Monday, October 31, 2011

Art & finance: the rise of "art loans" for the well-heeled clients of private banks

NEW YORK. Bloomberg recently reported that former hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt secured a "very cheap" loan from JPMorgan Chase Bank by pledging a number of the works in his fine art collection (estimated to be worth over $200 million) as collateral. While the use of art as collateral to obtain finance has been on the rise for some time now (Steinhardt joins the ranks of other managers such as Nelson Peltz and Steven A. Cohen), it is hardly indicative of a widespread trend in the banking sector towards lending against art. While it is true that art assets have flared quite way in the economic downtown and consecrated their place as an alternative form of investment, this is largely true of mostly "blue chip" works i.e., the Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols etc. that form part of the fine art collections of a handful of high-net-worth individuals. For the most part, investing in art is risky and expensive (transaction costs are too often overlooked) and my mantra remains that people should buy art because they love it, not in the expectation of hefty returns. Still, it's interesting to see that a growing number of banks are offering their "well-heeled" clients the possibility of structuring loans in this way. It makes perfect sense because the kind of art we're talking about in these cases really is "a stable form of collateral," as Suzanne Gyorgy of Citi Private Bank describes it. "When you look at our client base," Gyorgy goes on to say, "it's savvy business people that for the most part are using the liquidity from the art loan to invest back in their businesses."

Warhol Art Authentication Board to be dissolved in early 2012

NEW YORK. After a two-month break from blogging, I had no idea what stories I would find upon my return but this one was certainly a surprise. The Art Newspaper has reported that the Warhol Foundation will dissolve its art authentication board (allegedly to focus on the Foundation's charitable and catalogue raisonnĂ© efforts) by early 2012. I say "allegedly" because, notwithstanding the fact that it costs $500,000 each year to run the board, it has repeatedly come under fire since its creation in 1995, especially with respect to its virtually monopolistic role in the art market on the question of the authenticity of purported Warhol works. Although in theory the decisions of the board are neither conclusive nor binding, when a work is declared unauthentic, it is tainted to the point of being unsaleable and you can guarantee that Sotheby's and Christie's will not touch it.

The most recent, and perhaps vehement, attack on the board was the Joe Simon litigation which, although a hard lesson in the costs and drama of litigation, raised the serious question of holding the Warhol Authentication Board (and authentication boards more generally) accountable as a result of the power they have to manipulate the market for a particular artist. The Joe Simon litigation was unique too in its novel way of structuring the claim against the Foundation as an anti-trust suit. Of course the key question in any anti-trust suit is not so much the extent to which the defendant has the power to control the market in question but rather if that power has been exploited to the detriment of the users in that market. The other highly criticized decision of the board was its 2010 downgrade of more than 100 Brillo boxes to "copies," despite Pontus Hulten's claim that the boxes had been made with Warhol's express authorization.

Regardless of one's view of the board, most will agree that the Foundation's decision to step away from the market towards a non-market purpose is a positive one for the Foundation, its members and the market. Whereas decisions on authenticity had been private (except where challenged), work on Warhol's catalogue raisonnĂ© is a public one which serves "Andy’s legacy and Warhol scholarship." It could be argued that determining whether a work makes it or not into the catalogue is indirectly a market function but because only 6% of works by Warhol are estimated to have undergonen the authentication process and catalogue researchers will review requests to include a work in the catalogue at their own pace, the Foundation's president Joel Wachs is right in saying that "the market will have to take care of itself."