Expensive Art by Child Prodigy Artists a Risky Buy

Q: I see periodic news stories about children who are being promoted as child prodigy artists. Sometimes famous people own their work or they have big flashy gallery shows or they get covered online or in the media. I inquired about prices for one of these child prodigies and was told that original paintings are very expensive-- tens of thousands of dollars. Do you think art by talented children is a good investment? If I buy early and they get famous, it might someday sell for millions.

A: Buying art by child artists is fine; paying big bucks for art by so-called "child prodigy" artists who are suddenly getting a lot of press is different. The more expensive the art, the more careful you have to be about buying it, and especially, the more you have to know about how those prices got to be as high as they are. You want to buy based on the quality of the art, quality of reviews in respected art world publications, and on opinions of qualified curators, critics, collectors, and respected art world professionals. You don't want to pay high prices based solely on sensational hype or mainstream media news stories because that's often pretty far flung from the established art world, and the white heat mass market exposure is usually short lived.

As for you, you say you like the art, but at the same time you sound more interested in buying a commodity or a phenomenon than a painting. You also seem to be more taken with the publicity and glamour surrounding the artist than you are with the actual artwork. So maybe step back for a moment before doing any buying and ask yourself the following questions:

Would you consider buying a piece of art that looks exactly the same if it was produced by an established adult artist who receives little or no publicity? If you hesitate or answer no, you might be guilty of buying by name and reputation and saving what you think about the art for last. The most satisfied collectors love their art no matter who it's by, who collects it, or how famous the artists are.

Are you buying something to hang on your wall and admire or something that you hope will increase in value? If you answer the latter, you should probably place your money in stocks or bonds. People often confuse art with securities and similar investments when, in fact, it's totally different. For example, with stocks you pay an average commission of a percentage point or two to make a transaction. With art, anywhere from 50 to as much as 70 to 80 percent of a selling price can go towards gallery commissions and overhead. For example, if you pay $10,000 for a painting and only $2,000 goes to the artist, somewhere in the low to mid-thousands of dollars would likely be its resale value on the secondary market. Purchased as an "investment," you'd have to wait years just to break even.

Have you considered the sources of publicity surrounding this so-called child prodigy artist? Children who make notable art sometimes garner a lot of attention, but you have to determine whether that attention is scholarly art world attention which may actually be worth something over the long term or popular media attention which often amounts to little more than today's hot topic. If the stories you see are on the 6 o'clock News or in mass market magazines like "People," and the famous people who are weighing in on it are known for accomplishments that do not include art scholarship or collecting, this might be more a case of media hype than a serious art world phenomenon. The scholars, critics, historians, and experts are the ones who ultimately call the shots, not reporters who next week will be doing stories on The Real Housewives of Wherever.

What do museum curators think of the art? Have these kiddie artists been reviewed in major national or international art magazines, or had exhibitions at significant national or international museums, or had their art purchased by nationally or internationally respected art collectors. If the art world is as excited as the reporters on the 6 o'clock News are, something significant may be happening. If not, this whole hubbub could be little more than a flash in the public relations pan.

And then there's the issue of age. It is extremely rare for an artist to be hailed or collected as a child prodigy, to sell early on at prices equivalent to those of established well-known artists at the peaks of their careers, to continue selling at those levels and higher, and to go down in history as an important artist. In fact, I'm not sure this has ever even happened. Yes, Picasso was a child prodigy, but he did not start selling for big bucks straight out of the gate. Exceptional children may well be very talented and do beautiful work, but whether their current price structures are justified or hype, whether they have locks on future fame and fortune or whether they'll even be interested in continuing as artists after they graduate from college, let alone high school, are huge unanswered questions.

Keep in mind that quite a number of young people show serious artistic talent and promise early on. Their best art can be as beautiful and engaging as that of many adult artists. If you like art by young talented artists, visit art schools, talk to art teachers, find out who the best artists are, go to their art exhibits-- and take it easy. Don't get caught up in these spectacles. Once you get a feel for what you're looking at and doing, you'll be able to buy based more on what you love than on how much publicity these young artists get or what momentary celebrity status they may be enjoying. You'll also quickly discover that you don't have to spend anywhere near thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in order to own beautiful, meaningful and satisfying works of art-- especially when buying the work of young hopeful artists.

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