders with money to spend and a weak spot for painting or sculpture. The huge numbers tossed out by auction houses at the end of major sales further stimulate the temptation to have a fling, particularly when they hear that in contrast to the rest of the economy, the art market continues to be bullish.

Far from sagging, prices have held up during the recession. New auction records were set throughout the first half of 2009. So, newcomers might conclude, here is the dream area for investors. Sadly, there is a snag. If “investment” means spending cash in the hope of making a profit on the basis of careful calculation, using objective data and dependable measuring instruments, then investment is the wrong word. There are no identical units in art, because no two works are ever absolutely similar, making exact calculation impossible.

In painting, this is obvious. One landscape by Claude Monet does not equal another landscape by the same Monet. Even if painted in the same year, the subject will differ. And even if painted in the same place, the light, the composition, the density of the color scheme will vary. The prices that Monets will fetch may be $2 million or $20 million, or more, depending on a host of factors, like size, period, subject, color. To understand the reasons for each specific price, prospective buyers must have an eye trained to evaluate the quality of the composition, the vibrancy of the tonalities. And even if they enjoy that ability, this is still not enough.

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Souren Melikan
New York Times

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