Ugly paintings and Hitler's statue: Being a contrarian art buyer

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A couple of months back, I wrote a post about how a beginning investor could use artist's prints to start an art collection. In the piece, I quoted art dealer Jennifer Watson, who suggested several techniques that the novice collector could use to select pieces that were likely to go up in value. Over the last month or so, I've discovered a couple of key suggestions to add to the list.

Buy Ugly Art: Watson suggested that the first consideration that one must make when choosing a piece to buy is whether or not you like it. While that is definitely an important suggestion, the recent "Bad Paintings/Good Art" show at Vienna's Museum of Modern Art demonstrates that even truly terrible art can become highly valuable. Featuring works from several famous painters, the exhibition argues that great artists used ugliness as a strategy for changing the viewer's perceptions of the world. Whether or not that central thesis holds, one thing is for certain: a god-awfully ugly painting from a famous artist is still worth a ton of money.

Buy Art That Belonged to Evil Men: After Saddam Hussein fell from power in Iraq, liberating forces discovered that, in addition to being a homicidal maniac, the former President for life also had truly horrific tastes in paintings. In a love nest, they discovered two incredibly tacky dungeons and dragons style fantasy pieces by Coxsackie, NY artist Rowena Morrill. While Morrill was already well known in swords and cape circles for her depictions of Fabio-esque heroes and snarling dragons, Hussein's appreciation made her a household name.


Recently, the inflationary power of dictator patronage was reiterated when a marble statue by Fritz Röll went up for auction at art dealer Simon Wingett's London gallery. The piece, which was originally slated to go on the block in 2004 at Sotheby's of London, was withdrawn by the gallery when they uncovered evidence that it once belonged to Adolf Hitler. The initial value was estimated to be between £8,000 and £12,000, but the revelation of its famous owner vaulted the price to £150,000. While it has yet to sell, there is little doubt that its final value will far outstrip the 2004 estimate.

So there you have it. When choosing art, you can spend days, weeks, months, and years carefully choosing the most promising artists and ideal moneymakers, or you can buy the ugliest paintings you can find while searching out the favorite artists of various megalomaniacs. While I appreciate the value of looking at up-and-coming artists, I'm also going to see if I can find out who Papa Doc Duvalier had hanging in his Presidential mansion. A psychotic leader and a voodoo priest? He's sure to have some useful buying tips!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He can't help but wonder who Vladimir Putin's buying these days...

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