STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's go now to our series Dollar for Dollar, where NPR's Uri Berliner has been trying to figure out what to do with money in a savings account that's been losing value to inflation. He's putting 5,000 bucks from that account to the test.
So far, he has invested in assets like stocks, purchased entirely on the basis of their future potential earnings. Today, Uri wades into the art world, where the rewards are not always financial.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: If you go onto a site like Artnet or Saatchi Online, you can shop for art by price, style or even size. It's not that different from buying a mutual fund on the web. This suits Cappy Price just fine. She's a former Wall Street portfolio manager who now consults with clients about art as an alternative asset. She loves art for its beauty, but she also says it's an investable asset, one that wasn't really accessible to ordinary people until recently.
CAPPY PRICE: The Internet is driving the ability of the masses to do their own research, do their own due diligence, just as they do with a stock; really, enabling individuals to determine - and place their own - value on individual pieces of art.
BERLINER: Why invest in art? One reason, says Cappy Price: Fine art has a proven track record as a good choice during hard times.
PRICE: It outperforms in times of economic turmoil and trouble. It has outperformed during all of the wars of the 20th century. It's outperformed during the last 27 recessions.
BERLINER: Like any other asset, the market for art goes through ups and downs. Over the past 60 years, the total return on art has been very similar to the return on the S&P 500, says Mike Moses. A retired NYU business school professor, he's the co-creator of the Mei Moses World All Art Index. The index tracks repeat auction sales of fine art.
MIKE MOSES: If you use the last 30 years, the S&P substantially outperforms art. If you look at the most recent - eight, 10 years, art has outperformed the S&P.
BERLINER: For paintings in my price range - we're talking a few hundred dollars - there's no Mei Moses index, no record of auction sales to use as a guide. So I have no idea whether it's a smart move, financially, for me to buy art. But I do know this: Art is different than other investments. It's there, in your house; part of your life.
MOSES: You are telling people something about yourself when you hang it. I think that emotional investment gives you, you know, a certain tie to that work, that you don't find in other objects that you buy.
BERLINER: Now, the emotion part of the equation is fairly simple. As I look through hundreds of paintings online, I know for sure I won't buy a rendering of a clown, or a panda eating an ice cream cone. The hard part is assessing value in what's so fundamentally a subjective purchase.
So I ask Cappy Price: How can I tell if a painting selling for - say, 500 or a thousand dollars, is worth it?
PRICE: You look at the comparables; you see what their peers are selling their work for - work that is, you know, similarly sized - and start from there.
BERLINER: Before too long, searching online, I find a painting I want. It's an abstract work called "Flower Study 14," inspired by irises.
VLADIMIR KRYLOFF: They're fresh; they're spring colors - yellow, blue, green, white.
BERLINER: That's the artist. His name is Vladimir Kryloff, and I reach him in Vilnius, Lithuania, on his cellphone. A full-time painter, Kryloff sells work from his studio and online. The way the Web relentlessly categorizes art by price, style and size - that doesn't bother him at all. He says it allows him to watch the competition, and keeps him in shape. And he seems comfortable straddling two worlds: art as commerce and art as passion.
KRYLOFF: After all, most people buy art because they love it.
BERLINER: I purchase "Flower Study 14" somewhat impulsively. I didn't bother with research. I just liked the way it looked. I pay $450 for the painting, and $139 to have it shipped from Vilnius to Washington, D.C. Kryloff appreciates my appreciation. But I say, what if I turn around and flip it for a quick profit? What would you think?
KRYLOFF: It all depends on the price.
KRYLOFF: If the offer will be too good to refuse, probably, you would be right to accept it.
BERLINER: I check in with Cappy Price one last time after making my online purchase. Not a bad choice, she says, especially because it's painted in the style of the Impressionists. They're always popular. But...
PRICE: It's unlikely you'd be able to turn around and sell it tomorrow. This is an emerging artist. This is an artist who is not brand-name. Well, that again goes toward perhaps there being some difficulty in reselling the work.
BERLINER: Who knows? Maybe, as Vladimir Kryloff says, I'll wind up getting an offer that's too good to refuse and bank a profit. But if not, I'll be happy to keep "Flower Study 14" hanging on my wall.
Uri Berliner, NPR News.
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