ENBD advisers teach the art of art investing

Emirates NBD has a new programme that gives clients the tools they need to make wise art investments.

Powered by automated translation

The good news is that if you have a real craving to begin investing in art but don't know your Picasso from your Kahlo, expert help is at hand.

The bad news is that unless you have something in the order of US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to spare, you might want to find another way to cover all that wall space.

Framed photographs of the kids, perhaps?

Last week, the Dubai-based Emirates NBD announced it was teaming up with the UK's The Fine Art Fund Group (FAFG) to offer advice on art investment to high-net-worth customers. It's a service that Gary Dugan, the bank's chief investment officer, says has been spurred by two developments, both of which reflect the UAE's increasing maturity.

"If you go back 10 years, a lot of the money was owned by first and second generations, and the families here were very traditional," he says. "But the new generations that are coming through and taking on some of the wealth of the family may have been educated abroad and are more aware of the broader arts.

"And yet still we are finding that many of them don't take professional advice when it comes to making an investment in art."

At the same time, he says, the success of the auctions staged in Dubai over the past few years by Christie's and Bonhams has made it clear that there is a growing hunger here for art.

"The volumes have been vast and the prices that have been paid have been really big, particularly for some of the Islamic art. So if you put those two things together we felt that the region was underserved with this kind of advisory service."

The art-market expertise behind the operation is being provided by FAFG, an organisation whose advice would certainly seem to be well worth taking. Founded in 2001 by Philip Hoffman, a former director of Christie's, the group is best known for a series of investment funds that have consistently outperformed traditional stock-market vehicles by speculating on works of art. Since its first fund closed in 2004, the group has sold assets at an average annual return of more than 30 per cent.

As Mr Hoffman likes to say: "The value of a Canaletto will never go down to zero, it will never do an Enron or a Marconi." And yet, conversely, targeting big names does not preclude the possibility of big profits.

For reasons of confidentiality - many of its purchases are made not through auctions, but privately through market contacts - the company rarely reveals details of individual paintings that have passed through its funds.

From time to time, however, fascinating glimpses have emerged in the art media. There was the painting Bloodline: Big Family No. 1, by the Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, bought for an unknown sum but sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong for $2.97m; an unidentified old master, bought for $3.3m in April 2009 and sold eight months later for $4.5m; and a painting by the British contemporary artist Frank Auerbach, offered at $1.7m, negotiated down to $1.1m and then sold 15 months later for $2.6m.

Picking the right pieces, however, and knowing when and how to buy and sell them, is where the trick lies, and the bank's alliance with FAFG means access to the kind of support that a lone investor - let alone one just starting out - could never hope to muster.

With representatives in London, New York, Lugano, Switzerland, Athens and Dubai, FAFG's success stems from a team of more than a dozen highly experienced art advisers and buyers, specialists in art markets ranging from old masters, impressionists and modern and contemporary western to Chinese, Indian, Turkish and modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art.

Mr Dugan says the bank's service will take two forms. "The simplest is where a client says, 'I would love to have a Picasso on my wall', but he doesn't have a clue how to go about it, and if he tried would probably find the most expensive route ... and clearly what you are trying to do is not buy a forgery."

Forgeries aren't the only pitfall, says Ruth Knowles, the head of global marketing and investor relations for FAFG. "Just because one Picasso has made over $100m, it doesn't suddenly mean every other Picasso in the world is worth the same. You have different conditions, time periods, subject matter, even within one artist, which can make a big difference."

The FAFG advisers "would identify who they know was selling Picassos, would know exactly what sort of prices were being paid and would also have an industry perception of what is a good Picasso and what is a bad one", Mr Dugan says.

"And they might say, 'No, don't buy a Picasso, buy a Rembrandt, that's more likely to give you capital appreciation over the next 10 years'."

Even when you've bagged your masterpiece, there's more to enjoying it than simply banging a nail in the wall. "They would also know how to negotiate and seek insurance and all the other ancillary services you might need round the painting. It would be a start-to-finish service which gives you a good outcome," Mr Dugan says.

In the land of much wall space, however, many clients are expected to think much bigger than one piece.

"A client might say, as they did just recently, 'I'd like you to put some art around my house; I'm willing to pay this much for, say, six paintings'," Mr Dugan says. "What we would do is put together a portfolio of paintings. Clearly, we would ask whether they want modern, old masters, impressionists, but the idea is not to buy it and live with it forever. You might want to, of course, but the idea would be to trade those pieces as the market got overheated, and switch into something else."

This is not, in other words, about art for art's sake. To make the most of your investment, it is important not to go falling in love with it. As Mr Hoffman told Reuters in 2009: "I don't collect art myself. I just regard it as a business ... My view is that being passionate about art hinders the decision about when to buy and when to sell."

Nevertheless, while few people would frame and admire a stock certificate, this is at least an investment one can appreciate as it appreciates. This is a general theme Emirates NBD, the country's biggest bank by assets, is in the process of developing, Mr Dugan says.

"We are trying to allow clients to enjoy their wealth, to give them something different, and we are looking at a range of lifestyle investments," he says. "Normally, our recommendations are about investing in bonds or equities, but actually you can mix art and investment and enjoy it."

The bank, which is looking at a range of interestingly different opportunities, is in talks with "a potential supplier of the finest violins in the world and to a couple of jewellery companies and we are going to be sponsoring a music event here shortly, exclusively for our clients".

Well, who said managing one's fabulous wealth had to be dull?

For most of us, however, a "lifestyle investment" will remain money well spent on a good holiday - while having fun and, in effect, being paid to do so will remain the preserve of an exclusive few. A client interested in buying a single painting should expect to spend a minimum of about $100,000, Mr Dugan says, but someone looking to build a profitable portfolio would be investing between $1m and $1.5m over a two- or three-year period.

Which means that "to take real advantage of this service and to keep the investment in art proportionate to the rest of your wealth, you probably need about $10m", says Mr Dugan.

"That's the kind of client we are looking to sign up for this service."