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For art lovers, investors, it's a buyer's market


It's a buyer's market for art.

Worldwide financial insecurity is the reason. No country is feeling all that great about its economy, conspicuous consumption is out, and volatile financial markets have further eroded confidence.

Gone are the waves of record art purchases that first involved wealthy Arab collectors, then the Japanese, and later the Germans. The low point of this depressed art market was 1991, when it was difficult to sell anything.

While the 1994 art market is somewhat stronger, purchasers are picky. Christie's sold $12.5 million worth of art at a recent auction, half the amount of initial estimates. It no longer is enough to be a work of a famous artist, but must be the "right" work.

There have been successes. One growth area is Korean porcelain, with a 15th-century blue-and-white dish selling for $3 million at that auction, compared with the $400,000 estimate.

Haitian art is gaining attention. A group of four paintings by artist Castera Bazille titled "Stations of the Cross" commanded $14,950 at a Butterfield & Butterfield auction, compared to the initial $5,000 estimate.

Opportunity isn't restricted to big-buck examples. Works of contemporary California artists with potential can be bought for less than $1,000. A terra cotta work by John Battenberg called "Nude and Squid Covered Dish" recently sold for $500. Emerging artist Sono Osato's constructions of discarded wood, twisted wire and screws appreciated from $250 five years ago to $1,000.

Old Masters prints are reasonably priced. A 17th-century print called "Judith" by artist Jacques Callot, who lived from 1592 to 1635, sold for $420, about $100 more than a decade ago.

While many prices appear moderate, always buy what you like and know what you're buying. It's a tricky business, requiring realistic expectations.

"The wobble in stock and bond markets filtered through to the art auction market," said Christopher Burge, chairman of Christie's North America. "After all, if a person's net worth was just reduced by 20 percent, that person will think twice before purchasing art."

A mismatch between buyer and seller expectations has been a problem. Artwork, after all, is only worth a lofty price if someone is willing to pay it.

"All art markets have leveled off, including the Latin American segment, which was the big thing a year ago but now has become selective," noted Karen Tallackson, senior specialist in the fine arts department at San Francisco-based Butterfield & Butterfield.

An "average" painting by Matisse would have sold five years ago because it was a Matisse, she explained, but won't sell today if it isn't a Matisse in demand.

"You don't see as many people trying to demonstrate to the world that they're capable of paying an astronomical amount of money," observed Robert Salomon Jr., chairman and chief executive of Salomon Brothers Asset Management, which compiles an annual survey on financial and collectible markets. "There isn't a huge new accumulation of wealth anywhere in the world right now."

Whatever the market's strength, buy the best art you can afford. There are some constants. "Famous artists and the great art movements such as the Impressionists are always popular, though there are price fluctuations," said Alan Bamberger, author of the books "Art for All" and "Buy Art Smart" (Wallace-Homestead Book Co.; Radnor, Pa.).

In newer markets such as the recently popular animation art cels, vintage examples have value because of historical or collectible significance, but new releases of old cels do not, he emphasized.

Here are Bamberger's steps to buying art:

* Identify types of art that interest you most by developing concrete ideas of what your tastes are.

* Obtain a working knowledge of the business so you can locate and select specific works. Familiarize yourself with the art community, personalities, dealers and galleries.

* Research information about the art, the artist and any general background.

* Understand financial consequences of making a purchase, so you can evaluate art prices and buy at advantageous prices.

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