Art as Investment: The Mei Moses® Fine Art Index

I’m often asked about my opinion of art as investment.  My opinion, whatever it is, is presumably clouded by my love for Picasso.  Better to direct such inquiries to the Mei Moses® Fine Art Index  (, a statistical database and analysis compiled by two NYU economists.  Quite sensibly, they limit their statistics only to auctioned works (so that the facts of the sale are in the public domain and known beyond any doubt) and further limit their stats to those works that have sold at auction more than once.  That is, they compare only the prices achieved at auction for two or more sales of the same artwork.  The advantage is immediately evident: they’re comparing only like commodities.  More than like—identical.  It would be much less meaningful if they were comparing different artworks to each other.  Unique works are by definition different one from another, and many of the differences are not quantifiable.  But with their methodology, Mei and Moses have eliminated subjectivity.

Feel free to wade through their site, but, in a nutshell, here’s what they say:

“…over the last fifty years the Mei Moses® all art index and the S&P 500 total return stock index have had approximately equal compound annual returns. The art index has underperformed the equity index for the last 25 years. Over the last five and ten year periods art has significantly outperformed equities. However for almost all these time periods art has higher volatility and lower liquidity than most other financial assets. However art has low correlation with other assets and thus may play a role in portfolio diversification.

“The 2008 decrease in the return of the all art index of almost 4.5 percent is the first time our all art index has declined after five years of positive annual growth averaging almost 20 percent. This result dramatically out-paced the 37 percent decrease in the S&P 500 total return index…for 2008.“

I would add, don’t bring it home if you don’t love it.

Sidewalks of New York

Hani Shihada, Madison Avenue, April 28, 2010

It’s springtime in New York, and Picassos, like bulbs, are flowering everywhere.  It was truly a pleasure to soak them in at the museums, the auctions, and also at Marlborough Gallery, which had staged an impressive print exhibit, including the masterpieces from the Nelson Blitz and Catherine Woodard collection.   It was also a relief that Giacometti was bloodlessly deposed, after his brief and inexplicable reign.

Curiously, I found myself defending the Met’s exhibit, primarily from charges that the show was long on early works but short on the rest.  The NY Times was in the vanguard of this innuendo, but more than one of my friends followed its lead.  It seemed to me to say more about human nature—you know, attacking whomever is at the top—than the quality of the exhibit.  So what if the Met’s collection is spotty?  Museums take what they can get.  No museum has the billions it would take to amass a more thorough Picasso collection today.  As for me, basking in the glow of just one, any one, of the many Picasso masterpieces at the exhibit would have been enough to make my week.

Regarding one of them, I had a running controversy with some of my friends as to which is the better painting, the new auction queen, Marie-Therese asleep indoors, or the Met’s smaller work, Marie-Therese asleep outdoors:

The Dreamer (1932), Metropolitan Museum

Marie-Therese, for one, certainly didn’t seem to care, lost in the rapture of repose in both canvases.  And I didn’t want to depress the bidding by showing my hand before the auction (as if!), but now I can come clean.  Sure, the Brody painting is more complex, with Marie-Therese’s sculpture and the artist’s silhouette in the background, and the houseplant is more beautifully realized than the flora outside, but, at the Met, her flowing curves stole my heart.

Hani Shihada, Madison Avenue, April 29, 2010