The art of investing in art

By Helen Brain

I have a friend — let’s call him Toby. Back in the 1930s his grandmother was a young music teacher living in Worcester, Western Cape. Every Thursday she helped out an elderly artist by driving him over the mountain to Villiersdorp. When she left Worcester a few years later he gave her a painting as a thank you gift. He was the landscape painter Hugo Naude.

Years passed. Toby’s gran began to buy more paintings. She learned to recognise a good painting, and which young artists to look out for. By the time she died twenty years ago, she had quite a collection.

She left all of her paintings to Toby’s father. There was one he didn’t like particularly, and it wasn’t considered valuable as the artist had gone out of fashion, so he gave it to Toby. The insurance valuation back in 1998 was R800.

Today the paintings she bought back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s are worth many millions, and they’ve given the family immense pleasure over the years. And the one Toby inherited has escalated in value from R800 to R80,000 in twenty years.

Another friend tells the story of her parents who were given money for a wedding present. They had enough money to buy either an Irma Stern painting or a sofa. They went with the sofa because it was a more sensible choice at the time. My friend and her sisters lament their terrible decision at every family get together.

It’s stories like this that have made me serious about collecting art as a retirement strategy. I put away a chunk of money every month into an RA, but I also budget for buying art.

I have a particular love for landscapes, and the works I want to buy are always more than I can afford. Luckily most artists are ready to accommodate people who really love their work. The last three paintings I’ve bought have taken me a year to pay off, but the pleasure I get from looking at them, combined with what I hope will be a growth in value, makes them a solid investment.

That said, I also buy a fair number of duds at charity shops, fetes and markets, but I never pay very much for them, so if I don’t like them after a while, or am bored by them, I send them back to a charity shop to be resold, or get an artist friend to paint in some details to make them more fun.

So if you want to start collecting and don’t have much money, try these strategies:

  • Art schools have annual student exhibitions where you can pick up quality work cheaply. They’re usually held between October and December, and you’ll find exciting work, particularly at University art schools.
  • Many artists, like my favourite landscape painters Jenny Parsons and Mary Visser, have studio sales once a year where they sell work at really good prices. You could also look out for people like Diek Grobler — you’ll find his artist page on Facebook. He went to Paris a couple of years back and helped fund his two month stay by drawing a picture of something he’d seen each day and then selling it to the highest bidder on his page.
  • Attend auctions, markets and visit charity shops. My best buy was a R40 watercolour from Milnerton market, which I could see was good, although I had no idea who had painted it. I hung it in my house and one day an art appraiser saw it and identified it as being by a well-known seascape painter. It’s worth 100 times what I paid for it.

Many artists have Facebook pages where you can follow their work and see what’s hot off the easel. They will almost always sell their work directly to you for less than you’d pay in a gallery. Look out for Clare Menck’s work, which is regarded as an excellent investment and appears in several important collections. Her portrayals of water and self portraits are outstanding.

So how do you know a good painting when you see one? You may like a work of art and enjoy looking at it, but it might still be a poor investment, particularly if you pay too much for it. A good way to educate yourself is to visit art galleries and museums. All the works on display have been selected by someone who recognises good work. Try and see what the curator saw in each work. Here are some technical elements to look out for:

Composition — where are the different components placed on the canvas? How do they relate to one another? Do they flow?

Symmetry — are the different elements in proportion to the rest? Are the hands and feet the right size for the body? Do the shadows fall in the right places? Are the figures in proportion to the other elements in the landscape?

Colour palette — does the artist have the same palette that he or she uses again and again? Can you recognise the painting as being part of a larger body of work by the same artist?

Brushstrokes — experienced artists work confidently, and can achieve the effect they want with just a few brushstrokes. An amateur will labour over a canvas, reworking again and again until it feels tired.

Then there’s the personal aspect. Do you love the work? Don’t buy things you dislike just because they’re a good investment. You won’t enjoy them, and that’s depressing.

Look for the artist’s vision — does the art work take you out of yourself, and into the artist’s world? Does it show you familiar things in a fresh way? Can you look at it week after week and not grow tired of it? If you can it will pay dividends twice — once in the joy it brings you and then in its growth as an investment.

Photo via

Originally published at on March 1, 2016.

Thoughts, observations and insights. About money, life and 22seven. Visit

Thoughts, observations and insights. About money, life and 22seven. Visit