If you're serious about buying Latin American art...
by Eric Jackson
Is art a good investment?
Carlos Weil ought to know. His Weil Art is both an upscale gallery and Panama's only art auction house. Born in Brazil to German and American parents, he was mostly raised in Switzerland, educated as a lawyer, worked as a banker and worked for the renowned Christie's art auctioneers. Back in 1987 he went into the art gallery business in Panama.
"My advice is to buy what you like," Weil first offered. But if you are looking at art as an investment, they you should get some good professional advice.
"When you buy art from other centuries," he pointed out, "you have the art historians to help you." Not so with contemporary art. "Is this an art that will be valid for future generations?" the investor will have to ask, and there are so many variables.
Part of it is trends and fashions. For example, he pointed to a big show of Mexican art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which piqued public interest, increased art buyers' knowledge and "did so much for Mexican art" in a business sense.
Then he noted the celebrity factor, and and as an example cited the experience of a relatively obscure Latin American artist who sold a painting to Brooke Shields for $6,000 and by so doing attracted the notice of other buyers and now gets much larger sums for his work.
Availability, especially of the old masters, is of course a factor that drives prices up. But Weil thinks it can get out of hand. "When a painting is worth more than a whole building, something is out of line," he opined.
There are the lucky artists who get rich in their lifetime, and those who are discovered posthumously whose works sell for sums they never saw in their lifetimes, but in either case, Weil noted, the most valuable work they ever do is usually from early in their careers.
So is Panama the Mecca for Latin American art? Actually, Weil said, we're too small a market to be that --- as is every other Latin American country. "New York is the capital of Latin American art," he noted, adding that most of the art he sells here in Panama is destined for abroad.
Still, he's done well. Weil recounted how he has been going to Cuba for years to look for art, where he discovered the landscape art of one Tomás Sánchez. At the time nobody had done any noteworthy landscapes in Cuba for decades and he sold a Sánchez painting for a modest price. But then Miami Cubans nostalgic for scenes of the old country took notice, Sánchez and a few other Cuban landscape painters became famous and the prices they command went way up.
"Latin America is the continent where the best art is being produced worldwide," Weil said, comparing the quality of the region's best artists with the flowering of the impressionists in 19th century Europe. And Panama does have a number of "investment quality" artists, even it's hard to say what the market will do over time.
"We are the new Phoenicia," he said of Panama. "Everyone likes to bargain. It has its good parts and its bad parts." The bad thing, according to Weil, is that people tend to "discard the creativity side, just to consider the value of the object."
Some of our indigenous artists have been recognized in certain markets, but Weil isn't prepared to make a long-term prediction about the popularity and prices of Kuna molas, Wounaan baskets or Embera carvings. But one thing he has done is encourage the practitioners of those arts and crafts to put their names on their work. "Originally, they never put their names on it --- it was all anonymous." But now talented individuals are gaining worldwide reputations and indigenous sculptures in tagua ("vegetable ivory") and cocobolo have won international awards.
Weil also deals in antiquities, old books, canal memorabilia, maps, coins, sheet music and historic documents from his Weil Art premises on Calle 48 in Bella Vista, not far from Parque Urraca.
His presentation in the Tuesday Talks series came not long after it was revealed that some important historical documents --- government records about the 1856 Watermelon Slice Incident that prompted the first US military invasion of this country, and court files from the infamous trial that led to the 1903 execution of Liberal guerrilla general Victoriano Lorenzo --- had gone missing from the National Archives.
The reputable auction houses have long had to deal with the issue of theft, so such papers generally go to an underground black market instead. But occasionally papers of historic importance that are legitimately in private hands are taken to Weil or others in his profession. In those cases, "the first thing is that it should be in a museum." In Panama's case, we don't have great museums with budgets to pay for things they should buy, so "if the museum cannot purchase directly, it must be donated." Weil has brokered or otherwise played roles in the acquisition of a some of the items in the Interoceanic Canal Museum in Casco Viejo.
Some "collectables," he added, are like historic documents. "The objects of daily life are important to be kept in a museum."
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