British traditional ‘Adventure’ art: A safe investment in uneasy times.
Is it time to invest in traditional British ‘adventure’ paintings, one of the art market's most stable commodities? In general they do not devalue over a long term period, and often they can make considerable profits. The only cost is insurance, which is a necessary evil.
Uniquely British art genres such as Travel, Sporting, Maritime, Wildlife have been overlooked as a valuable commodity over the past few decades. The era when these niche subjects were created was the zenith of the British Empire, and there was huge interest in foreign shores, as well as National hobbies such as country pursuits and the early birth of yacht racing. The wealthy in the 18th and 19th Centuries asked artists to paint the luxuries of their day – horses for racing, private yachts for Grand Touring. These paintings recorded statements of their patron’s successes in sport or in travel, perhaps to showcase to distinguished guests or as a memory for the great families of their day. At the same time the British public dreamily viewed paintings of rarely seen animals, majestic volcanic mountainous lands, victorious battles and great technological advances on the sea – all with the aim of proving how powerful Britain and its citizens had become.
These paintings have been largely forgotten in the annals of the art world, snootily discounted as not ‘pushing the boundaries’ of art. What has not been understood is that these works are historical documents as well as being glorious works of Art. They document the rise and fall of the once great British Empire and its peculiar society fashions as well as great strides forward in technology both on land and at sea. This was understood briefly in the Eighties by the American market when Christie's and Sotheby's held massive annual sporting sales in New York, creating huge excitement. American clients, themselves leaders and pioneers in the world, thrusting out to new areas, understood the reasons behind these wonderful paintings. Now however at the auction rooms, sporting and maritime works are lumped in with Old Masters, Victorian and 19th Century European paintings. Only in a few specialised art galleries can the discerning collector find good concentrated collections of these works.
So is this the time to buy? At least ‘adventure’ paintings are not prone to boom and bust. The reason for this market stability is of course the subject matter. A lover of dogs will buy canine works, just as lovers of horses will buy equestrian paintings. The historical element of maritime subjects provides academic buyers with stimulus, especially scenes of the Battle of Trafalgar and other glorious ship actions. It is therefore a genuine collectors' market and not one that will be swayed hugely by fashion.
The top artists in the field of sporting art are George Stubbs and Alfred Munnings. Recent prices at auction of Munnings’ paintings have been interesting, with a small oil of the Epsom Derby horse race fetching nearly $500,000 compared with a similar work in the early 1980’s reaching $51,000. Though his prices have been strong for the last decade or so, they still continue to rise (albeit gradually) even in the last economic downturn.
The ancient wisdom of spreading investments over many areas is very prevalent in today’s economic environment when even banks can appear to be unstable. Thus a 5% investment of any individual portfolio would not be wasted investing in art, and more specifically in British traditional paintings. The bi-product of that investment is also a superb painting to gaze at for years to come.
Director, Rountree Tryon Galleries